01 March 2009

'My cerebral palsy is just another arbitrary feature, like eye colour'

Comedian and Extras actress Francesca Martinez refuses to be defined or limited by the mild cerebral palsy that left her 'wobbly'

Last December, I guested on the topical news Radio 4 show Broadcasting House. One of the stories up for debate was David Cameron's Christmas card, which featured a photo of his family, including his young son Ivan, who had cerebral palsy. There was talk of the Tory leader using Ivan as a political tool to make him seem more caring and sympathetic.

I felt compelled to point out that Ivan was his son and therefore should be in a family photo. I imagined that had Mr Cameron left Ivan out of this family scene, he would have been chastised for keeping him invisible. He couldn't win. I thought the only fair question was whether any of his children should have appeared and if it was right of him to place them in the media spotlight. As usual, someone's disability had made them an issue first and a human being second.

That's the huge secret about disability – anyone with experience of it knows that a disabled person is just a person they love. A disability is like hair colour, eye colour, height or weight, just another arbitrary feature that those around you cease to focus on and which, ultimately, becomes normality.

I was born with mild cerebral palsy: according to my mother, if I was like a newborn foal. I like to think that this charming comparison is because of their wobbly legs and slim frame. I like to call myself… wobbly. I admit that the doctor did not use that word as he informed my parents of my condition when I was a somewhat floppy two-year-old in my mother's arms, but I can't stand those depressing terms that someone deemed appropriate to burden a human being with for the rest of their lives.

No wonder people are still so nervous about disability, and I can only conclude that names for them are hand-picked from a tombola of words most likely to induce fear and panic. Just stick your hand in and pull one out. Syndrome. Disorder. Cerebral. Palsy. Disease. Spina. Bifida. The rest is easy. Take two words, mix them together, apply to one human being and, hey presto, you've got a ready-made freak. Labels are powerful tools that shape attitudes and tell us much about how the things they are describing are viewed. I have spent my life trying to extricate myself from the label that was plastered all over me at birth.

My parents were young when I wobbled into their world, and full of love for their first child. After hospital negligence during my birth, I did not breathe for seven minutes, resulting in starvation of oxygen to the brain. After I was resuscitated, my mum said that the only sign that "something was up" was the repeated reflex tests that were done on me before I left.

When, aged two, I was finally diagnosed, my parents did not seem fazed by the revelation. Sometimes I've asked them if they were shocked or upset at my diagnosis, but all they say is: "You were Francesca and completely normal to us." This attitude shaped my childhood and allowed me to be happy and confident, totally unaware of difference.

At school, I was popular and naughty, a real tomboy who had her first boyfriend aged five. My brother came along and, to him, I really am normal, and when his friends asked him why his big sister "talked funny", he'd reply with a puzzled: "What do you mean?"

At secondary school I lost all my confidence and, for the first time, became aware of my difference. Getting a main part in the TV show Grange Hill was a dream come true. Yet, despite five happy years on it, I hit 18 feeling isolated and insecure.
Thankfully, my father Alex, who is a playwright and novelist, wrote a film script for me, as I was being offered so few acting parts. I loved it, except for the fact he'd made my character a stand-up comedian, the most terrifying job in the world. I dragged myself to a comedy workshop in the name of research and, 18 months later, was on stage at the Edinburgh Festival winning an award for best new comic.
That moment was 10 years ago. Stand-up comedy has changed my life. Standing on stage and being honest about who I am allowed me to embrace my so-called imperfections and, amazingly, allowed the audience to get past any initial fears or nerves and see me as a person. Humour is a great way to challenge attitudes on difference and normality.

Being a wobbly comedian has meant I've had extra press and attention, but I've also come up against fear and prejudice. In 2002, the Perrier judges were told not to come and see my Edinburgh show because I was just a "novelty act", a BBC TV stand-up show would not book me because they thought I would make the audience "nervous",and I wasn't allowed on a BBC radio show because of my "funny" voice! Luckily I've been supported by other comedians such as Frank Skinner and Ricky Gervais, who have either given me parts or had me on their shows.

The media does not represent society truthfully and keeps "difference" largely invisible, and this means it is not seen as a normal part of life. Anyone can become disabled - the fact is, we will always be people first, with things we can and can't do second. I think everyone in life has their own "disability" - something that challenges them - whether it is visible or not.
Francesca Martinez is performing in aid of War On Want on March 5, 2009, at Shepherds Bush Empire, www.waronwant.org/comedygig

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