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Council Estates, Posh People and Disabilities

I come from a class background that feels very stretched.  The reasons for this are partly because Aberdeen is a city that is very separate to the rest of the UK and has it’s own set of world-like rules. In Aberdeen it’s fairly common to come across children of millionaires, as well as children whose families live close to the poverty line mixed into the same state school. 

In addition to this my parents have been divorced for most of my life and I was stretched by an upbringing in a posh house in the countryside with it’s own library and an ex council house beside a posh area whose inhabitants, at points, wished we didn’t exist.  (We took up places in the good school and they wanted to bus us everyday to a school much further away.)

While millionaires mixed in with everyone else might be indicative of some schools in London, posh houses in Aberdeen as well as council houses are very different to the London scene.  Space in Aberdeen is cheap, and it’s hard to compare the property prices there to most of England.  Also we received some benefits because it was a very different government, with a very different threshold for support, and the benefit system, which is often used to define class, has changed a lot. (We were firmly middle class). 

On top of that, council estates in Aberdeen were’t really like those depicted on TV.  There’s bits of each of them in a council estate in Aberdeen but they’re never really right.  My main memory, for instance, is that I grew up with a lot of mums and children around me, and we always played outside even in snow.  There was one mum in particular who’s beliefs on the world were so prevalent to me that I can still feel her lessons in my bones when people are mean.  There were drugs, and abusers and things got stolen (mostly bikes), but it wasn’t held by people in the same way that they often do on tv.  

In essence there’s no place to easily compare Aberdeen to, and my friends on the council estates and my friends who were born millionaires both left weird marks on me. 

(As a side note, my mum is from a more traditional labour/union supporting family, but my dads family in the 1800s were just about upper class on both sides. Potentially on one side, upper class drug dealers, which also means that on that side of the family I’m somewhere between the fourth or fifth generation to go to university.   My female ancestors went 100 years before me, funded (it seems) by cocaine. I sometimes get mistaken for being upper class which might just be my height, some of my friends in school and because my accent changed when I went to uni. But if I was being completely honest with myself, my dad’s family still sometimes act in ways that feel upper class and I have that in me.)

One of the other weird parts of my upbringing occurred hundreds of years before I was born.  The part of Aberdeen that I grew up on was given to the city by Robert the Bruce. Growing up there we were told that the land was owned by the people of the city and so the council were not able to sell or lease any part of it without putting the money directly back into the community.  While nobody ever checked this properly, we were aware on the estate that this meant that the land largely had to be used for social good.  We had the large hospital, a care home, multiple houses designed for wheelchairs (wheelchairs in the 60s), a school for disabled children which was my after school and summer school club (which was later turned into a mixed disabled and non-disabled school with a soft-play room that we had asked for ten years previously).  We also a fucking great field that no one was allowed to build on, and what I often thought of as a kid as spa-like facilities, but in essence was a relief centre for disabled kids with a very deep, very small plunge pool with a hoist and a ball pit. (Though the presence of the ball-pit was argued about after it was defunded).

I grew up in what we referred to as a ‘good’ council estate, meaning that we were fairly sure the council moved ‘good’ families onto the estate. I was surrounded by people with disabilities, and everybody knew everything about everyone.  This proved later in life to be quite a big problem, because I could never let any date onto the road I lived on without everyone finding out.  There was no where else to be dropped off, so I inevitably had to go over the fucking great field, or up a massive hill in high heels. But this also suggests I dated lots of people which if you knew Aberdeen you would know I didn’t.

Everyone knowing everything about everyone on the estate meant that we were looked after on a number of occasions.  It also meant when serious things happened they never felt serious, like the bomb scare, or the flasher. 

The estate that I grew up on kind of represented the life that a lot of liberal people in the arts like to think of when they discuss a country with good socialism.  I’m not always convinced that it was the best, but I do I really miss it.  I never really felt the same after leaving that place.

One of the few spaces that helps me feel a bit more home are the disabled spaces in the arts.  So many of the people around me were disabled, and so many of the families were carers, the mess that disability brings just does happen to feel like home.  I know some people might take mess to mean offensive but in my language I’m not using it offensively. 

The estate consisted not just of physical or visible disabilities, but as an adult I started to realise that a lot of the people on our estate or further into the larger estate across the road were themselves neurodivergent.  

Something interesting happens when you teach different neurodiversities.  You stop fairly quickly seeing them in an even light because one diagnosis is simply not the same as another.  The neurodiversities represented on the estate, to me, were not equal to most of the neurodiversities that I currently come across, they were notably worse.

We had a couple of local drug dealers growing up. (My mum still refuses to believe this, but the boys in my school had proof otherwise).  I thought for an embarrassingly large part of my life that drug dealers made no money.  I was 26 and a friend had to tell me otherwise.  He also looked shocked when I mentioned the estate because he hadn’t placed that in me.  The drug dealers on our estate were addicts, but the one who was there the longest was also schizophrenic. And, he had been born wealthy. He also played football with all the kids, and we knew to check for his eyes to see if you could say hi when he passed you on the street. 

I struggle a bit with the way in which disability in the arts feels more separate than disability back home.

A couple of years ago I was sitting in on classes with a theatre company and a learning disabled person said that they had started to take drugs, a hard drug, with a group of friends.  I was surprised firstly by the fact that I was not surprised, and then surprised by the response of the artistic team, which I felt demeaned them a little, and tried to control something well out of their reach. It made complete sense to me that someone with a learning disability would be in the social circle of people with drugs. I knew multiple carers who were addicts growing up, and I feel shame for writing this because we didn’t judge them at the time, and I know that someone reading this might.  We didn’t. 

I became disabled or long-term ill after I left the estate.  I became disabled because of a ‘bad’ illness which felt like being pushed more away from my right to services that I received for free because of my proximity as a kid. 

At one point after that diagnosis, I also became frustrated with another specific ‘bad’ diagnosis, narcissism, until teachers talked me round to a better understanding of it.  I think that that mistake is important. 

As karma likes to hit, I was then diagnosed with more ‘bad’ disabilities/long-term illness and experienced some forms of discrimination that were quite hard to get through. I found through all these ‘bad’ diagnoses that it was hard and complex for me to decide what to tell people. That people often a lot of kindness towards the voices in my head then about other things that I still often choose not to share because to them, the voices were physical, out-with my control, but other things they would prefer not to know.

I’ve been passively choosing not to write what this post was intended to be about, because I don’t want to draw more attention to something that maybe doesn’t need another opinion.  But I do want to highlight my experience of how out of touch many of us are with the representation of bad diagnoses in the arts.  

If anything, there’s also probably a higher percentage of us here. 

I have never found a movement director who specialised in hidden disabilities, which intrigues me.  To me, one of the ways in which people seem to be able to recognise their diagnosis of a so-called hidden disability in others seems to be through similar movements. This theory is not bulletproof, but I would definitely argue that there are repetitive physical patterns that can be seen in the bad disabled community.

For instance, I couldn’t physically get past the first episode of Euphoria. The addiction didn’t feel real because the shame in the body was centred wrongly and there was no acknowledgement of the change in perception that addicts experience.  I also found it hard to push back against the cripping-up when student addiction is something I have come across and will continue to come across in teaching. 

I can watch the Peaky Blinders because their relationship to Complex PTSD and Addiction feels so far removed to an experience today, which probably shouldn’t really be the case.  I however like that they attempt to provide different kinds of stories surrounding these diagnoses, even if the stories are rooted in a form of masculinity that needs a buzz cut and someones shirt occasionally open, but all of this doesn’t really feel complete. 

I have thought for a while that Sherlock Holmes might be one of our most cripped-up characters in the canon.  His autism is clear, and it is also clear that some franchises have made a lot of money from almost acknowledging this.  What strikes me about Sherlock is that they also often claim that he is a narcissist or anti-social, with to me, what feels like very little genuine acknowledgement of what a diagnosis of narcissism or anti-social personality disorder is.  The stories inevitably feel like they’re using the diagnosis to make him a problem to others, without having any genuine engagement with it.  It becomes a buzzword for ‘bad’ or ‘problem’ person.

A couple of years ago a successful company were putting on a play about a bad disability group and I was interviewed for a role as an assistant director.  I had bad triggers at the time, often impacting me for 3/5 days which occurred before what I use to call ‘the hangover’ which was when I would feel drained whilst recovering from it. I was on day 2 I believe of this particular trigger, and was struggling to move smoothly.  Everything I did to an outside eye might look like someone panicking but in reality I was struggling not just with panic but with physical body pain and what felt like electric shocks.  When I spoke to the company, I had given them a large access outline because I was aware that this might be a problem, and I was aware that whilst they were working with disabilities in the play, this wasn’t always an indicator of knowledge around something like mine.

The company looked pretty disgusted with me pretty quickly, and at the end of the call I caught the director signalling no to the producer.  The problem wasn’t really just their disgust, but it was their genuine lack of engagement with the diagnoses that they were placing on stage.  This was a play that undoubtedly centred these diagnoses and within the first or second question I figured very quickly that they hadn’t even googled them.  The director took notes on the disabilities as I spoke about them and didn’t seem aware of very basic phenomena that someone with that diagnosis would experience.  When I spoke about an admin assistant and their control over the characters they seemed flustered that anyone could possibly come to hate someone who has control over another’s diagnosis and safety.  This, again, didn’t feel safe because many disabled or long-term ill people talk about the ways in which they keep themselves safe at something basic like the GP. They also looked pitying at my understanding of medical treatment which was belittling and when I asked my one question of why they wanted to put on the play, they struggled and reverted back to their belief that they should give a clear depiction of what the writer had intended.  This would have been less of a problem if I hadn’t spent time, due to the questions they asked, going into detail about how the writer had a very empathetic approach but clearly no lived experience.  They wrote over this answer with their lack of knowledge and kind of signalled that they didn’t care the writing was in effect a bit wrong. 

There are a lot of what I call bad disabilities represented on stage and on film.  I don’t know of many actors who have acknowledged their experience of a bad disability or long-term illness be able to play their own diagnosis however.  This is often given to someone else.  

It is also very common for these disabilities or long term illnesses to be left out of the conversation of cripping-up.  

When I’ve spoken to others, a small number of people with these disabilities have surprised me with their leniency at points towards others with no lived experience portraying them.  I’m not yet sure, but I did wonder if this was because cripping-up was safer.  

Richard III to me displays a clear engagement with reduced mirror empathy.  Reduced mirror empathy is found in people with anti-social personality disorders and narcissistic personality disorders.  There are arguments from this around whether the disorders are in fact neurodiversities  or whether empathy can be created.  The problem for me with the belief that empathy can be created is that these diagnoses have been created based on others perception of them.  Being able to fake mirror empathy might genuinely be a skillset that people with very little ability to feel mirror empathy have to develop to survive over time.  So data that shows changes in behaviour throughout someone’s life feels like it could be off a bit.

If Richard was notably autistic, I think to many, my points around acknowledging that there’s more than one diagnosis in the play would be very clear cut.  Cripping-up into narcissism isn’t inherently bad, because there is a tough ethical choice for a production to acknowledge that an actor has this diagnosis.  Any public acknowledgement of that diagnosis would undoubtedly impact the actors career.  However I think that to ignore it, especially within the disabled community, is to reduce those who have it.  

For a while I’ve been aware that people with diagnoses can be very different.  The Globe asked why people might be drawn to someone with narcissistic tendencies.  The answer to that is easy for me.  Mirror empathy is hard for us, and to be beside someone who doesn’t struggle with this can give us relief.  It also often helps people to break the rules of society which again can be a relief. There are many people with this kind of diagnosis who are great to be around.  There are many people with this or similar diagnoses which we colloquially connect to abusive behaviour who do not abuse, and never really have abused.  There are people who obviously do, and there is also a particularly complex middle-ground of people who share bad diagnoses but have no community, no proper information and no one to recognise or ask about it in order to understand how to increase their standard of living.  These people aren’t abusers but their behaviours are often read as problematic instead of someone misunderstanding an ability that others have. 

To me, it can be dangerous for us to misrepresent this area of long-term illness or disability because I am scared of suicide.   I am also aware of ways in which people’s lives have been curtailed by the lack of answers, appropriate structures and community.

There have been times in the theatre world where people have centred access to such a large extent that I sit there and ask where is the mess.  Often when this happens I can feel my own needs being pushed aside for an agenda for access. 

I think recently I have been wanting to discuss this need for mess; the potential long-term future need for someone who genuinely represents Richard or other characters as both physically disabled and with a narcissism diagnosis.  For the disabled community to argue so much about cripping-up for physical disabilities without acknowledging narcissism to me is to clean up some of the mess that I grew up with.  By this I mean the good mess.  The reality of the council estate and what lots of people grouped together can really look like. 

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