WHAT'S THE STORY?
On Saturday 2nd June 2018, Lee Ridley, who performs as the comedian ‘Lost Voice Guy’, won the 2018 series of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.
His win was remarkable for a number of reasons, including that he is the first comedian to do so, but also because he has Cerebral Palsy, a group of lifelong conditions developing early in life that affect movement and co-ordination, a result of which left Lee Ridley unable to speak and using a machine called a Lightwriter to speak for him.
Here is ‘Lost Voice Guy’ in action!
The runner-up in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent, Robert White who is also a comedian, identifies as having Asperger Syndrome (a neurodiversity that is part of Autism).
Both performers made light of their own disabilities or additional needs during their acts, referencing their conditions and people’s reaction to them as part of their comedy routine.
The audience ratings for the final were the highest since 2015, with an average of 8.7 million viewers tuning in to watch the show.
Is the fact that the winner and runner-up of this popular TV show both have disabilities or additional needs significant?
Is this a game changer for disability in the media?
‘Lost Voice Guy’ with the host of ITV’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, Declan (Dec) Donnelly, at the moment that he is announced as the 2018 series winner.
WHAT'S THE BACKGROUND?
It is still rare to see positive portrayals of disabled people on television, particularly on talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent.
Looking back through the TV archives, it is more common to see disabled people being used as the butt of jokes or hate speech in ways that would be considered completely unacceptable if they were being picked on for their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
In the 1990’s ‘Little Britain’ which starred current Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams, also featured Matt Lucas as a disabled character who was secretly able bodied, attempting to suggest that some disabled people fake their conditions in order to claim welfare benefits.
It was a hugely popular show of is time and is regularly re-run.
The Channel 4 TV comedy show ‘The Last Leg’, currently in its 13th series, features characters played by disabled people, who use their disabilities to comic effect.
‘Lost Voice Guy’ describes himself on his website as follows: “Lost Voice Guy's real name is Lee Ridley.
That's me! I am a writer, journalist, comedian and geek who is based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.
I also have Cerebral Palsy. I have no speech (I use a small machine called a Lightwriter to speak) and I walk with a limp.
Don't worry though, you can't catch it from me.
It just means that you better not get stuck behind me on the stairs if there's a fire.”
He continues by outlining his varied career to date, his academic qualifications (Masters and undergraduate degrees in journalism), his wide range of hobbies etc.
You can see his website here.
Other disabled people regularly seen on television include Frank Gardner, who is a journalist and the BBC’s Security Correspondent.
Gardner was disabled in 2004 when shot six times by terrorists; his friend and cameraman was killed.
He is regularly seen providing specialist security commentary on BBC news programmes.
Former CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell who was born missing the lower section of her right arm and hand, left the channel last year after eight years during which she was regularly subjected to hurtful comments by parents who said that her disability scared their children.
One man said that he would stop his daughter from watching the BBC children’s channel because Burnell would give his child nightmares.
Parents even called the broadcaster to complain after Burnell, with Alex Winters, took over the channel’s popular Do and Discover slot and The Bedtime Hour programme, to complain about her disability.
More recently, Lucy Martin, who was also born without her right forearm and hand, became the first visibly disabled BBC weather presenter.
Her experience has been more positive, as while she has also had some unpleasant comments, the feedback generally has been overwhelmingly supportive.
The increase in media channels and self-broadcast channels such as YouTube has also led to many more disabled people using these to reach an audience, allowing them to showcase themselves in the way they want to, rather than how a broadcaster might portray them.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
If programmes such as ‘Little Britain’ made fun of people because they were black, or female, or transgender, then the backlash would be enormous.
It is rightly regarded as off limits on mainstream prime time television to belittle people due to their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. however this doesn’t seem to apply in the same way to disability.
Disabled people are routinely ridiculed, abused and attacked, with little or no protection seemingly provided.
Question: Is there is a ‘pecking order’ for equality? If you had to rank e.g. race, age, religion/beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. how would it look, and why?
Question: Do you feel that strong advocacy from campaign groups such as Stonewall, as well as social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, might have influenced this? How?
It has been suggested that the success of ‘Lost Voice Guy’ shows a shifting of public opinion regarding disabled people.
Excellent attendance figures for the Paralympic Games as well as the Invictus Games have shown that there is an appetite for disabled sport, and so it is possible that these changing attitudes could be extending into other areas of life such as television and the wider media.
Question: Does the recent success of ‘Lost Voice Guy’/Lee Ridley and Robert White change things for the better by raising awareness?
Or were the public watching and voting for them in some modern parody of the ‘Freak Shows’ of the Victorian era?
Question: Does seeing more disabled people on television, especially successful people and not just ‘victims’, make it less likely that the kinds of cruel comments Cerrie Burnell was subjected to will be repeated? Why?
With one in five of the population of the UK having some kind of additional need or disability, including over 11 million described as disabled under the Equalities Act 2010, disability isn’t a rarity that is hardly ever seen.
Everyone knows people with disabilities, many of us have disabilities ourselves.
There seems, however, to be a disconnect between what we see and experience in the ‘real world’ and what we see on the carefully curated environment of television.
It is unlikely that a disabled person is going to be selected as a contestant for ‘Love Island’ anytime soon for example.
Seeing disabled contestants on Britain’s Got Talent could be seen as a positive move, but we won’t have fully succeeded in normalising disability until every role is available to anyone.
When we have a disabled Dr. Who, a disabled Sherlock, a disabled host of Britain’s Got Talent or Top Gear, and a disabled presenter of Blue Planet III then we might be getting somewhere.
Question: Is this goal achievable? Are there any roles on television, for example, that you could never see being available to disabled people? Why?
To conclude then, while ‘Lost Voice Guy’s victory in Britain’s Got Talent might be a significant step forward for disabled people of all ages in the UK, the jury is out as to whether this is a watershed moment, a game changer.
It certainly isn’t a ‘Golden Buzzer’ that creates a level playing field for everyone, but it might have played an important part in raising awareness and creating some positive change in society at large.
Let’s hope there is more to come!
Lost Voice Guy’s website.
Useful BBC article.
For more information about Cerebral Palsy.
The Additional Needs Blogfather’s blog site.