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.
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.
So you're not totally unacquainted with the kind of conditions that
you're likely to encounter this time. What are you expecting?
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.
You have a special boat for this occasion presumably?
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.
But you're pushing yourself - why do you do it?
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.
How long do you think this trip will take?
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.
Well good luck with it. Stuart, thank you very much indeed for joining
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
So what are you actually saying to Miles then - don't do it?
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.
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.
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
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?
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 …
What about the awareness issues - these kind of stories make the
media, it's all about raising awareness surely?
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.
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.
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.
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.