‘Lost Voice Guy’ – A Disability Watershed Moment?

‘Lost Voice Guy’ wins Britain’s Got Talent

On Saturday 2nd June 2018, Lee Ridley, who performs as the comedian ‘Lost Voice Guy’, won the 2018 series of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.  His win was remarkable for a number of reasons, including that he is the first comedian to do so, but also because he has Cerebral Palsy, a group of lifelong conditions developing early in life that affect movement and co-ordination; a result of which left Lee Ridley unable to speak and using a machine called a Lightwriter to speak for him.  Here is ‘Lost Voice Guy’ in action:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2YJYVYYhfI

The runner-up in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent, Robert White, who is also a comedian, identifies as having Asperger Syndrome (a neurodiversity that is part of Autism).  Both performers made light of their own disabilities or additional needs during their acts, referencing their conditions and people’s reaction to them as part of their comedy routine.

The audience ratings for the final were the highest since 2015, with an average of 8.7 million viewers tuning in to watch the show.

Is the fact that the winner and runner-up of this popular TV show both have disabilities or additional needs significant?  Is this a game changer for disability in the media?

What’s the background?

It is still rare to see positive portrayals of disabled people on television, particularly on talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent.  Looking back through the TV archives, it is more common to see disabled people being used as the butt of jokes or hate speech in ways that would be considered completely unacceptable if they were being picked on for their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

In the 1990’s, ‘Little Britain’, which starred current Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams, also featured Matt Lucas as a disabled character who was secretly able-bodied; attempting to suggest that some disabled people fake their conditions in order to claim welfare benefits.  It was a hugely popular show of is time and is regularly re-run.

The Channel 4 TV comedy show ‘The Last Leg’, currently in its 13th series, features characters played by disabled people, who use their disabilities to comic effect.

‘Lost Voice Guy’ describes himself on his website as follows: Lost Voice Guy’s real name is Lee Ridley.  That’s me!  I am a writer, journalist, comedian and geek who is based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.  I also have Cerebral Palsy.  I have no speech (I use a small machine called a Lightwriter to speak) and I walk with a limp.  Don’t worry though, you can’t catch it from me.  It just means that you better not get stuck behind me on the stairs if there’s a fire.”

He continues by outlining his varied career to date, his academic qualifications (Masters and undergraduate degrees in journalism), his wide range of hobbies etc.  You can see his website here:  http://lostvoiceguy.com

Other disabled people regularly seen on television include Frank Gardner, who is a journalist and the BBC’s Security Correspondent.  Gardner was disabled in 2004 when shot six times by terrorists; his friend and cameraman was killed. He is regularly seen providing specialist security commentary on BBC news programmes.

Former CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born missing the lower section of her right arm and hand, left the channel last year after eight years during which she was regularly subjected to hurtful comments by parents who said that her disability scared their children.  One man said that he would stop his daughter from watching the BBC children’s channel because Burnell would give his child nightmares.

Parents even called the broadcaster to complain after Burnell, with Alex Winters, took over the channel’s popular Do and Discover slot and The Bedtime Hour programme, to complain about her disability.

More recently, Lucy Martin, who was also born without her right forearm and hand, became the first visibly disabled BBC weather presenter.  Her experience has been more positive, as while she has also had some unpleasant comments, the feedback generally has been overwhelmingly supportive.

The increase in media channels and self-broadcast channels such as YouTube has also led to many more disabled people using these to reach an audience, allowing them to showcase themselves in the way they want to, rather than how a broadcaster might portray them.

What are the issues?

If programmes such as ‘Little Britain’ made fun of people because they were black, or female, or transgender, then the backlash would be enormous.  It is rightly regarded as off-limits on mainstream prime time television to belittle people due to their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. however this doesn’t seem to apply in the same way to disability.  Disabled people are routinely ridiculed, abused and attacked, with little or no protection seemingly provided.

Question:  Is there is a ‘pecking order’ for equality?  If you had to rank e.g. race, age, religion/beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. how would it look, and why?

Question:  Do you feel that strong advocacy from campaign groups such as Stonewall, as well as social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, might have influenced this?  How?

It has been suggested that the success of ‘Lost Voice Guy’ shows a shifting of public opinion regarding disabled people.  Excellent attendance figures for the Paralympic Games as well as the Invictus Games have shown that there is an appetite for disabled sport, and so it is possible that these changing attitudes could be extending into other areas of life such as television and the wider media.

Question:  Does the recent success of ‘Lost Voice Guy’/Lee Ridley and Robert White change things for the better by raising awareness?  Or were the public watching and voting for them in some modern day parody of the ‘Freak Shows’ of the Victorian era?

Question:  Does seeing more disabled people on television, especially successful people and not just ‘victims’, make it less likely that the kind of cruel comments Cerrie Burnell was subjected to will be repeated?  Why?

With one-in-five of the population of the UK having some kind of additional need or disability, including over 11 million described as disabled under the Equalities Act 2010, disability isn’t a rarity that is hardly ever seen.  Everyone knows people with disabilities, many of us have disabilities ourselves.  There seems, however, to be a disconnect between what we see and experience in the ‘real world’ and what we see on the carefully curated environment of television.  It is unlikely that a disabled person is going to be selected as a contestant for ‘Love Island’ anytime soon for example.

Seeing disabled contestants on Britain’s Got Talent could be seen as a positive move, but we won’t have fully succeeded in normalising disability until every role is available to anyone.  When we have a disabled Dr. Who, a disabled Sherlock, a disabled host of Britain’s Got Talent or Top Gear, and a disabled presenter of Blue Planet III then we might be getting somewhere.

Question:  Is this goal achievable?  Are there any roles on television, for example, that you could never see being available to disabled people?  Why?

What does the Bible say?
Let’s look at two Bible stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, that shine a light on how our attitudes towards, and our relationships with, disabled people might be different to the cultural norms we see on television:

Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4)
We first encounter Mephibosheth as a young boy of five.  We read that the same day he learned that his father and grandfather were dead, an accident resulted in him having a physical disability in his feet; “Jonathan son of Saul had a son who was lame in both feet.  He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel.  His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became disabled.  His name was Mephibosheth.”

In 2 Samuel 9, David enquires if there are any surviving family members of his friend Jonathan.  He is informed that there is one, Mephibosheth, “…one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive.  He is lame in both feet.”  David seemingly ignores Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant and invites him back into the royal court, to a place of honour, in memory of his friendship with his father, Jonathan.  Mephibosheth thereafter ate at the King’s table regularly.  He was welcomed because he was wanted, not because of any influence he had, not because he was disabled (or not), but because of who he was.

Question:  How does the way that David welcomed Mephibosheth into his royal court challenge the way that we think about people with disabilities?  Are they wanted?  Do we give them a place of honour?  Do we see the person first, instead of the disability?

Jesus’ encounters and teaching (Luke 9:11, Luke 5:17-26, Luke 6:9)
So often, as we read of Jesus’ encounters with people with additional needs or disabilities, we could wrongly assume that their sole motive for meeting Jesus is to be healed.  But it is worth remembering that many of them had heard Jesus’ teaching first, had been drawn to Jesus by what he said as much as by what he did.

Look in Luke 9:11, Jesus had just sent out the 12 disciples to announce God’s kingdom and to heal the sick.  They had returned and with Jesus had gone on to Bethsaida… “But the crowds learned about it and followed Jesus.  He welcomed them and spoke to them about God’s kingdom.  He also healed those who needed to be healed.”   He welcomed them, all of them, and spoke to them about God’s kingdom, he taught them, and he also healed those who needed it.  The teaching came before the healing.

Think about some of the most well-known stories of Jesus healing… the man lowered through the roof by his friends for example.  It is always assumed that the man’s friends brought him to Jesus for healing, and this is entirely likely, but as we read the Gospel account it doesn’t actually say that…  It just says they brought him to Jesus, and unable to get in through the door they lowered him through the roof.  It’s just as likely that they were there for teaching too, including their disabled friend.  Jesus himself responded to the man by recognising his faith and the faith of his friends first, “Son, your sins are forgiven”, before then going on to heal him only to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins.  The teaching came before the healing.

So, what these stories teach us is that everyone is equal when it comes to Jesus; he came for all, to share the Good News with all, for everyone to respond to him.  When children, young people, or adults with additional needs or disabilities come to our churches, our primary focus should be, as it was for Jesus, to welcome them and share the Gospel message with them.  To see the person first, and the additional needs or disability second.  That doesn’t mean that we ignore their needs, of course not… but what Jesus was trying to teach the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law 2,000 years ago, and us today, is that every person matters…  He wanted them, and us, to see the person first…

And then having made sure they (and us) had seen the person, he asked this question, Should we do good?  Or should we do evil?  Should we save life?  Or should we destroy it?” Luke 6:9.

Question:  What does that mean for us today?  I think it could be about ensuring that everyone, everyone, is welcomed and gets to hear the Gospel message; gets to have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ teaching.  If we follow Jesus’ example and welcome everyone into our churches, see the person first, and enable them to belong, to take part, to access the teaching and to learn and respond, to be able to teach others in turn, we are doing good, we are saving life.  What do you think?

How can we introduce this to our group?

  1. Invite the group to recollect this year’s Britain’s Got Talent series, and the contributions of ‘Lost Voice Guy’ and Robert White.  What did they enjoy about it?  What did they find funny, and why?
  2. What other disabled people or characters can they think of from television?  When they think of them, what views do they have?  Are these positive or negative?  Why?  Discuss the people mentioned in the ‘What’s the Background’ section above.
  3. Discuss the ‘Issues’ section above, asking the group the questions posed.  What do they think of these issues?  Are there other issues they can think of?
  4. Introduce the Bible perspective, looking at the story of Mephibosheth as well as the people Jesus met and his approach to them.  How do these stories make them feel?  Ask the questions posed in this section, what is their response?
  5. Pray that our attitudes would be like those of Jesus, who saw the person first, their need for salvation as paramount, and any disability as important but secondary.  Pray that we will work with disabled people in our church to help everyone to belong, participate and serve.  Pray that the church will become a beacon for society at large, including television, about equality for all disabled people.

Other links:

Lost Voice Guy’s website:  http://lostvoiceguy.com

Britain’s Got Talent YouTube channel:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUtZaxDF3hD5VK4xRYFBePQ

Useful BBC article:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-44354287

Information about Cerebral Palsy:  http://www.cerebralpalsy.org.uk

The Additional Needs Blogfather’s blog site (bible/theology section):  https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com/category/bible-theology/

Mark Arnold
Additional Needs Ministry Director
Urban Saints

Image: ‘Lost Voice Guy’ with the host of ITV’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, Declan (Dec) Donnelly, at the moment that he is announced as the 2018 series winner. © Independent Television

Most Bible passages used in this blog post:  Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. ® Used by permission.  All rights reserved worldwide.

2 thoughts on “‘Lost Voice Guy’ – A Disability Watershed Moment?

  1. Ah, I had no idea that this happened to Cerrie Burnell! How dreadful! It beggars belief that these parents have been so cruel and I guess from their reactions, that they have passed this prejudice onto their children. I loved the fact that she so happily presented the show and my daughter was not fazed by it in the slightest because I wasn’t. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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