‘Britain’s Got Talent’ shows Britain’s got respect for disabled people

A cynical talent show made room for two talented people, both with life-defining disabilities, writes Fergus Finlay.

‘Britain’s Got Talent’ shows Britain’s got respect for disabled people

I’VE an awful confession to make. I almost feel I have to apologise before I make it. I know I parade myself around as someone with a view on everything under the sun, and I’ve been described as everything from pompous to po-faced. Self-important, self-opinionated, all that sort of stuff. A serious writer about issues of great import.

But I’m a dedicated fan of Britain’s Got Talent. I go for the whole thing, hook, line and sinker. The corn and the cheese, the emotional manipulation, the glimpse of dollar signs in Simon Cowell’s eyes, whenever he sees a new boy band or a spectacular dance troupe strutting its stuff. But I’m not a fan of Ant and Dec, although, this year, I found myself rooting for Dec on his own (or is he Ant? I can never remember).

I wasn’t looking forward to the final on Sunday night, though, because I was pretty sure who was going to win. We’re in the Brexit era, after all, when the votes of little England are pretty predetermined. And one of the favourites was a group of female singers dressed in RAF uniforms. They sang Vera Lynn songs — as clichéd as they come — and were accompanied on stage by elderly veterans, some of whom were visibly struggling with the heat and the lights. It was shamelessly exploitative, and guaranteed to get a standing ovation from every Brexiteer in the audience.

And if you didn’t like them, there was a father-and-son act, a Welsh tenor, cheeky children (some singers, some dancers), and an amazing pair of acrobats from Vietnam (the most skilled people there, but definitely foreigners). There was even an Irish curate, who’s made quite a name for himself on YouTube with his singing. Then, there was somebody called (I think) Donches Dacres, who hails from Wolverhampton, but who looks like he just landed off a time machine from 1970s West Indies and appears to have invented a new dance, called Wiggle Wine (don’t ask).

But none of them won. Comedians, instead, came first and second — and the overall winner took home £250,000. The guy who came second — Robert White — spent most of his time poking semi-musical fun at the judges, and looked quite remarkable, with a tight curl at the front of his head, trousers that were too short, and a collection of highly-coloured tank tops (the tank tops are one of his trademarks).

The man who won — Lee Ridley is his name — appeared in a T-shirt, with saliva on the front of it, and tatty jeans. His face was battered and bruised, and he had a plaster on his nose, because he’d had a fall between the semi-final and the final. He never spoke, and was hilarious. His “brand name” is Lost Voice Guy, and he uses a computer to project a voice.

That’s because he has cerebral palsy. He can’t speak, and clearly has difficulty moving. But none of that prevented him from winning a genuine standing ovation from the audience.

Lee Ridley, it transpires, has been working as a comedian for some time, and it’s his full-time job. He has his own website, where I discovered that he has a master’s degree in online journalism and an undergraduate degree in journalism, both from the University of Central Lancashire. He says on the website: “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.”

Robert White, who came second — and has a very bright comic future, if he wants one — is on the autism spectrum, and is gay. So both of the leading contestants had overcome extraordinary challenges — and I’m guessing confounded a lot of prejudices to secure the lion’s share of the 2m votes that were cast during the final.

They confounded one of my prejudices. It wasn’t the corn and cheese that won, and the acts designed to appeal to the little Englander instinct didn’t make it, either.

Instead, a shallow, superficial, commercial, cynical talent show made room for two genuinely witty and talented people, both of them with life-defining disabilities. They won on merit. And they were respected for their talent.

Will it ever happen here? Could it ever happen here? Will we ever learn to respect people with disabilities?

A month or so ago, I went to a highly spirited, fun concert in the Sugar Club. Joyful Noise was the name of the group — a bunch of young adults with intellectual disabilities, who work with WALK (their head office is in Walkinstown and their values are among the most person-centred and respectful I know).

Boy, was Joyful Noise noisy — talented, together, determined to make the most of an opportunity in front of an audience. They gave us a great night.

A month before that, I went to a play in the Peacock Theatre, put on by the Shadowbox company. The play, directed by the extraordinary Gemma Gallagher, featured five women, all with an intellectual disability, who re-enacted imagined scenes from the world of the mother-and-baby homes.

No dialogue, just movement — and some stillness. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. When it ended, I realised I hadn’t been breathing for the last minute or two, so intense was the emotion.

On both occasions, the audience was about 50 — mostly, I guess, family and friends. No media came, so there were no reviews.

THERE’S little or no support, either, from official Ireland, nor from audiences, for the work of people with a disability. So we seldom get to see their talent or their empathy, or their capacity to capture emotion.

In Ireland, we tend to see their disability instead. And in Ireland, people with a disability aren’t expected to be uppity about themselves. They’re expected to be needy, dependent, to know their place. I consider myself lucky to count dozens of people with an intellectual disability among my friends. They all have different approaches to life, different strengths and weaknesses, different abilities — just like the rest of us. But one of the things they have in common with each other is that whenever they do something remarkable, people are surprised, because we’ve been taught to see only the disability, and to put money in the charity tin.

Later this month, we’ll have another great couple of nights in the Mermaid Theatre, in Bray, when our local club, Lakers, puts on its show, featuring members who can dance, sing, drum, act, and make the packed audience both laugh and cry.

This year, they’re doing The Lion King. For sure, there’ll be a few slip-ups with the dialogue, but the energy and the colour will more than make up for that. There’ll be no disability on show, just sheer entertainment. And an awful lot of respect.

A cynical talent show made room for two talented people, both with life-defining disabilities

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