The Real McCoy

BBC Ouch 26th March 2007

By the time this article goes online, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Comic Relief single “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” sung by wheelchair-using comedy characters Brian Potter (Phoenix Nights) and Andy Pipkin (Little Britain) – is gonna be number 1 in the music charts. Indeed, Andy’s now probably the most famous disabled person in the country – despite being a fake.

Don’t get me wrong, I love those Little Britain sketches – particularly the fact that Lou, Andy’s ‘carer’, is wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume and equally as obnoxious as Andy himself. But when Lou and Andy came top of Channel 4’s ’50 Greatest Comedy Sketches’ vote a couple of years ago, something more disturbing emerged.

On the programme, comedian Griff Rhys-Jones put the success of the sketches down to his theory that whenever anyone looks at ‘those people’ (meaning us wheelchair users), they can’t help but wonder if we’re just pretending. I found this statement something of a revelation since, maybe naively, I’d never thought someone might actually question my authenticity. But on reflection I realised that throughout my life, I’ve had to prove on a regular basis that I’m not a fake.

For example, I’ve recently mislaid my Disabled Person’s Railcard and am dreading having to reapply because of an unfortunate experience a few years ago when I first tried to get one. To get this exclusive railcard, you need proof that you’re disabled – usually a letter confirming you receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – and so I needed a to get a note from my doctor in its place.

Normally my GP would acknowledge that this sort of red tape is a waste of both my time and NHS resources, and write me such a letter without fuss. However, on this occasion I was unlucky enough to get a fastidious locum who insisted on a full medical examination before he’d put pen to paper. As I coughed on cue whilst he cupped my balls in his hand, I couldn’t help but speculate that there must be easier ways of getting a third off long-distance train fares.

Similarly, when I arranged my honeymoon a few years ago, the travel agent refused to book assistance onto the plane unless I provided a doctor’s letter as proof of my disability, even though I was sitting right in front of him in my wheelchair. The company’s response to my obligatory complaint was:

“In the past we have had a number of passengers advise of their disability and upon boarding the aircraft it later transpires that they do not require any assistance at all.”

I don’t know about you, but I very much doubt many non-disabled people would put themselves through all the hassle of being carried up the flight of stairs to an aircraft just for the sheer hell of it!

Nowadays I feel as if my wheelchair has become an integral part of my identity, and I feel vulnerable – almost naked – if I’m out in public without it, for fear of being considered a fake. More and more I’ve noticed funny looks from passers-by whenever I’ve risen from my chair to climb a flight of stairs or get into a taxi, even though I’m perfectly capable of doing such things. Indeed such public scrutiny has recently introduced me to a completely new experience – empathising with Heather Mills-McCartney.

Now, I’m no fan of Heather’s. Why the media expects us disabled people to look up to her as a positive role model when no one else does is beyond me. But I have real issues with the media’s current obsession with her ability to compete in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing, not to mention Brighton and Hove Federation of Disabled People demanding that she “should refrain from using her blue badge” because she can now foxtrot.

When Heather responded to all this criticism, she did herself no favours. In her situation, my response would have been to stick two fingers up and state that how my impairment affects me is nobody’s goddamn business except my own. But Heather being Heather, she infuriatingly declared that her participation in the contest was sending out the message that “you can overcome any disability and just do whatever you want to do if you set your mind to it.”

I only wish she’d set her mind to demonstrating that disabled people can do other stuff – you know, things like taking a vow of silence, wearing a bag over their heads, swimming with piranha fish…

One simple but controversial solution to the problem of distinguishing the Stephen Hawkings from the Andy Pipkins could be identity cards. Even though they’re bureaucratic and restrict civil liberties, a small, extremely anal part of me feels that life would be simpler if I had something official with a little box ticked to confirm that I’m disabled.

Think about it – no more letters from the doctor, no more searching for proof of DLA…

Of course, an even simpler solution would be for people to take our word for it and accept us at face value without requiring proof. Now there’s a radical idea!

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