Presenter and Comedian
Welcome back to the Power List’s Hall of Fame! We loved the mayoral medal they gave you on The Last Leg last year for being named number one. What have you been up to since we last spoke?
Thank you! The medal was good fun. To be honest, Sink or Swim has taken over my life all summer. It’s been a huge job and I’ve had the biggest public reaction I’ve ever had to something I’ve done on television. I’ve never had so many messages from people before about any show I’ve done in one hit. It’s been an amazing.
You’ve been made an Honourary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University in recognition of your personal commitment and dedication to redefining the presence of disability. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
It was quite surreal because I wasn’t expecting anything like that and it’s such a huge accolade from the university. It’s the highest honour you can get as an alumni. When I got the letter through I was so proud, it was a massive deal for me. The ceremony I attended to collect it was the one where student journalists got their degrees and where I’d been sat 13 years ago. I had to do a speech and hadn’t really planned it, wish I’d said a bit more to them now about enjoying their day and their time together. My uni friends and I all have kids and jobs now so it’s hard to get together, you take it for granted when you’re there. The chancellor Lord Levison from the Levison enquiry was at the ceremony and it was incredible to be there talking to him and he knew who I was! It really was wonderful being back. I love Liverpool as a city, it gave me so much.
Tell us what Sink or Swim has been like.
On the last episode, when we ended up swimming The English Channel, there was really good weather when we went out and we got nearly 20 miles across. Then a storm came in and the whole thing had to be abandoned. After all the training that was devastating for all of us. But the legacy of that show is just phenomenal. I thought I’d just do my best, I never thought I’d be strong enough to swim The Channel no matter how much training I had. The show proved me wrong and to be completely honest, it’s redefined how I view my disability. I had less faith in myself than the coaches had, especially the head coach. I’ve never known anyone have such belief in my ability. He taught me that I underestimate myself and have done pretty much all my adult life. There was a clip that went viral from the first show where we did a swim in Lake Windemere. I got very upset, I was crying in the water saying I can’t do it. People had never seen me on television before like that. My disability has never beaten me, but it was beating me then. I struggled, but I carried on and I got there in the end because something in my head said I don’t want to quit. After I while I ended up being one of the stronger swimmers. I never believed I’d be able to achieve that. As a disabled person, people often assume you can’t do things and I don’t particularly get offended by that, it’s just from a lack of knowledge. With the swimming, I think I assumed I couldn’t do it. I have more belief in myself now. I realised how much I’d underestimated myself. There were so many messages from people who saw the show. I had a lovely message from a lady who said her son had seen the show and it had given him the confidence to go and ride his bike. To have made that much of a difference to people is huge. I just thought I was struggling to swim, going home thinking I was crap and actually it had this huge impact. Alongside Last Leg it’s the biggest thing I’ve done in my career so far. I’m still absolutely devastated that we didn’t finish it, more than I thought, but I’m so proud of the show.
You often take on big physical challenges – the Luge, and now Sink or Swim – is that purely for the love of sports, or do you also find something important in showing what physical things disabled people can do?
I wanted to prove that your first impression of someone may not always be true. I wanted to show you shouldn’t underestimate people, but actually, I’ve ended up teaching that to myself.
My mum was going out of her mind, she was so worried about the Luge and I had to text her as soon as I finished my swims even when I was just training. She’s said ‘no more big physical challenges now please’. To be honest, I didn’t set out to do them, but at the same time when the opportunity has come along, I like to challenge myself. It’s also shown me the benefit of support and aids. Before I’d been a bit like ‘no, I don’t need any help thanks’, but in the past 12 months I’ve embraced it. Without the fin, I’d never have swum the channel, and at the Power List event last year I was chatting with Rob from Active Hands who do gripping aids which I now use in the gym. That one chance meeting has completely changed how I workout. The aids have enabled me to do so much more. My view of what I’m physically capable of with or without aids has changed so much. I don’t know what’s next, but I have got a bit of a taste for it. Sorry, Mum.
You’ve seen the Power List now as a member of the judging panel in 2015, as a winner, and now the hall of fame. What do you think the importance is of initiatives like this?
It’s an amazing accolade. There are so many incredible disabled people out there doing inspirational work in a variety of industries. So much of that goes unseen and what I love about the Power List is it highlights this and shows how hugely deserving people are. There was a time in my life when I was in the GB development rifle shooting team in 2010 when being around disabled people actually made me feel quite self-conscious and very disabled myself. Now it’s so far the opposite, I embrace it. I’m very passionate about the Power List and it gives me the chance to meet all these amazing people.
Lack of visibility means also lack of people to look up to – who would you say are some of your disabled icons/disabled people you admire?
Alex Zanardi the Italian paracyclist made a huge impact on me at the last Paralympics. He lost both his legs in a motor racing crash and has really pushed himself to reach the top of his sport as a cyclist. He’s gone back to motorsport as well. His attitude toward disability is almost like a gift. And I’ve got to say Adam Hills as well. Hills was the first person I met with a leg like mine and who I had an open conversation with and that had a big impact on me, too.
The Last Leg has done a huge amount of work in normalising disability in media, but there’s obviously a long way to go before representation is anywhere near where it should be in mainstream media. What do you think are the biggest changes which need to happen in media?
You’ve just got to get more of us on screen. It’s not tokenism because there are so many talented disabled actors and comedians out there. We had Rosie Jones on the Last Leg. People like her deserve more screen time because they’re hugely talented. Soaps and comedies need more disabled people in roles where it’s not all about their disability because we live normal lives too. We still have relationships, nights out and holidays. You don’t get a lot of that in programs. But the more you get, the more normalising it is.
And what do you think are the biggest changes which need to happen generally in the world to increase inclusion?
Make places more accessible. It breaks my heart that there are still stories every week about trains without support or disabled toilets that are used as storerooms or not open. These are absolute basics. Paralympian Sophie Christiansen tweeted the other day because she got left on the train when no guard was there as expected and she relied on the general public to help her get off at her stop. We regard ourselves in the UK as forward-thinking in how we approach disability, and in many ways we are, but there is still such a long way to go. Disabled people need to feel confident we’ll have the same opportunities as anyone else.
If you had one bit of advice for a young disabled person today, what would it be? Or what’s the bit of advice you wish you’d had when you were a kid?
Don’t underestimate yourself. That’s something I’ve learnt for myself, to believe in yourself and your worth more. It’s easy to doubt yourself in any walk of life, but when you’re disabled it can be all-consuming. Just because someone says you can’t do something doesn’t mean it’s true. My parents told me that, but I didn’t listen to it. So my advice to my younger self would be to listen to what those people who are supportive are telling you.
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