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WHY DO DISABLED PEOPLE DECIDE TO RISK THEIR LIVES CLIMBING MOUNTAINS, ROWING OCEANS OR RUNNING ACROSS DESERTS?

07.11.03

PRESENTER: LIZ BARCLAY
BBC Radio

BBC Radio 4


BARCLAY
Mark Threadgold is the fastest blind man on water, after breaking his own world speed record in Cumbria. Janice Tillett, who is deafblind, swam across LakeWindemere. Glen Shaw, a wheelchair user, reached Mount Everest base camp and Graham Hicks, who is deaf and blind, became the first person to jet ski from England to Holland. And that's to name but a few.

What drives people with disabilities to accept these kinds of challenges? What impact does it have on the way that we view disabled people and are their achievements a help or a hindrance to those fighting for better disability rights?

Stuart Boreham is currently in the Canary Islands preparing to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. He has cerebral palsy. He's due to set off next Saturday and he joins us now from the Canary Islands. Stuart, this isn't the first time you've embarked on a major expedition is it.

BOREHAM
No that's right, I've previously been involved in other projects and the most notable of which was the 1996/97 BT Global Challenge round the world yacht race.

BARCLAY
So you're not totally unacquainted with the kind of conditions that you're likely to encounter this time. What are you expecting?

BOREHAM
Well broadly speaking the conditions should be fairly constant, at this time of year there is something known as the trade winds which are fairly well established and they actually fall nicely within my route. So that should give me fairly constant weather. But without a doubt there will be stormy days where I can't row, I'll attempt to sit it out and wait for the storms to pass.

BARCLAY
You have a special boat for this occasion presumably?

BOREHAM
Oh yes, it's a special ocean going rowing boat called Macmillan's Spirit and she's 7 metres long, 2 metres wide and is self-righting, in the event of a capsize and obviously the boat itself also carries some very high tech equipment for communication and safety reasons.

BARCLAY
But you're pushing yourself - why do you do it?

BOREHAM
Well I think really achievement in any walk of life is about belief in yourself and yes it's true that I have a disability but I don't believe that that should hold me back and I think that living with a disability doesn't mean that you don't have ability and can't achieve things within your life.

BARCLAY
How long do you think this trip will take?

BOREHAM
It'll take about 80 days and, as you say, I'm starting on Saturday so I'll be arriving in Barbados somewhere around the end of January.

BARCLAY
Well good luck with it. Stuart, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

So, it's about achievement and self belief for Stuart. But there is another view that these kinds of exploits by disabled adventurers don't always have an entirely positive impact. Writer and journalist Nick Walker, himself disabled, has his doubts.

WALKER
It is still news it seems when disability contorts the physical world, physical courage takes on a new lustre. Just after my own diagnosis with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago, I experienced what touched upon an obsession with the world of physical skill and courage. With the excuse of pursuing a career in radio journalism I blew up a power station, sailed around Wales, interviewed deep sea wreck divers, arm wrestlers and round the world single-handed yachtsmen - it was exhausting. But I was living above and beyond my disability, I told myself, no quotidian cripple, I was a supercrip!

The supercrip is now a standard image in the popular imagination and the media, we even have our own celebrities - from Stephen Hawking exploring the mysteries of the Universe from his wheelchair, to Erik Weihenmayer who in 2001 became the first blind man to climb Mount Everest. The image of the supercrip sits uncomfortably aside other more repugnant stereotypes of the disabled - the victim, the villain, the burden, the bitter, the better off dead.

Day-to-day disability supplies its own mountains to climb. I spent two hours dragging myself across the base of my bedroom floor after a fall from my wheelchair to reach the telephone - inch by inch, handhold by handhold. From the point of the cripple on the Clapham omnibus hearing supercrip stories can lead only to defeatism. Trying to live up to the image can be just as damaging. My own career began to unravel in 1997. I pushed myself just a little too far. I accepted an assignment to South Korea and returned home paralysed in a stretcher - a severe relapse propelling my condition to a determinedly progressive phase. It would take a few more years yet, the road to acceptance and understanding takes many twists and turns - anger, denial, depression - and I'm sure there are many more cul-de-sacs to explore. But there came a point when struggling in spite of my disability was missing the point entirely. My disability demanded more respect, like a Chinese finger trap - the more I struggled the tighter the grip.

Anyone who is lucky enough to live above and beyond a disability is hopefully lucky enough to live above and beyond any media stereotype. Like most people disabled and non-disabled alike are neither victim, nor star. I write sometimes well, sometimes badly, I go to the theatre I see friends but you wouldn't recognise me from the stereotypes in the media, not even from the myths which I've enthusiastically contributed myself. Anyone who is lucky enough to live above and beyond his or her disability is only as fortunate as anyone who is lucky enough to live above and beyond his or her ability. Mind you I'm probably just bitter.

BARCLAY
Nick Walker.

Miles Hilton-Barber has been on many adventurers. This summer he became the first blind person to fly the English Channel in a microlight. He has also just set a new British high altitude record climbing to 15,500 feet in subzero open cockpit conditions. He describes himself as a corporate motivational speaker and is visually impaired. Miles what drives you?

HILTON-BARBER
Hi, well I suppose what drives me is just a desire to learn more about myself. About five years ago my brother Geoff was a turning point in my life, we're both totally blind and he sailed a yacht solo from Africa to Australia, totally blind, totally alone - the first blind man in world history to do that. And I suddenly realised I was looking at my blindness as a barrier, as a disability - as Nick was saying - and I started realising I couldn't control my circumstances - my blindness - but I could control my response to my circumstances. And I started seeing my blindness then as a challenge, as an opportunity, rather than as a handicap and that turned my life around. I went climbing in the Himalayas, climbed Kilimanjaro, climbed MountBlanc, ran across a few deserts, hauled a sledge 400 kilometres across Antarctica. And my big message to people whether they have a disability or not is could you do more with your life? And as Nick was saying, look at opportunities in life, not limitations. And as a corporate motivational speaker I'm saying to managers, execs of blue chip companies, can you do more? Disability in many ways is an attitude of mind I think. Some people, as Nick was saying, have a victim mentality.

BARCLAY
Yes but Nick was also saying that it is possible to be pushing yourself too far and living above and beyond your disability, not accepting yourself as you are.

HILTON-BARBER
Very true and I mean I need help at times in big railway stations - I can't find my way around, despite having a guide dog. I know I need help but I suppose my message to everybody listening is in many cases the limits we have in our lives are self-imposed and we can actually achieve more with our lives. So there's a lovely Danish proverb that says that - Life doesn't consist in holding a good hand of cards but in playing a poor hand well.

BARCLAY
Let me on that point bring in Barbara Lisicki, who is a disability rights campaigner with the Direct Action Network. Barbara, where do you stand on this, when people, like Miles, playing that bad hand of cards well?

LISICKI
I think that Miles is an interesting guy but I also think that he's an individualist and that's the bit that I'm finding a problem with because for a lot of disabled people the issue isn't about theirrelationship with their impairment at all, the issue's much more about the relationship with the rest of society. And the reality is, and we've got shed loads of research to prove this, that there are barriers everywhere that disabled people go and for a lot of disabled people it's not about running across deserts and flying planes, it's about day-to-day survival. And I think the big issue for us is that we haven't as a society been able to get past that, we haven't been able to persuade employers, service providers, that they need to be providing equal provision.

BARCLAY
So what are you actually saying to Miles then - don't do it?

LISICKI
No I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying do it for yourself but don't - I mean I think that impairment isn't a barrier but I think disability is and I think the way in which disabled people are treated - less favourably, less equally - is the major barrier and that's what we need to be dealing with, that's what DAN campaigns around. And at the moment what we're saying is people need to have control of their own lives, of their own resources, of their own destiny but there's a lot of work to be done before we can reach that point. So I think it's the elite, I think it's the favoured few people that can get themselves into a position where they can fly or jet ski or whatever it happens to be, but if they want to do it I don't have a problem with it, I think if that's the only image there is out there of disabled people - the sort of tragic but brave, courage over adversity and all that crap really - then I do have a problem.

BARCLAY
Miles, what do you make of that? You are too much of an individualist and this is not about the benefit of other disabled people.

HILTON-BARBER
I'd certainly say to Barbara - well done, I think she's doing a fantastic job. I spent five years as an employment consultant with the Royal National Institute for the Blind, helping people with blindness or sight impairment back into employment. I did a thing called Around the World in Eighty Waysrecently. We raised half a million pounds for charities around the world. I think that, yes I am an individualist Barbara and a lot of it it's me searching, finding who I am, what I can do but the end result is I want to help other people with disabilities have more equal opportunities - to cross a road more safely, to have the services and the support that they deserve and they need.

BARCLAY
So Barbara, Miles and people like him are, you know, they're raising money for charity, they're raising awareness - all that kind of thing, what's wrong with that?

LISICKI
Well there's a big issue around the charity debate. I mean at the moment DAN's position is, is that most of the major disability charities, certainly the big seven, as we would call them, people like the RNIB, the RNID, MENCAP don't represent disabled people accurately or particularly with their permission - they don't employ disabled people, the numbers are very low. I have a real problem with raising money for those kind of organisations. If the money were to be given to actually making disabled people's lives more equal and

BARCLAY
What about the awareness issues - these kind of stories make the media, it's all about raising awareness surely?

LISICKI
Yeah but what kind of awareness are we raising? We're saying here are these supercrips, as Nick Walker said, that's what they're doing - hey look how come you can't do it because this other person did do it and it's a false comparator because what happens is you just end up with all the people that are doing that stuff, everybody gets measured against that and it's a false standard and it's a pointless standard.

BARCLAY
So Miles, there you go, this is a false comparator and in actual fact you're running the danger of making people who aren't able or don't want to do the kind of things you do feel inferior in some way.

HILTON-BARBER
Yeah I think that what I try to do by message, when I have the opportunity to speak to the media, I say look if a blind man walk to the South Pole it may encourage a lady 80 years old who's gone blind to have the courage to walk across a road using a white stick or to cook a cake in the oven for the first time - a gas oven. That is just as great an achievement. And I'm simply saying to people you can, no matter what your disability, you can probably do a little bit more.

BARCLAY
Miles - and there we have to leave it Miles, thank you very much indeed for joining us and Barbara Lisicki, thank you, thank you both.
 


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