Vera Drake

Disability only appears as a subplot in Vera Drake, but is illustrative of the larger social problems in the austerity of postwar Britain. The movie opens on a scene of middle-aged Vera trudging up the stairs to visit a wheelchair-using neighbor, George Wells, fluffing up his pillows and making him a cup of tea. George appears quite depressed and uncommunicative, barely making eye contact. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that he’s depressed because he’s trapped in a walk-up apartment long before anyone thought of making buildings wheelchair accessible, but George’s problems run even deeper than that.

These were the days before any kind of home help was available in Britain. While Vera’s friendly visits are no doubt much appreciated, they do little to alleviate the real issues. Who helps George get bathed, dressed, and seated in his wheelchair each morning? His wife. Who went out to earn a living in the days when there were few careers available to homebound disabled men? His wife. Who helps George in the inaccessible bathroom after that mid-day tea has passed through his kidneys? His wife. When ignorant politicians say they want disabled people to be cared for by volunteers, what they really mean is the wife, or the mother, or maybe the daughter or the sister: the uncompensated labor of women. The kind of caring a neighborly volunteer does is the fluffing up of pillows and the making of tea.

Indeed, when we meet his wife later in the movie, she’s so depressed that she doesn’t want to get out of bed. Vera tries to empathize, as she’s also taking care of her bedridden elderly mother, but even her daily encouragement and assistance must be eventually withdrawn when she goes to prison. The movie doesn’t show what happens to the Wells family after that, but without paid caregivers or a social safety net, we can make an educated guess. Theirs is a situation ripe for abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, depression and other mental illnesses.

Secrets: Richard III

The Smithsonian’s documentary Richard III Revealed probes the excavation and identification of the bones of Richard III, king of England. Largely driven by Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society, the group hoped to prove historical descriptions of Richard Plantagenet as a ruthless “hunchback” were vicious slanders propagated by the Tudors in their own quest for power. Forensic analysis of the skeleton (confirmed by matrilineal DNA) revealed that he did indeed have scoliosis, causing one shoulder to be higher than the other and a reduction in height, though his orthopedic disability was not so severe as to preclude an active lifestyle. (No evidence of a withered arm was found.)

Philippa took the news hard, weeping at the shattered image of her hero and using the pejorative term “hunchback” freely. In her mind, the fact that Richard had scoliosis was enough to turn him into the Shakespearean villain of old. It may very well be that Richard had to be ruthless to seize power in a hostile political climate, but it is surprising that a supposedly modern and enlightened person like Philippa should fall prey to the stereotype that physical disfigurement indicates an evil nature.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time
Review of Encore Performance at NYU Skirball Center, October 26, 2012.

Not cinematic rendition but video documentation of the play, as performed in the National Theatre in the UK. The performance was staged in the round, with innovative special and sound effects and minimal props and sets. These included several unadorned multi-use moveable pedestals (these cost-effective but minimalist items were not only used as seats, but as escalator steps, a train interior, luggage, and, in one instance, with appropriately-timed sound effects along with a performance best left to the imagination, a toilet.

The stage was divided into grids, finished with blackboard paint (this was crucial, because among other things, Christopher used it to draw a chalk outline of the dead dog, which he quickly surrounded by a mind-map of the crime as he saw it). The stage surface, studded with tiny LED lights, was a large and more technically sophisticated light-brite, which made possible the flexibility of the staging, meaning the story could quickly switch from Christopher’s walk around the neighborhood, with the footprints of neighbors’ houses drawn in white light for Christopher to walk past, to his time at school, and various rooms in his home.

This unique stage also provided the perfect means for displaying the complicated algebra and geometry problem which got him his top score on the math A-levels, a faithfulness to the book and the style of the narrative which might not have otherwise been possible. Given the nature of the book, a complex internal narrative from the point of view of an autistic teen whose world has been limited, and whose sensory issues make such crowded, noisy, and distracting places as train stations more frightening and difficult for him to navigate than for neurotypical persons, I was not the only one who wondered how this deep and silent internal narrative could be translated to words and actions effective for the purposes of the theatre.

Neither those who valued adherence to the book nor those who were assessing the dramatic performance immediately in front of them (effectively presented upon a larger than average, square, rather than rectangular, screen) were disappointed. The other characters all have a say in Christopher’s internal monologue, and their sometimes conflicting influences add to his sensory and emotional overload. His father’s discouragements and criticisms echo in his head, as well as his more positive talk. Beloved teacher Siobhean, who is also effectively a social worker/counselor to him, is seen as a Jimminy Cricket to his Pinnochio.

Other characters begin their parts, but then repeat themselves or revise their actions, depending on Christopher’s re-telling of the story, and re-stating of the details. A moment of levity ensues when a police officer steps into the scene, and then is described as a different police officer from the one who had been on the train with Christopher previously. He hands off his police hat and vest to a different man in police uniform, who steps onto the stage and continues the scene, the edges of the stage being the borders of Christopher’s mental picture-making.

Prior to the showing of the play itself, the theatre presented a making-of-the-production featurette which showed various aspects of the staging and rehearsals. Revealed in this movie about the movie about the play was the fact that in order to realistically present in performance the behavior of Christopher and of the people he encounters, they utilized the services of an autism consultant who was, herself, on the spectrum. She used the opportunity to comment on the perception that autistic people lack imagination. This overgeneralization is not quite accurate. While they might not be able to accurately guess others’ motives in social situations, the ability to generate original imagery and ideas remains.

After the show, Stephen Yoffe wheeled out on stage to lead the discussion of various aspects of the show, among them the fact that the play ended on an ambiguous note. Christopher, his self-confidence boosted by having solved the mystery, successfully taken the train to London, and evaded the police, saying he could “do anything”, with a questioning tone at the end of the statement, following a monologue about his future aspirations to take the rest of the A-levels (comprehensive university entry exams), go to university in a less crowded and busy metropolitan area than London, become a scientist, and then an astronaut, after having successfully departed both his parents’ households for a flat of his own and independent adulthood. All his life, he had been told by society as a whole and more immediately and personally, by the authority figures in his own life, that he wasn’t capable of doing certain things. He had to have felt a certain amount of triumph in having successfully torn apart a tissue of lies, evaded the police, and taken the train to London on his own.

Given that the British legal system, school system, and police force are quite different from those in the USA, it is to be noted that Christopher’s story could very well have unfolded quite differently at any point, had it been set in the USA.
It was perhaps deliberately left open-ended as to whether Christopher could or would be successful in these and/or other goals (one audience member suggested that unmentioned and perhaps undervalued in this scenario were “different kinds of success”, such as the future possibility of Christopher successfully making friends, having a relationship, perhaps marrying and having children). The fact that Christopher drew a large face with a smile on the stage floor during the conclusion of the play was viewed as a milestone for Christopher in understanding both the facial expression and the emotion behind it.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows a group of British retirees who decide to “outsource” their retirement to less expensive and seemingly exotic India. Enticed by advertisements for the newly restored Marigold Hotel and bolstered with visions of a life of leisure, they arrive to find the palace a shell of its former self. Though the new environment is less luxurious than imagined, they are forever transformed by their shared experiences, discovering that life and love can begin again when you let go of the past.

YA reporter spearheads cinema campaign for better disabled access in the UK

YA reporter spearheads cinema campaign for better disabled access in the UK
Thursday, 01 September 2011

By Paul Peterson

A PRESSURE group has launched a campaign for cinemas to improve disabled access.
Members of the Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers Group are calling for independent and multiplex cinemas across the country to provide better facilities for disabled customers.
Wheelchair users including YA reporter Paul Peterson, from Corringham, and Victoria Pegg, from Chelmsford, both have a form of the muscle-wasting disease and are leading the campaign in Essex.
Paul, 32, who has Becker Muscular Dystrophy, was mainly critical of the Empire Cinema at the Festival Leisure Park, in Basildon.
He argued that in recent years, the cinema’s disabled access had got worse.
He said: “The multiplex used to be excellent and was so good that I would sometimes make the trip back from university in Barking to go there.
“The wheelchair spaces were not restricted to the front rows so I could sit at the back with the rest of my friends.
“When the new premium seating was installed, the number of screens with wheelchair spaces at the back of the cinema was reduced.
“It means you have to sit right at front, which gives you a stiff neck and eye strain because it’s just far too close to the screen.”
Members of the Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers Lights, Camera, Access? campaign recently carried out an investigation into disabled access at cinemas across the county.
They found that:
* One in three major cinema chains have bad or very bad views of the screen from the wheelchair accessible seating.
* More than half have uncomfortable accessible seating areas and one third have poor access between the ticket office and the auditorium.
* One in three of the major chain cinemas have bad or very bad disability awareness.
* Almost half of independent and major chain cinemas did not offer an online ticket service for the disabled.
* One in five major chain cinemas do not accept the Cinema Exhibitors Association discount card or offer another discount for disabled customers and a carer.
* Of the independent cinemas, 96 per cent have good or very good views of the screen from the wheelchair accessible seating area.
* Eight out of 10 independent cinemas have comfortable wheelchair accessible seating.
* More than 85 per cent of independent or small chains have easy or very easy access between the ticket office and the auditorium.
* Eight out ten independent cinemas have good or very good disability awareness.
Victoria Pegg, 27, who has Muscular Dystrophy, urged people to sign a petition which will be presented to cinema operators and MPs at Westminster later this year.
She said: “We want to work with cinema exhibitors to resolve some of these issues their disabled customers face.
“I hope people will back our petition and encourage cinemas to start putting a little more into the service they provide to their disabled customers.”
For more information about the group, or to sign the cinema access petition, visit www.mdctrailblazers.org

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, is set in a modern day dystopia where scientific breakthroughs have extended the human lifespan beyond 100 through copious use of harvested organs. To meet the demand for human organs, clones are produced and raised apart from normal humans in specialized “schools”, such as Hailsham.

In order to exploit an entire class of people, you must first strip them of their humanity. This is accomplished at Hailsham not by beatings or threats, but by rumors, peer pressure, and euphemism. The children are taught only the most basic of life skills and drilled in the importance of keeping themselves healthy. They are taught to fear the outside world, and never to form relationships with normal humans or let on that their lives have been anything other than ordinary. A lady identified only as Madame periodically visits the school to collect the children’s best artwork, though she seems loath to touch or talk to them. Social development deliberately stunted, the clones consequently find small displays of individuality intimating, and even as adults struggle with minor decisions like choosing what to order for breakfast at a diner.

The story centers on three of the cloned children; Kathy, creative and unassuming; Tommy, uncoordinated and prone to sudden fits of rage; and Ruth, the “mean girl” of the group. Kathy and Tommy share a quiet understanding, but Ruth, afraid of being alone, interferes in their budding relationship and claims Tommy for herself.

For a brief time they have a new teacher who tells them the truth, that they will not have normal lives or lifespan, but that they are expected to donate their organs until completion (death). Miss Lucy is quickly fired for this transgression, and Miss Emily the headmistress gives a defiant speech to which the children wildly applaud their treatment, not understanding that they are applauding their own destruction.

When the children turn 18 they are transferred to group homes called “The Cottages” and given enough freedom to choose to either begin their donations or work as carers to support those in the process of “completion”. One older couple asks Ruth and Tommy whether the rumors of a three-year deferral for couples “truly in love” are true, setting off wild speculation that they may be able to extend their lives a bit. Ruth comes to the conclusion that she and Tommy would not be able to prove their love, and confesses to Kathy that she stole Tommy away from her. She gives Kathy the address to see Madame, and with that she’s ready to complete.

What Kathy and Tommy really need is a good civil rights lawyer and media attention, but none of the clones are savvy in ways of the world. Instead they speculate that they need to produce artwork for Madame to judge, to enable her to see into their souls and verify their love for one another. Tommy, already weakened by two donations, feverishly produces drawings of elephants and frogs.

Kathy signs Tommy out on a day pass, and they slip away to visit Madame and find her in the garden. She doesn’t want to talk to them about deferment alone, and brings them inside to consult with Miss Emily, who lives with her and now uses a wheelchair. (Perhaps she is a potential recipient of donated organs and has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the system?)

Never Let Me Go

Miss Emily and Madame tell Kathy and Tommy that they have been judged to have no soul, no right to self-determination, and their bodies are property of the state.

Miss Emily explains to the couple that “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. We used your art to show what you were capable of. To show that donor children are all but human. But we were providing an answer to a question no one was asking. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer, breast cancer, motor neuron disease, they’ll simply say no.”

Conditioned to accept this fate, Kathy and Tommy return to the donation center, stopping briefly for Tommy to rage against the dying of the light. Kathy comforts him as best she can, but Tommy completes immediately upon his next donation. With nothing left to live for, Kathy schedules herself to begin the process of donation as well.

All the King’s Fools

From The Guardian:

All the King's Fools

Heritage entertainment develops historical accuracy at Hampton Court this week, as learning-disabled actors play Tudor jesters

There are several things one might expect of a visit to Hampton Court. Disabled actors farting for your entertainment is not one of them. That’s just one of the ways in which All the King’s Fools will up-end expectations when it appears at Henry VIII’s palace on the Thames this week. A combination of theatre, heritage site re-enactment and living research, the performances – by Bristol companies Foolscap and Misfits Theatre – draw on recent studies that suggest history’s court jesters often had learning disabilities. In All the King’s Fools, a cast of learning-disabled performers will bring that theory to life.

The show promises to be a far cry from the lute-playing and falconry that often pass for heritage entertainment. Several dearly maintained social conventions are up for grabs, including the one that tells us not to laugh at disabled people, and the one that assures us we’re more civilised than, say, the Tudors. “We’re convinced we’re more progressive now in dealing with disability,” says Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian working on the production. “But that’s not always the case.”

Lipscomb, based at the University of East Anglia, is a former research curator at Hampton Court. Commissioned by Foolscap director and former European Jester of the Year Peet Cooper, she delved into the history of Tudor-era disability, and discovered “a big debate about the disability status of fools”. In the terminology of the time, fools were “natural” or “artificial” – ie, learning disabled, or just pretending. Lipscomb emerged convinced that Will Somer, Henry VIII’s fool (and the supposed template for King Lear’s), was a “natural”.

Not all historians agree; many assume that the wordplay and truth-telling to power for which jesters were famed is beyond the capacity of the learning disabled. “But that shows their ignorance,” says Lipscomb. “From my experience with the actors, witty wordplay is characteristic.” She now hopes to prove – or disprove – the point with All the King’s Fools.

Cooper has no doubt of his actors’ verbal dexterity. So I ask him: in the name of accuracy, shouldn’t the RSC cast a learning-disabled actor as Touchstone, say, or Lear’s Fool? “I know a few actors who could do it,” he says. Perhaps he means Paul Prangley, a young Welshman with a flair for slapstick and breakdancing. Or Penny Lepisz, a Misfits veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tudor history. She tells me about the Tudor fashion for “tag rhyming”, a bawdy proto rap music at which Somer excelled. “Oh fair maid, oh buxom one – she is a bonny lass,” runs one verse she improvised for the show. “But falling from a leafy branch, she bared her rotund ass.” (“It’s saucy,” she says. “But then it was saucy in Henry VIII’s time.”)

In All the King’s Fools, Henry is made a gift of an outspoken fool. The learning disabled were held to have “access to a divine wisdom”, says Lipscomb, and to keep a fool absolved one’s sins. That may be patronising – but 21st-century attitudes are problematic, too. In Tudor times, when few people had any learning, “learning disabled” was a meaningless category. The disabled, says Lipscomb, “were much more part of the fabric of society”.

This week, they will be part of the fabric of Hampton Court. The shows will include verses, perhaps some breakdancing and definitely a “dance of the farts”, says Cooper. He hopes All the King’s Fools will excavate a tradition long hidden from history. “Comedy owes a debt to disabled performers,” he says. Look at the style of Norman Wisdom, or Lee Evans. “It’s never acknowledged,” says Cooper, “but learning disability is deep in comedy’s DNA.”

If, today, we find it uncomfortable laughing at disabled jesters, says Lipscomb, “it says something about our political correctness. But it also says something about our lack of exposure to people with different abilities.” Like all good jesters, the All the King’s Fools company pass off as ribald entertainment some truths society may find hard to take. As the actors put on their ruffs in the palace where Will Somer once jigged, Lipscomb hopes they will “transport us to the past and make us think about whether we are more progressive these days, or not.”

All the King’s Fools is at Hampton Court Place until Sunday. Details: www.hrp.org.uk

The Haunted Airman

Based on the novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Haunted Airman is set in a mansion in rural Wales during WWII.  The main character is a former RAF pilot who has been shot down and has ended up in a wheelchair due to his injuries.  However, his injuries are not soley physical, it is implied that he, like at least one other similar man in the tumbledown manor house being used as a makeshift hospital, is also suffering from PTSD, then known as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”. 

Having not lived through WWII and possessing only a limited exposure to England, I cannot speak on whether the portrayal of the facilities and technology at this particular hospital is a realistic depiction of institutions of this kind.  But they are true to life in calling nurses “sister” and having them wear nun-like headdresses.  And they are pretty spot-on as concerning some things that patients often experience in any sort of hospital.  One of the early scenes in the movie shows the former pilot lying on a litter left in front of the hospital for what seems an indeterminate amount of time while people hurry by. 

Yes, in real life, patients really do get left lying around.  When he experiences incontinence and the nurse changes the bedsheets and tells him it’s nothing to worry about, but something that tends to happen “at the beginning”, that’s quite accurate too. (Real nurses are quite blase about things like this and talk about bodily functions openly, including the ones that embarrass most people.)

However, he’s got bigger problems than paraplegia or PTSD. It is hinted early in the picture that he is having or has the potential to have, an improper relationship with his aunt (aunt by marriage, at least), a thing that many people would find quite shocking, but it doesn’t seem to bother him, and the aunt seems amenable to it in the middle of the picture, holding hands with him and kissing him romantically during a visit with him.  On later visits, she grows more distant, presumably on the doctor’s advice.  By the end of the picture, she had repudiated that sort of relationship with him.  When he makes sexual overtures to her, she is unwilling… and then his Oedipus gets even more complex.

Where the film starts to diverge from reality, however, is in depicting some of the frightening, hallucinatory experiences that he has. 

It is true that the building in which he is in is an older building with a lot of dark wood and stone and shade trees is perhaps a theatre in which an overactive imagination can romp. Spiders are also prominently featured; perhaps they assume increasing importance to him because he is less able to avoid them with his present mobility-impairment and wheelchair use. The wheelchair they have him in is not the kind that he can push himself, and on one occasion when the nurse pushes it, she wheels him right into a big spiderweb.  Another reason that spiders assume additional importance is because he has a situation of enforced idleness, and it is perhaps fair to say that he notices them more than when he was working. 

Or maybe, there are just simply a whole lot of big, ugly spiders around. 

In spite of the large and prominently featured spiders, insects in numbers make an appearance, too.  At one point he sees a number of beetles walking by while he is in bed and he falls out of bed trying to chase them away. On another occasion when something like this happens, he drags himself away from his hospital room and into a bathroom, where he retreats to a bathtub, which (the viewer sees) has spiders in the drain.  The doctor who is treating him (it is hinted that this doctor is acting as a therapist of sorts whether or not he is actually recognized as a psychiatrist) characterizes it as an attempt to retreat to the womb and the amniotic fluid in spite of the fact that the bathtub in fact had no water.

It can be hard to follow this picture because it is sometimes unclear as to whether some of the things they show are hallucinations on the part of the airman, or real but unpleasant things (like the spiders) just setting an uncomfortable and “creepy” atmosphere.  I do not know whether this is deliberate on the part of the filmmakers or accidental as a limitation of the technology and/or the storyline.  But it is a reason why one of the nurses in the beginning of the movie told him “we don’t use the terms ‘mad’ and ‘normal’ around here.  Everyone here is a little bit psychotic”, she said, looking down through the window at one of the doctors, the one who would later endeavor to give him therapy.

For the teenage girls in your life, here’s The Haunted Airman 27 x 40 Movie Poster, featuring Robert Pattinson looking appropriately haunted.