I am originally from the south of England, a little place called Camberley. I was born in a cottage hospital in 1962: making me a grand old age of 47. Being born with Spina Bifida means that I have not always been a wheelchair user; a significant fact as I believe that the initial ability to walk meant I suffered from the very real illusion of ‘normality’ as an aspiration for much longer than i otherwise would have.
As a young disabled person I was not particularly in to any form of disabled activism even though I have always been interested in politics; like most disabled people i did not see Disability as a political issue but a personal one. My passion of disability activism really started when I began my PhD in Disability and Film (nearly 20 years ago) and read Mike Oliver’s seminal work: The Politics of Disablement. The PhD was inspired by my love of film rather than my interest in disability.
Once the PhD started I realized the significance of popular culture in the process of demeaning disabled people; thus my initial aims (and they are still my primary aim) was to fundamentally change the way society sees disabled people through culture (popular culture in particular). As such, I think my most significant piece of activism was to make a short film attaching the institutionalization of disabled people by the largest charity in the UK (a short film, inter-cut with a discussion with the US TV series Ironside) called: Say No to Leonard Cheshire. I am still rather proud and fond of that piece of film. It got over 50,000 hits in a month and was covered by the national press and BBC radio. Plus, it was funny.
Interestingly enough my inspiration was not a disabled person but a large Texan who gave me an intense course of therapy as we were in the same hospital ward (I had broken my leg and he had a bad-back). Through him I started to think differently: originally, creatively and constructively. I was 21 and it turned my life around. I never looked back: I had left school with no real qualifications and due to that six weeks in the bed next to a large Texan artist my life changed forever.
Subsequently, i started to work in Disability Arts – after University – and have now worked in it for 20 years. I am a firm believer that Disability Art – art by disabled people that explored the world from a social model perspective of disability – is the last great challenging art of the 20th century that can, and will, bring about the change we need to escape the ‘Normality Fugue’ – the individual and collective flight of fantasy in to the illusion that normality exists (that old Texan was a wise man). I now work in Shrewsbury for DASH (organising Disability arts evens and commissions) as well as running my own Disability Arts organisation called Outside Centre. For further information see the websites: www.darke.info ; www.outside-centre.info and www.dasharts.org
Of course, the most enjoyable events I am doing is the annual Disability Film Festival (see www.disabilityfilmfestival.eu for details about that in 2010). As for the Texan: i am having lunch with him next week.