It started with ballet shoes. Correction, it started over ten years ago, when I found myself up a mountain, butt-naked without a wheelchair and lying in a puddle of my own pee. If I hadn’t had that somewhat surreal experience, I wouldn’t have had to recount it a decade later to Andy Farenden. And without Andy and his team, there would be no such thing as TEDxBrayfordPool. And without TEDx, my story wouldn’t have continued with ballet shoes.
“You should apply for TEDxYouthBrayfordPool.” he said. “it’ll be fun.” he said. The conversation had taken place about four months earlier when I enquired about booking myself on some TEDx workshops to boost my confidence. At no point had I intended on standing on a stage to talk to anyone about anything. It wasn’t my thing; partly because I can’t stand, but mostly because stages terrify me. I was just gonna go, learn a new skill, meet new people and go home again. For one reason or another though, the workshops didn’t happen, so Andy offered, what I thought, was the next best thing, and repeatedly reminded me to apply.
You know how there are things in life which are like a gravitational pull, and no matter how much you try, you can’t comprehend the final result, but you go along with it? Well, this was TEDx. By this point, I’d already written about ballet shoes and their significance within my battle against my wheels. I’d agreed to give a masterclass on disability, equality and diversity, in which I thought I could incorporate a heartfelt poem. So, in one half of my brain, TEDx was the next, illogical, step; in the other, the thought of sending the application off made me want to run for the hills.
Flash forward to 27th September when the email came through saying that I had been chosen to be one of the TEDxYouth Speakers. The opportunity to stand on a small segment of what’s potentially the biggest global stage, sharing perspective and spreading ideas, is one not to be taken lightly. And I was beyond excited and honoured to have been considered worthy. But also…What the hell had I let myself in for? I had only just built up the confidence to write my truth because written word can be sugar-coated a little. Speaking it, talking about it, standing on stage – not a chance was I going to make it through this process alive. What if the red dot, which all TED Speakers stand on got caught in my wheels? What if I accidentally drove off stage and catapulted into the audience? What if my spazzy arm knocked the mic and nobody could hear me? What if everyone thought my “idea” wasn’t worth spreading? What if before any of these things took place, I couldn’t even make it through the first coaching session? What if?
Coaching session one: I made it through the door. I stood up, or should I say, raised my chair up – my party trick that’s guaranteed to break the ice. I rambled about my favourite film, The Fundamentals of Caring. All in all, my fellow Speakers and the group as a whole, seemed alright. I knew I’d fit in because everyone stood out in their own unique way. The hard work hadn’t started, but maybe there was a slim chance I’d make it to the stage. Whether I was able to speak whilst I was up there was another matter.
Session two. I had my script drafted and ready to go. Had I learnt my lines? Absolutely not. Could I read my lines? Unlikely. Was I going to give it a shot? 100%. The problem with living your best disabled life is you never know what’s gonna happen. In the half-an-hour that I’d been left to my own devices, I successfully managed to drop my door remote (a little black box which lets me in and out of the house) on the floor. It was chucking it down, I didn’t have a coat, it took me half an hour to find anyone to assist and then I had to wait, in the fine British weather for the bus. Needless to say, I arrived fashionably late, resembling a drowned rat with dysfunctional legs, and with the very real possibility that my own chair might electrocute me. Anxiety-ridden and soggy, I stumbled and spluttered through a poem I knew so well, but when the nerves took hold, everything went out the window. It was incoherent, inaudible and I could’ve done better.
Session three came after a week of self-doubt and a week of wondering what I was doing with my life. By the time I got to coaching, I was emotionally done. I didn’t want to think or talk about ballet shoes anymore. When I agreed to TEDx, I’d made a commitment to give it my all because that’s what it deserves and because the perfectionist in me has a ‘go big or go home’ attitude. But two hours into the session, I was blinded by the light, I thought I might puke, and the red dot was surely going to swallow. As we sat outside in the relentless British weather, trying to numb my migraine with the cold air, Andy, for some unfathomable reason, was still of the undying belief that he’d made the right decision by throwing me into a five-week course of TEDx therapy with more than a 50/50 chance of survival. Quite how he came to that conclusion after what I deemed to be a diabolical session; I didn’t know.
Session four: When the going gets tough, wing it. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d dragged my ballet shoes around with high hopes for over a year and I’d dragged my disability around for even longer – the least I could do is put them to good use and force them to sit on stage in all their unfiltered glory. Whether every member of the prospective audience agreed with my equity verses equality argument or whether they grasped the importance of diversity, was irrelevant. The point is someone might gain something from what I had to say, or at the very best, be changed by it.
Session five was a week-long session of constant rehearsals. Every spare second I had was spent with the colour coded script, comprising of shoes, Cerebral Palsy, Stephen Hawking, Cinderella, equality, equity, Einstein, Tinkerbelle, diversity and yet more shoes. Eat, sleep, rehearse, repeat, and repeat once more. Monday night coaching was filled with Déjà vu on every level. The red dot felt weirdly like a ‘welcome home’ doormat, The Speakers and Coaches had formed a ‘no matter what happens on the night, we did this together’ bond. And not a single soul was entirely ready for showtime.
I can’t describe what last Monday was like; other than to say we’d managed to cram a few more bar, coffee shop and backstage rehearsals in, so we were as prepared as we’d ever be. At the point when my legs turned to jelly, I’d never been more grateful to not have to stand up. The fact that I didn’t impersonate an upside-down turtle on the ramp leading up to the stage was a real highlight. And when I realised I’d got through the whole 12 minutes without sitting on the knee of an unsuspecting audience member, it was a winning moment.
Joking aside. TEDxYouthBrayfordPool has taught me to breathe, feel, be vulnerable and be brilliant. It’s given me everlasting friendships with truly inspirational people and the ability to connect in a way I didn’t know was possible. It has without a shadow of a doubt, changed my life.
Now, go and keep your eyes peeled on the TEDxBrayfordPool YouTube channel for our incredible gig. Watch them all.
Photo credit: Carl Spring for TEDxBrayfordPool