My high school was a pioneer in integrating children with disabilities into mainstream education. I was one of about a dozen disabled kids out of a school population of 1,000, and as a result we attracted quite a lot of media attention. Unsurprisingly, I was often the person shoved in front of a camera, which, of course, I didn’t mind one little bit.
Other events in my childhood also attracted media coverage, such as receiving a new powered wheelchair paid for via the telethon ‘Children in need’. This resulted in my family and I being the subject of a video insert during the live money-raising show and a subsequent appearance by me on the BBC’s Six O'Clock news.
Looking back, most of this media was either presenting disabled people as charity cases or what might now be called ’inspiration porn
’. Two things I’d rally against today. Either way, it undoubtedly helped my confidence and fed a growing appetite for understanding how the media operated.
Then there were a number of chat shows, one of which I distinctly remember because it was the first time I’d experienced how to spin a story and, at the age of around 16, I was the one doing the spinning.
The production team behind audience participation chat show 'Kilroy’ had decided to do a special called 'Kids on Kilroy’ (if I recall correctly). The topic was what it’s like being a kid with a disability and societal attitudes towards disability.
I was was tasked with being one of the main contributors, rather than simply being an audience member, after the show’s researchers had deemed I could be relied on to keep the conversation moving.
And relied on I was. But not to my liking. The recorded-as-live show soon descended into an hour-long inspiration porn-fest and I was the fall guy, never allowed to finish my point if it clashed with the show’s agenda, but called upon by the show’s presenter every time the conversation slowed. I became pretty pissed off but had little recourse.
Or so I thought.
A few days later a journalist at the local paper called me up with the aim of doing a feel-good story about local school kids appearing on a national TV show. You know the kind of thing.
“Let me give you a much better story,” I said, spotting my opportunity. “Oh?” replied the hack, who by now was listening intensely.
When the story was finally published the following week the headline read: 'Disabled pupil slams TV programme’.
I’ve never looked back.
The takeaway: Don’t always give a journalist the angle they ask for if you know you have something they (and you) will like even more.