I was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, affecting my body and physicality. I have a severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) which, for various reasons, is not surgically corrected. This causes asymmetry and a shortened torso. Joint contractures mean I am unable to stretch out my arms or legs. Furthermore, the muscle wasting nature of my condition results in extremely thin limbs.
Now 31, I look very different from other women my age. My pixie-sized stature is emphasised by the scoliosis. In place of womanly curves, are unwanted and abnormally crooked humps and bumps. This visible contrast negatively impacts my sense of self and makes me feel odd, weird, and self-conscious.
I love fashion but fashion doesn’t love me
Over the years, I have desperately sought to hide my body with shapeless, baggy clothes. Anything resembling a potato sack is a winner. I live in leggings because jeans are a no-go and frankly, they are the next best thing to pyjamas!
Clothing manufacturers don’t cater for my body since it doesn’t meet standard criteria. Shopping is not an enjoyable experience. It is a frustrating and disappointing struggle to find anything at all to fit, let alone look flattering. Most of the clothes I buy have to be returned which makes me wonder why I bother at all – well, simply because I can’t roll about naked!
Accepting my unique body
Do I love, embrace and celebrate my unique body shape? Hell, no! BUT – I have slowly and gradually learnt to accept it. After all, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it. So why stress myself out over something I cannot control.
Exercise isn’t an option for me. I can’t go to the gym and buff-up. And why should I resort to cosmetic surgery? Why put myself through pain, trauma and financial strain simply to conform to societies high and unrealistic standards of beauty? Okay, it might make me feel more confident to look a little more like the average woman. Then again, it might not…
Societal standards of body beautiful
Our perception of body image and beauty is arguably increasingly influenced by social media, particularly Instagram. Heavily airbrushed, edited and filtered selfies are everywhere to be seen. With a smartphone, we can all look like a celeb from a magazine spread!
But this is misleading, unrealistic and unattainable. I can’t relate to the pouty, posers of Instagram. Honestly, can anyone?!
Diverse bodies are sadly under-represented in the media. This is starting to improve but there is still a long way to go before the presence of disabled bodies on our screens becomes mainstream.
Tabi, who has spinal muscular atrophy Type 2 and uses a powered wheelchair, is a 35 year-old musician from New York City. She began singing to exercise her weakened lungs and writes about the physical and social obstacles she faces.
She is already an established performer, having opened the first ever Annual NYC Disability Pride Parade in 2015, followed a year later by her own show, ‘A Concert on Life, Love and Being Different’. In 2017, this show sold out at the Rockwood Music Hall. Tabi has also performed at the Prudential Center and Brooklyn Dodgers stadium.
Her self-penned debut album entitled, ‘I Wrote Life’ covers numerous musical genres and is both uplifting and poignant. With soulful, catchy melodies, this impressive first outing demonstrates artistic skill and authenticity.
The album was produced at Dubway studios by Russell Castiglione, who previously recorded Trey Songz and Norah Jones.
“Producing this album was like helping her tell her story, her struggles, and her achievements to the world and that was very humbling.” ~ Russell Castiglione
It was master engineered by Dave McNair, who has worked on albums by Maroon 5, Cyndi Lauper and the legendary David Bowie !
“Tabi puts her life into her songs. It’s refreshing to hear an artist being so real in their work.” ~ Dave McNair
Tabi is a talented lyricist and storyteller with a distinctive tone and impressive vocal range. The album is a well-crafted, subtle infusion of R&B, rock, folk, jazz, blues, country, and dance, with a notable 90s pop vibe.
Each track is a candid representation of the different elements of her life. Though revealingly autobiographical, it is also highly relatable, owing to universal themes such as love and loss. The songs ‘I Won’t Hide‘ and ‘I Am Able‘ reveal deep insights about falling in love and healing after a broken heart.
The self-penned album is optimistic and motivational, with songs such as ‘Keep Rolling On‘ inspiring strength and hope in the face of adversity.
The title track ‘I Wrote Life‘ recounts a specific childhood memory, which summarises Tabi’s attitude to life…
“I remember as kids the teacher would say, write on the board a word today, so then everyone wrote their favourite thing, and there I was just imagining, how great it would be to live long and happily”
Tabi, who has SMA Type 2, on her debut album, ‘I Wrote Life’
Tabitha ‘Tabi‘ Haly is a 35 year-old singer-songwriter from New York City. She has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, a progressive condition, causing muscle weakness and contractures.
Tabi cannot walk and therefore uses a powered wheelchair for mobility. She is now unable to use her hands to feed herself and uses voice dictation software. With 24/7 support from “home health aides” and physiotherapy to maintain as much strength as possible, Tabi leads a highly proactive lifestyle.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tabi about her music career and debut album entitled, ‘I Wrote Life’, (released January 2019).
Tabi, what and who are your biggest music influences and why?
I grew up listening to classic rock, pop and R&B, but I appreciate all genres. I enjoy catchy, soulful melodies, so that has heavily influenced the songs on my album. I am most inspired by artists who write their own songs because that is what I like to do. I love timeless songs and I feel motivated to write when I hear something that I wish I had written myself. I also admire artists who write about personal experiences.
I love Mariah Carey because she writes songs that touch upon insecurities and feeling like an outcast. She writes about her faith and she has clever lines and an impeccable vocabulary. I also love singer-songwriters such as Anna Nalick, Sara Bareilles, Christina Perri, and Jason Mraz. They write about love and heartbreak, which I can relate to.
I also admire a wide vocal range because it is fun to sing songs that are vocally challenging. That is when my R&B influences come into play. It’s really enjoyable to improvise and jam along. I like to challenge myself in general, so I definitely apply that to my music in terms of the lyrics, melody, and vocal styles.
How would you describe your debut album?
I would describe my album as real and soulful. I allowed myself to be vulnerable to reveal my struggles and hopes regarding my disability, love, and life in general. The different subjects lend to the spectrum of dark and light tones.
My album is also fun, diverse, and uplifting! There are a lot of upbeat, empowering songs. People like to dance to them, and it was definitely a blast recording them.
The album is diverse because it crosses multiple genres including R&B, pop, blues, and reggae. It was difficult to select which songs to put on this debut album. Ultimately I wanted to make sure there was something in there for everybody. The order of the tracks matters to me because it tells a story and hopefully feels like you are being taken on a memorable and moving journey.
How autobiographical is the album, and why was it important to you to write the songs yourself?
This album is my baby! I know people use that term a lot in reference to personal projects, but I intentionally released it on my 35th birthday. At this age, many women, myself included, start to worry if they have not yet had a baby.
SMA presents challenges in every part of my life, but I am highly ambitious and set out to conquer my goals. I haven’t yet had a baby, so until then, this album is my baby. As an artist, it is my portfolio.
This album epitomises all that I have accomplished thus far; buying my own home, getting through college via financial aid and scholarships, having a successful full-time career that allows me to be financially independent, owning my own wheelchair accessible van, volunteering regularly, helping implement change for people with disabilities, writing and managing my music, managing my home health aides, being a motivational speaker, and being able to perform throughout New York City at cafés, bars, church, and schools.
As great as this is, it does cause alot of stress, sweat and tears! So I hope people enjoy the album and heed the message that faith and hard work have afforded me the life I have. This allows me to remain positive and to inspire myself and others.
Is important to you to inspire other disabled people who may have musical aspirations?
It is, especially since we are now at a time where there are so many groundbreaking opportunities. A few years ago, I saw many people with disabilities acting on Broadway, which took my breath away and really inspired me to continue doing what I’m doing. I would love to inspire, or better yet, collaborate with other musicians with disabilities.
During the bridge of my song ‘keep rolling on‘ I sing, “there’s so much left to change, more than we even think. More face in media, presence in arenas”.
Have you faced any opposition, challenges and/or stigma on your journey to becoming a musician, due to your disability?
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge is sometimes getting onto the stage to perform! Most stages are not wheelchair accessible, so I have to be prepared for that. Another major challenge is having less live music venues to choose from because not all of them are wheelchair accessible.
How do you overcome these obstacles?
In the early days, I didn’t want that to be an issue or a dealbreaker when pitching to venues to book a show. So I would have my band members and friends lift me in my wheelchair on and off the stage. I have a powered wheelchair that weighs at least 300 pounds! So that was a lot to ask, and I am thankful for the support. This still happens sometimes, but I am now more confident about asking venues to consider investing in a ramp.
There are still the same challenges surrounding the inaccessibility of venues, both for the performers and attendees. I think this is just one of many accessibility issues that exists and for which we need to implement improvements.
You were the opening performer at the first ever Annual NYC Disability Pride Parade in 2015 to celebrate the ADA’s 25th anniversary. How did that make you feel?
That was such an amazing feeling! I had just started using my wheelchair again after having been stuck in bed for a few months due to ill health. So this experience was a huge comeback and it was an honor to be a part of this event. I have to reflect on this sometimes and remember how privileged I was to perform outside, in front of so many people, during the first parade specifically for people with disabilities.
I would like to thank the lovely Tabi for taking the time to answer my questions. Her brilliant debut album, ‘I Wrote Life’ is available to purchase and download NOW!
Daily, we’re bombarded with news stories of sadness, badness and madness. Sometimes, you just need a little escapism and light relief to raise a smile. What better way than a Disney villains showdown with the cleverest of clever little wenches, Miss Lucy-Lu Hudson!
I’m already battling it out with fellow MD’er, Mitch (twodoughnuts) in a series of ‘Top 5’ blog posts. So far, we’ve debated our favourite songs and actors. I apologise in advance for Mr twodoughnuts ~ he’s so very young and uncultured!
Here, I attempt to take her down with my comeback (well, it is a wench war!) Though, I freely admit, I think she’s got this first round in the bag. Let us know what you think…!
Top 5 Disney Villains
1. Chernabog, Fantasia (1940)
This is without doubt the darkest and most menacing sequence in Disney history. I was only three or four when I first saw Fantasia. I swear, even at that age I thought it was one hell of a trippy film!
The demonic Chernabog (funky name, right?), based on Slavic folklore, is God of the Night. He is the representation of pure evil, with fearsome wings that form the peak of Bald Mountain, which leers ominously over the village below.
As night descends, the delighful Mr Chernabog unleashes hellish realms and summons sinful spirits to watch them dance maniacally. He then throws them into the mountain’s fiery pit before a new day dawns. Well, that’s not nice at all is it!
I’m flipping glad I don’t live in that village!
How is this a kids film, seriously?!
2. Claude Frollo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I was eight when this was released. To this day, it’s one of my Mum’s favourite Disney films. But call me crazy, I think it’s all a bit much for kids of that age, with hard-hitting, mature themes including religion, sin, lust and genocide!
(Sorry folks, there are no happy-clappy, ‘bibbidi bobbidi boo’ moments in The Hunchback of Notre Dame!)
I’ll be honest, it still freaks me out. Not least because of the lack of magical element so typical of animated Disney features. Okay, so there are talking gargoyles, but hey, they needed something to lighten the mood a little!
Frollo, Paris’ Minister of Justice (oh, the irony), is the first Disney villain to attempt infanticide, having almost drowned a newborn, only to be stopped by the archdeacon who accuses the corrupt official of murdering the baby’s innocent gypsy mother. To atone for his sin, Frollo begrudgingly agrees to raise the child as his own. He cruelly names the baby Quasimodo, meaning ‘half-formed’. (Dave would have been a better choice, surely?!)
The manipulative Frollo hides Quasi away in the bell tower, excluding him from society, telling him he will never be accepted by the world due to his unusual physical appearance. What an ass!
Unlike other Disney Villians – often magical and mythical – Frollo the super-creep is so threatening and unnerving because he is such a realistic representation. He is, after all, just a man. A pervy old man (oi, Esmeralda, be mine or you can burn!) fuelled by power, skewed religious motives and a licentious desire for busty babe Esmeralda.
3. Evil Queen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
She’s the original diva bitch, driven by vanity, and all credit to her, she’s got one hell of a pout going on!
I can’t help but be on the side of the Evil Queen who so easily outwits squeaky-voiced, simple Snowy (never trust a girl who shares a house with seven old men. Methinks she’s not quite as pure as snow!).
Yes, she’s gone to all the effort of transforming into a horrifyingly wretched old wench. But y’know, needs must!
If THAT poked it’s head through your front window and tried to tempt you with a juicy red apple, would you willingly take a bite? Or would you tell the interfering, hook-nosed, eye-bulging wrinkly to buggar off?!
I rest my case. Snowy, it’s your own bloody fault, love!
4. Professor Ratigan, Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Arch-nemesis to the famous mouse detective Basil of Baker Street, crimimal mastermind Ratigan is a comically ruthless brute. For one thing, he is voiced by horror legend Vincent Price (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, anyone?!).
A status-obsessed professional crime lord, his ultimate ambition is to overthrow the mousey monarch and proclaim himself “supreme ruler of all MOUSEDOM”. Aim high, I say!
Unflinchingly wicked, conniving and with no morals, it is revealed in his singy-songy dance number that he previously drowned widows and orphans. What a pleasant chappy!
Ratigan declares himself to be a “superior mind”, yet is angered when called a rat by intoxicated minion Bartholemew, despite the fact he is indeed a rat. The clue’s in the name, dude!
His extravagantly ostentatious appearance conceals an intimidatingly feral visciousness. Though generally maliciously cheerful, calm and composed, his manacingly savage violence is unleashed in a shocking final showdown with heroic Basil.
5. Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone (1963)
“I find delight in the gruesome and grim ‘Cause I’m the magnificent, marvelous Mad Madam Mim” ~ A bit morbid there, love!
The eccentric, shape-shifting Mim is a proper tricksy wench witch, and rival to the legendary wizard Merlin. We’re introduced to the purple-haired hag when young Arthur, in the form of a bird, mistakenly flies into her not-so-classy abode. Having declared his alliance to the all-powerful Merlin, Mad Madam Mim attempts to “destroy” the boy. Seems fairly reasonable to me!
For all her arrogance and mischievousness, I can’t help but root for the haggered old biddy. I mean, for one thing, she has purple hair! (I remember, as a young kid, being fascinated with an elderly neighbour who had a purple rinse. Super cool!)
The villainous Mim is LOUD, bat-shit crazy and pessimistic yet playful. A ditzy and deceitful game-player, she repeatedly cackles, “I win, I win” – as do I when defeating Mr twodoughnuts at ‘Blog Wars‘.
Following on from Paralympian Jonnie Peacock’s influential appearance on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, the latest line-up includes Para-triathlete Lauren Steadman and acid attack victim Katie Piper. The former has no lower right arm, and the latter suffered significant facial disfigurement following a violent attack when she was only 24 years of age.
The inclusion of these two young women on such a high-profile BBC One talent show, with viewing figures in excess of 11 million, will no doubt play a big part in the promotion of positive views on disability and diversity, as well as encouraging body confidence.
Katie Piper – Acid attack victim and charity founder
35 year-old TV presenter, author, philanthropist and charity campaigner Katie Piper was left permanently scarred after a vicious acid attack in 2008. The former aspiring model has subsequently undergone over 60 necessary surgical procedures.
The industrial strength sulphuric acid that was thrown in Katie’s face has caused extreme damage and left her with sight, swallowing and breathing issues, requiring ongoing, invasive treatment.
The perpetrator was instructed to carry out the callous attack by an abusive former boyfriend whom Katie had met online.
Over the past decade, Katie has found admirable strength and persevered through the most trying of times. She bravely shared her story in two autobiographies and the 2010 BAFTA winning documentary, ‘Katie: My Beautiful Face’.
Katie has written four more self-help books, fronted several televised shows relating to body disfigurement, and most notably established The Katie Piper Foundation, to support fellow victims of acid attacks. She is also now happily married and has two young daughters.
Katie & Strictly Come Dancing
Prior to being paired with professional Strictly dance partner Gorka Marquez, Katie said, “there was a time not long ago that I wondered if I’d ever be glamorous again and now I know that is going to happen!”.
Katie Piper is all about embracing body confidence and celebrating diversity, whilst raising awareness of the consequences of acid attacks, which is a crime that is sadly on the increase. Her appearance on this hugely popular primetime BBC show will enable her to reach a wider audience and spread that message.
Piper is acknowledged to be the most anxious of this year’s celebrity contestants. Having really struggled to overcome the nerves during her first performance of a Waltz to Adele’s ‘when we were young’, Katie scored 17/40. Her confidence was knocked by negative feedback from the judges, particularly Craig Revel-Horwood who did not hold back.
Katie has since revealed, “it’s funny because like in the first week it did really affect me and it was silly because whenever I would wake up on Sunday at home it was like your 35-years-old and it’s an entertainment show, calm down.”
Katie and Gorka received their lowest score when they returned the following week with a Paso Doble. The choreography was intended to reflect the motto of the song to which they danced; ‘confident’ by Demi Lovato. However, Katie was visibly close to tears upon hearing the judges comments. While Darcy attempted to focus on the positive attitude with which Katie possessed, the others described her as “Stompy”, “plank-ish” and in need of improvement.
Nevertheless, the couple were supported by the viewing public and voted through to week three, and thankfully so, since their Foxtrot earned them 22 points – their highest score.
Katie says, “by week four I was in the groove, laughing and enjoying it and it was okay. You go in the green room afterwards and the [judges] are just normal, nice people.”
Sadly a Jive was to be Katie’s last dance on Strictly. Though disappointed to leave the competition relatively early, Piper admits though she overcame her nerves, insecurities and improved whilst on the show, she is not a natural dancer, and wouldn’t have wanted to be patronised or pitied.
Lauren Steadman – Paralympian
26 year-old Paralympian Lauren Steadman, originally from Peterborough, was born without a lower right arm. However, this has never prevented the determined sporting star from pursuing her dreams.
This Elite Para-triathlete is already a Double World Champion, Paralympic silver medallist (Rio 2016 – Women’s PT4) and six times European Champion.
Encouraged by her uncle who was himself a triathlete, she began competing in her local swimming team from age 11, representing Team GB. Two years later, Steadman took part in her first international competition in Denmark, as well as the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. Intent on pushing the boundaries of possibility even further, she switched sports, from swimming to the triathlon, after the London Paralympic Games in 2012.
Alongside her demanding athletics career, Lauren has pursued academics and achieved a first-class Psychology degree in 2014, followed by a Master’s in Business and Management.
Lauren recalls, “In one year I had taken all three titles – British, European and World Champion – for the first time, and graduated from university with first class honours. It really couldn’t get much better than that!”.
Lauren & Strictly Come Dancing
Lauren signed up to appear on the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing as she wanted to set herself a new challenge, learn another skill and test her “own levels of uncomfortableness”. When asked what she was most excited about she replied, “pushing myself and any boundaries I may encounter with having one arm. I like to succeed even if the odds are against me”.
With no experience whatsoever, Steadman claims her friends and family would describe her amateur dancing style as that of a baby elephant!
The glitz and glamour of Strictly is indeed a stark contrast to her sporting life. Not only that, dance itself is a very different discipline to what she is used to as an athlete. Dancing requires fluidity, expression, emotion and creativity, rather than the rigidity and stern focus necessary for triathlon events.
Despite all the odds, Lauren and partner AJ Pritchard stepped out with an impressive Waltz in the opening week of the show, scoring 25/40 from the four judges. The couple dropped 3 points with their second dance; a Charleston, and were awarded 20/40 for their slightly awkward Cha Cha Cha in week three. However, they returned on top form the following Saturday with an elegant Quickstep, earning them 25 points.
Their latest performance marks a first in Strictly history – a Contemporary dance, newly categorized as the ‘couple’s choice’. It was a highly personal interpretation with choreography designed to represent Lauren’s personal journey, her defiance and disability. The emotional dance was awarded with a standing ovation from the studio audience and 24 points from the judges.
Lauren has chosen not to wear a prosthesis during her time on Strictly. Preferring that her disability remain visible, she is keen to break down barriers, challenge convention and encourage other disabled people by demonstrating how dance can be adapted to suit different bodies and abilities.
For Lauren, the rollercoaster Strictly journey continues…
Shane Burcaw is a high-profile, 26 year-old American writer, public speaker and charity founder. He has documented all aspects of his life with spinal muscular atrophy with candid humour, thereby informing and inspiring others whilst also influencing the public perception of disability.
Burcaw has been commended for his ongoing determination, sincerity and ability to raise awareness of often uncomfortable issues, in a sensitive manner.
Shane kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about life with SMA, what motivates his work, and why personal care doesn’t affect his relationship with able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah.
1. Shane, please could you tell us about your disability and how it affects you and your lifestyle?
I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, but I’m on the weaker end of the Type 2 spectrum. SMA is a neuromuscular disease that causes my muscles to weaken and waste away over time. I’ve been using an electric wheelchair since the age of two. In a nutshell, my disease affects every single function of the body that involves muscles. I can barely move my legs, arms, and hands. I have difficulty swallowing, speaking, and breathing (especially when sick). Because of this weakness, I rely on other people for pretty much every aspect of daily life, from getting out of bed, to eating, to going to the bathroom. Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by incredible people who have always been there to help me, and because of that, I’m able to live a fairly “normal” life, with a career, a variety of hobbies, and frequent traveling for both leisure and work. I live with my girlfriend, Hannah, in Minneapolis, and she is my primary caregiver.
2. What motivates you to do the work you do (writing, public speaking, raising awareness through social media and your charity LAMN) and how do you find the energy?
My disease is progressive, so my condition and abilities deteriorate over time. I learned at a young age that many people with SMA pass away at a younger age than the average, and that realisation instilled in me some sort of existential determination to leave a mark on the world. Some might call it vain, but I was terrified by the prospect of dying without having done anything to be remembered for. I began sharing my story through funny blogs and later books, and working hard to grow a non-profit organisation that provides free equipment to others with my disease. Coffee is really the only way I’m able to balance writing, the non-profit, blogging, vlogging, and public speaking!
It should be noted that two years ago, the first-ever treatment (Spinraza) for my disease was discovered and approved. I began receiving it at the age of 25, and it’s supposed to stop the progression of my muscle-wasting. This has been a huge development in my life, both physically and mentally, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my future might be much different than I originally imagined.
3. Could you please tell us about Laughing At My Nightmare (charitable organisation) – how it all began, aims and objectives?
Our non-profit grew out of my blog that I began writing in 2011. People from all around the world felt an authentic connection with the idea that humour can help us cope with adversity. My cousin Sarah and I co-founded LAMN as a way to spread that idea to more people, and along the way we began raising funds to provide equipment to the muscular dystrophy community. In the past three years we have provided over $150,000 in medical and adaptive equipment to people living with muscular dystrophy.
4. In 2014, you wrote your first book. A memoir also entitled, Laughing At My Nightmare. Two further books followed. Who are your books aimed at and can readers expect?
5. In the past, you have faced criticism from some in the disabled community. The terms ‘inspiration/pity porn’ have been used. Can you explain why this is and how you feel about the backlash?
Living with SMA can, at times, be extremely difficult from an emotional/mental standpoint. Experiencing the slow decline of ability through my adolescence and coming to terms with my future and my place in society was not always a bright, cheery process. My writing has always been an authentic reflection on my thoughts and experiences, so I wrote honestly about my fears and challenges. When my story began to receive attention on a larger scale, there were some people in the disabled community who didn’t agree with my sharing of these intimate worries. People accused me of playing up the negative aspects of my disability for attention, while others thought I was exploiting my life in an attempt to be “inspiring.”
I’m glad that people spoke up with their criticism. Although my writing has always been overwhelmingly positive, their feedback helped me reflect on some of my fears about getting worse and dying. Getting involved in the muscular dystrophy community has been such a positive thing for me, and they’ve helped me reframe my outlook on a personal level, which, in turn, has changed how I write about my disease. We are all learning and growing together!
6. Has your attitude to disability, your own in particular, changed over time?
Earlier in life, my biggest concern was minimising my disability for the sake of appearing “normal.” As I’ve gotten older, I’m less concerned with fitting in, and becoming more passionate about embracing my disability and changing the way society sees disability.
7. You have been with your able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah, for over two years. If you are comfortable doing so, would you please share with us how you met and a little about your relationship.
Hannah and I live together in Minneapolis, and she has been my primary caregiver for the past seven months. After doing two years of long distance, we are both happier than we’ve ever been now that we are permanently together. Like all couples, we have the occasional disagreement, but by and large we don’t feel like the caregiving aspects of our relationship create a strain. In fact, we both agree that these caregiving activities help strengthen our emotional connection.
I would like to thank Shane for taking the time answer my questions.
Fiction novel ‘Chance for Rain’ shows disability experience for what it is: another version of the human experience
Tricia Downing is recognized as a pioneer in the sport of women’s paratriathlon, and as the first female paraplegic to finish an Iron distance triathlon. She has competed both nationally and internationally and represented the United States in international competition in five different sport disciplines: cycling (as a tandem pilot prior to her 2000 accident), triathlon, duathlon, rowing and Olympic style shooting. She was also a member of Team USA at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Tricia featured in the Warren Miller documentary, ‘Superior Beings’ and on the lifestyle TV magazine show, ‘Life Moments’. Additionally, she is founder of The Cycle of Hope, a non-profit organization designed for female wheelchair-users to promote health and healing on all levels – mind, body and spirit. Tricia studied Journalism as an undergraduate and holds Masters degrees in both Sports Management and Disability Studies. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Steve and two cats, Jack and Charlie.
Love and disability: Do the two actually go together? In the eyes of 32 year-old Rainey May Abbott, the uncertainty runs high. But with a little arm twisting, this paralympic skier embarks on an adventure that takes her completely out of her comfort zone…
Tricia Downing: “Rainey May Abbott came to me one night as I was drifting off to sleep and wouldn’t leave me alone – until I got up and started to write.”
“I never intended to write a fiction novel. My first book, the memoir, ‘Cycle of Hope’, was a feat in itself for me. I never had enough confidence in myself that I could write and publish a book. Fortunately, my expectations were reasonable and I really had only one goal with that book; to share the complete story of my accident with those who attended my motivational speeches and were intrigued enough to want to know more after hearing me speak on stage for an hour.”
“On September 17, 2000 I sustained a spinal cord injury. At the time, I was a competitive cyclist and was out on a training ride with one of my friends when a car turned into our path. My training partner barely missed the car, as I hit it square on. I was launched off my bicycle, landed on my back on the windshield, and fell to the ground. I was paralyzed on impact.”
“I was 31 at the time, and just beginning to get my stride both professionally and personally. The accident turned my life upside down. I had to learn to live life from a wheelchair, use my arms instead of my legs, create a new body image and not only accept myself despite my disability, but to believe others would accept me too.”
“Will anyone actually love me if I have a disability?”
“Fortunately my question was answered only four years after my accident when I met the man who would become my husband. However, I have found through talking to many other women in my position, that this concern is not only real, but seems to be pervasive in the disability community. Is it possible to find love when you don’t fit the mold of the typical woman regarded as beautiful in our society?”
“When I imagined Rainey in my dreams that night, I knew her plight and I could empathize with her fear when it came to relationships. And with that, the story of ‘Chance for Rain’ was born. So too was my desire to see more disabled characters in literature.”
“I think, so often many people with disabilities feel invisible. We aren’t seen on the cover of magazines, in the movies or books. Unless, of course, we’re the tragic character or overly inspirational and defying all odds.”
“My goal with Rainey was to show that she could have a normal existence while embodying a fear that is not unique to women with disabilities. I think at one time or another, every woman has grappled with her body image or desirability. Rainey just happens to have another layer of complexity to her: her life is not as common as the popular culture ideal.”
“I hope my novel will give readers a new perspective on disability, love and relationships as I continue what I hope to be a series of stories featuring characters with different disabilities, navigating the ordinary, complex, and the unknowns of life and love.”
Chance of Rain
Elite athlete Rainey Abbott is an intense competitor, but inside she feels a daunting apprehension about her chances of finding true love. Her life as a downhill skier and race car driver keeps her on the edge, but her love life is stuck in neutral. A tragedy from her past has left her feeling insecure and unlovable.
Now that she’s in her thirties, Rainey’s best friend Natalie insists she take a leap and try online dating. Rainey connects with ‘brian85’ and becomes cautiously hopeful as a natural attraction grows between them. Fearful a face-to-face meeting could ruin the magic, Rainey enlists Natalie to scheme up an encounter between the two whereby Brian is unaware he is meeting his online mystery woman. Rainey is left feeling both guilty about the deception and disappointed by something Brian says.
When they finally meet in earnest, Rainey’s insecurities threaten to derail the blossoming romance. As she struggles with self-acceptance, she reveals the risks we all must take to have a chance for love.
Award-winning ITV Soap Emmerdale recently cast a disabled actor in a pivotal role, placing him at the forefront of a major, developing storyline. Newcomer, 25 year-old James Moore from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire has cerebral palsy. His debut as Ryan Stocks, the long-lost son of Charity Dingle, has been met with universal praise and applause.
The scene-stealer instantly endeared viewers with glimpses of a multi-dimensional character and an attitude to match his onscreen mother’s. Some even say there is a convincing physical resemblance between the two.
Engaging opening scenes indicate that Ryan is set to be a strong presence; witty, outspoken and unfiltered. Furthermore, his connection with the prominent Dingle family suggests that he is not destined to become a background, token disabled character. On the contrary, Ryan Stocks will be a regular and crucial feature in future episodes.
Like many avid Emmerdale viewers, I was anxious to see who would be revealed as Charity Dingle’s son. To see a disabled actor playing the role is unexpected but as a disabled person myself, I am more than pleasantly surprised.
The casting of disabled actor James Moore is an exciting, encouraging and essential step forward in the inclusion and representation of disability within the media.
1. Hi James, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers about yourself?
So firstly, I have cerebral palsy, but it’s Ataxic CP which basically means that I struggle with movement and coordination. I struggle to walk long distances and there are certain things I know I can’t do, but I’ve adapted to these challenges in my day to day life.
I got into acting because even from a young age, I’ve always been interested in film and the theatre. I struggled with this for a long time because I didn’t know whether I would be able to make a career and earn a living from acting, considering that when I was growing up, there wasn’t many disabled people being represented on film or television.
2. As an actor with a disability, how does this lack of representation make you feel?
I think, in terms of the here and now, societies attitude to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is too lenient. I mean, we wouldn’t let the blackface caricature continue to happen – this is deemed unacceptable. So why let able-bodied people take the roles of disabled characters?
In order to ‘normalise’ disability on screen, we first have to find disabled actors and give them opportunities rather than taking roles and opportunities away from them. I think that is the biggest and most important step.
This is why I love being a part of Emmerdale – they are showing disability in a new light and letting viewers know that we (disabled people) can be independent and have full, healthy lives. Together we’re proving that disability isn’t a defining factor.
3. What, if any, challenges have you faced in your career due to your disability?
I have faced some challenges but it comes with the territory. At the end of the day, I would most likely have to play a disabled character and they are not easy to come by.
I guess my challenges a lot of the time stem from self doubt, as well as lack of opportunity. There aren’t really a lot of roles for disabled people and so it can sometimes be hard to foresee a lengthy career in the industry.
4. How did the role at Emmerdale come about? Was it always intended that a disabled actor would play the role?
After I got my agent the role came up almost straight away and I really put my all into it. It was always intended for a disabled actor, but not specifically my disability (cerebral palsy). It was incredible how they wrote that in later and they asked me in great depth about my disability and my experiences with it.
5. Your opening scenes with Emma Atkins, who plays Charity, were incredibly impactful. What feedback have you received so far?
The feedback I’ve had so far has been amazing – everyone is so nice! My Twitter is blowing up and all of the feedback I received has been overwhelmingly positive. In that sense I’ve been really lucky.
Some people who have seen me on TV have asked for my advice. To them and any other aspiring disabled actors out there, I would say don’t give up! Take every opportunity you can; do street plays, student films and whatever else it takes. Also take the time to find the right agent – one who you think will be an asset to your career.
6. What does the future hold for your character, Ryan Stocks?
I can’t go into great detail on the future of Ryan, but there’s great humour, unlikely friendships, and gripping drama yet to come. The script is fantastic and so well written and I’m so glad that I can provide an adequate voice for this brilliant character.
Are you a Britain’s Got Talent viewer? If like me, you have tuned in this year, you too may have noticed that the semi-final line-up features a number of diversely disabled acts – more so than previous years.
As a wheelchair-user myself, I am thrilled to see disability increasingly represented and celebrated on such a high-profile primetime TV talent show.
Lee Ridley AKA Lost Voice Guy
Lee Ridley, also known as Lost Voice Guy, is the first act through to the live final, having won the audience vote on Monday night. Hotly tipped to win the competition, Lee 37 from Newcastle, has Cerebral Palsy and is unable to speak. This uniquely speechless comedian uses a Lightwriter – a voice synthesiser, and as he says, “walks with a limp”. He is a BBC New Comedy Award Winner who wears slogan T-shirts depicting his self-deprecating and inclusive sense of humour – his audition shirt read, ‘I’m only in it for the parking’.
Lost Voice Guy wowed audiences and judges alike with his witty routines that draw attention to and highlight the humour in disability, thereby breaking down barriers and removing social stigma. The “struggling comedian who also struggles to stand up” joked that he “really is disabled. It’s not just really good acting”.
Fellow comedian Robert White who has dyslexia, autism and Asperger syndrome, also made it through to Sunday night’s final with his hilariously quirky musical comedy act. The 41 year-old music teacher from West Sussex describes himself as “the only gay, Aspergic, quarter-Welsh comic on the British comedy circuit”.
Though his audition proved impressive, White really upped his game for Wednesday’s live semi-final, in which he employed natural comedy timing to mock the four judges. Accompanied by a keyboard, Robert White flirted with his “next boyfriend” David Walliams and quipped that Amanda Holden dresses far too young for her age, while Alesha Dixon dresses like a hooker! This was met with unanimous rapturous applause and laughter.
Most notably, Robert directly referenced the sensitivity surrounding his condition during his live act: “I am aware that if you mention autism on stage sometimes audiences can go awkward and silent”. This effectively challenges viewers to consider how they receive and react to those of us with a disability, thus initiating the conversation.
This year’s youngest finalist is 10 year-old singer Calum Courtney who has a mild form of autism. Calum sailed through to the final after melting hearts with his reworked rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, in tribute to his Mum. He didn’t win the overall public vote, but having made it into the top three, was put through by the judges.
Calum was part of the line-up at the NSPCC Winter Charity Ball in aid of the National Autistic Society. His endearing and confident audition performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Who’s Loving You’ caught the crowd’s attention and earned a standing ovation. It just goes to show that even at such a tender age, autism need not be a barrier to success.
Semi-finalists RISE, a group of young dancers from Manchester, presented two moving performances, though they did not make it through to the grand final. Group member 13 year-old Hollie Booth was caught up in the Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017. Hollie’s aunt Kellie was one of 22 people who died as a result of the terror attack.
Hollie broke her knee, left foot and was left with nerve damage. She has so far had 11 operations and now has to wear an orthotic and use a wheelchair. She was keen to return to the group and continue dancing despite her trauma and the injuries she suffered. As a mark of solidarity and inclusivity in the face of adversity, all RISE dancers incorporate wheelchairs into their routines. The tearful judges hailed the girls as “inspirational”. In this case, I think the term is justified!
Final mention goes to B-Positive – the official NHS Blood and Transplant choir. The choir consists of 60 singers all of whom suffer from, or are directly affected by, sickle cell disease. Their aim is to raise awareness of the urgent need for blood donation. They sang the “powerful” anthemic hit ‘This is Me’ (a true statement of the importance of diversity). They are hoping for a wild card pass through to Sunday night’s final.
The inclusion of so many disabled acts in this year’s line-up will, I believe, have a positive impact on the disabled community. It suggests and promotes forward-thinking, equality and disability in the mainstream. Furthermore, it inspires open discussion of diversity in all its forms whilst also encouraging society to focus on ability as opposed to inability.
Widespread visibility of disabled talent within the media will naturally be met with questions and curiosity. But that’s okay because it signifies progressive inclusivity.
Many people are talking about the acts they have seen on Britain’s Got Talent. Audiences are realising that it’s acceptable to celebrate disability and to laugh about it! It is okay to ask questions since this educates and informs, thereby resulting in familiarity, recognition and ‘normalisation’.
24 year-old Becky Dann has kyphoscoliosis – a severe curvature of the spine. She was diagnosed at the age of four and became a wheelchair-user from the age of nine. She was subsequently bullied at school for her physical appearance.
You may recognise Becky as one of the participants from series 8 of the hit Channel 4 television show, The Undateables. But what you may not know is that she is also an accomplised artist.
As someone who has studied art throughout school and at undergraduate level myself, I thought it would be interesting to chat with Becky about her striking photography series, ‘I’m Fine’, and her work with Shape Arts, London.
1. Can you tell us about your photography project entitled, ‘I’m Fine’?
‘I’m Fine’ is a project that started in my second year of university. For most of my childhood, I was told I was different (due to my disability) and I didn’t understand it because I felt just like everyone else. University was when I really started to accept myself and how I looked. It was also the time when I started to realise that it wasn’t okay that I was constantly treated differently instead of an equal.
The project originally started with a research and development period, which looked at dating with a disability. As someone who started out very much hiding my disability online, I then explored why I did this and what the outcome was once I told someone. I then looked at the difference in dating online when my disability was put out there publicly from the outset.
As time went on I started to realise that looking deeper into things, I wanted to use this project as a ‘self-exploration’ project as well as a ‘challenging perceptions’ project. I was okay with how I looked – I wanted others to know that I’m okay and that people shouldn’t see me differently.
I decided to take some self-portraits in the studio as I wanted to show myself with my scoliosis on show as if to say, ‘this is me, I’m fine’.
Over the second and third year of university, I really explored this concept deeper and decided to develop the self-portraits into a live art piece. I wanted an audience and I wanted to challenge how comfortable they were around someone with a ‘different’ body. So, I advertised around my university – it was explained to audience members that the piece was a participatory piece whereby they were invited to paint a handprint and place it somewhere on my body, wherever they felt comfortable. Of course I kept my modest areas covered so people couldn’t take advantage, but I left my back clear.
It was really interesting because I was effectively a ‘statue’ and couldn’t talk. People were told to put the handprint anywhere on my body, but they continued to try and ask me where was acceptable. At one point I heard someone say, “There’s nowhere left”, though I knew full well that my back had not been touched. It wasn’t until one confident person put a handprint on my back that suddenly everyone realised it was okay.
2. How was your university experience (in terms of inclusivity and being a student with a physical disability)?
When I first started university (the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey) I was a full time wheelchair user with no clue what I was entitled to and I didn’t even know I was dyslexic. I remember first viewing my accommodation and quickly picking up on the fact that they seemed to put all disabled people together in one building, which was incredibly segratory.
I struggled to start with because I started to realise that a lot of my curriculum involved doing outdoor photography shoots, and I wasn’t sure how to do this without help – I couldn’t physically carry everything. I eventually asked for help and was pointed to our student services, where I was soon set up with a support worker which became really helpful to me.
In school, I had always struggled to retain information and although this was passed off without concern or investigation, I knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I reached university that one of my tutors hinted that some students may want to go to student services for dyslexia support. I decided to seek help and see if that was the problem, and low and behold it turns out that I am in fact dyslexic! This meant I was given support with essays which became so useful since it really helped me to work to my full potential. I went from being a C/D grade student in my first year, to an A/B student in second and third year, eventually graduating with a First Class Honors degree.
I also gained enough movement in my legs during my second year, enabling me to start walking more with a crutch. Thankfully, my campus was so small and so going from campus to class was simple for me. It was great to finally feel independent.
Admittedly, I was really lucky at university as I had very supportive tutors around me, and I was there when DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) was in full force. But it was in my final year at university that I really started to notice how things needed to change for disabled students. Consequently, I ran for Disabled Students’ Officer in my Students’ Union elections, so that I could help represent my peers on campus. I won the election and helped make changes which was great. This then spurred me on to run for Campus President at my Students’ Union, where I was able to continue representing disabled students. I got to sit on boards within the university such as the Equality and Diversity board and the Inclusion board. I was able to speak out on behalf of disabled students, and help the university to become more inclusive. Furthermore, I was asked to speak at conferences with university staff about the importance of an inclusive education, and I was told by tutors who worked there that I’d made a real impact which meant a lot to me.
I was incredibly sad to say goodbye to my university, but I had the best years of my life there and I still speak to some of the staff!
3. What does your job at Shape Arts involve?
I work for an arts commissioning programme called Unlimited, which is run by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, two arts organisations in London. I am based at Shape Arts, an organisation working in the arts sector to improve access for and representation of disabled people, part of which is providing and sharing opportunities for disabled artists.
Unlimited commissions disabled artists to create their work. We have had some amazing artists such as Jess Thom from Touretteshero and Jackie Hagan too.
I am a trainee and have been working there just over a year. I am a key contact for a few of our artists, which means I am their point of call with anything regarding their commissions. When our current commissions are ready to tour, Southbank Centre has a festival at which some of our artists get to show their work. The next festival is 5 – 9 September 2018.
My role allows me the opportunity to do a lot of great things such as travelling to see different artworks, which I love. I recently went to Bristol and saw ‘The Nature of Why’ by Paraorchestra, another Unlimited commission at The Bristol Old Vic. I had already heard about Paraorchestra through working here, though I hadn’t seen any of their work and so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
As someone who isn’t usually good with immersive art, I was kind of nervous when I found out that the performance was around the audience and that dancers could come up to you. But as soon as the musicians started singing and the music started, there was a sudden wave of emotion that came over me. I listened to the whole piece so intensely and I felt so much emotion that I ended up crying! It was amazing and made me feel incredibly happy. I really love my job!