Monday, 30 November 2015

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Disabled Cumbrian man's experiences are inspiration for film

A walk in the woods is something many of us take for granted. But for Kevin Pardell – and other wheelchair users – the rough, soft and muddy ground makes it a highly uncomfortable, if not impossible, experience.

Kevin Pardell photo
Kevin Pardell

Three years ago he set about writing a poem on this very subject, unaware it would spark something much bigger.

It was the first time Kevin, who has lived with disability since birth, had really opened up. He talked about the pent-up frustration he felt as a child, watching other boys climbing around in trees, unable to join in.

Over the following months his story gradually unfolded. He started to talk about his childhood years and the bullying he suffered at school, at the hands of fellow pupils and even teachers, simply because of his disability.

His experiences became the inspiration behind a powerful new film, Joseph’s Story, which he hopes will challenge society’s attitude towards disability – and prevent other people being treated the way he has been.

Joseph’s Story is based on Kevin’s own experiences, but could apply to any disabled person. He says he found it easier to open up as a third person, somehow disconnecting himself as a way of exorcising the ghosts from his past.

However this wasn’t the main goal. His real aim was to change the way people perceive those with disabilities, initially intending to create a training aid for people working in the care sector. But as the project grew, it became clear there was a much wider need for the film. Plans are now afoot to get it shown in schools across Cumbria, as well as incorporating Joseph’s Story into general equality training programmes for both businesses and other organisations.

“I hope that by watching the film, people will learn lessons and other disabled people will not have to go through what I went through.

“I’m not in this to get any awards. If it changes just one person’s life I’ve won. That’s what has motivated me,” he explains.

Kevin, 42, of Camp Road, Maryport, was born two months premature, weighing just two pounds. His chances of survival were slim and his parents were told to have him Christened right away as he may not make it.

Against the odds he pulled through, but was left with cerebral palsy – a condition which affects muscle development and movement.

As a result he has spent most of his life in a wheelchair and, at one time or another, has experienced all of the restrictions and reactions that come with it. He says the most common is being treated as stupid or useless.

In reality, Kevin is an intelligent and independent young man who just happens to be in a wheelchair. But when he meets people he says they will often speak over him, instead addressing the carer who is pushing him – the classic being to ask them, not him, if he takes sugar in his tea.

Although it may seem obvious, Kevin believes that it is not often malice that causes people to react this way, simply ignorance. “Until they know someone with a disability or have experienced it themselves, they just don’t think. That or they just don’t know what to say,” he explains.

It is this belief that has motivated him to make the film. He hopes that by using his own experiences to openly address society’s taboo, it will make people stop and think next time they meet a disabled person.

And that is, in a way, how the whole project came about.

Kevin attends Allerdale COSC (Copeland Occupational & Social Centre), a day centre for people with disabilities in Maryport, and is a member of their poetry group, Parkhill Poets. One day tutor Judy Rochester suggested they write a poem about walking in the woods, which is where it all started.

Although most of the members had at one time in their lives walked in the woods, Kevin, having been born disabled, had not.

She encouraged him to use that as inspiration, which is when his now-famous poem was born.

Not long after, the National Trust were looking for a disabled person to help them improve wheelchair access at Wordsworth House during its refurbishment. Remembering his poem, Judy put forward Kevin’s name.

From there, the poetry group was invited to Dove Cottage at Grasmere to work with a group of interns undergoing disability awareness training.

To help them understand, Kevin put some of his own life story down in words to hand out on the day.

But curator Jeff Cowton was so moved reading it that he asked Kevin to give a talk at the event.

This was a big step for him, but the reaction he got made him realise how important this could be.

“From Dove Cottage, it became apparent to me that there wasn’t really any disability awareness training from the point of view of a person with physical disabilities. With the best will in the world, the packs have usually been written by professors, not by someone who is living with it every day. We went away and thought about it and decided to change that,” explains Kevin.

With Judy’s help, he started to record some of his memories. Although many of them were happy, particularly those with his parents and sister, it soon became apparent that he had been scarred by some of the things that happened during his childhood, especially during his time at mainstream school.

One particularly painful memory, touched on in the film, is of one afternoon when he was eight or nine. His school support worker was called away to a family emergency, leaving him to fend for himself for the afternoon. A friend pushed him into the cloakroom, but at that point Kevin could not undo his own buttons. His teacher came in and told him to take his coat off and get to class. He tried to explain that he couldn’t, but she refused to listen, instead labelling him an ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ – words that have continued to haunt him since.

Kevin said reliving experiences like this were particularly difficult, but he said Judy and the staff at COSC really helped him.

When it got really difficult, he also found inner courage by thinking about Paralympic tennis star Mark Eccleston, who gave a moving and inspirational talk about his own experiences with disability to COSC members last year.

“In a way I was exorcising some ghosts. It has got a lot of it out of my system, like a weight being lifted off,” he says.

“It also helped doing it at the centre, rather than at home. I think it was too close. Saying that, I’ve had some of the staff in tears while they’ve been helping me with it.

“I definitely find it easier to talk about now, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve done it as Joseph. Maybe that has helped me detach myself. If it stops the next generation of youngsters going through some of what I did then it’s been worth it.”

Kevin’s DVD is being launched at Allerdale COSC today, when guests from different organisations are invited to view the film. Already it is building momentum, with Kevin being invited to speak alongside a university professor at a disability awareness conference later in the year.

Kevin says special thanks must go to Peter Telford, a freelance disability arts development worker from Carlisle, who made the film, COSC, Parkhill Poets, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the Wordsworth Trust.

Copies of the film, complete with educational packs and written versions of Joseph’s Story, are now available, priced £15. After production costs, any extra revenue will be donated to COSC. To get one contact Kevin via the Maryport centre on 01900 819648.


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