Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Britain's Nicky Clark becomes accidental activist battling disability hate crime

from The Guardian in the UK:

Nicky Clark (pictured) came to activism by chance, and discovered a knack for it. Had life turned out differently she might have been an actor, rather than a carer and an articulate disability rights campaigner: "It's been very organic, but I suppose I have always been someone who got cross," she says.

Clark's campaigning, powered by Twitter (@mrsnickyclark) and blogging, has included carers' rights, the invisibility of physically disabled actors, and the toxicity of disability hate speech. The last thrust her into the limelight last year, when she publicly took to task the comedian Ricky Gervais about his use of the word "mong" – with spectacular consequences.

Her experience of the brutal reality of everyday abuse came as her two daughters grew up. Lizzy, now 17, and an actor, has Asperger's; Emily, 14, has autism with learning disability and epilepsy. Strangers would come up to them in the street and vent their fury at Clark's "inconvenient" offspring, or her "lack" of parenting skills. People behind them in the supermarket queue would say: "That child needs a good slap," she recalls. Others would simply stare, point, or jeer.

"Hate crime always begins with hate speech," says Clark. The systematic bullying, ignorance and institutional neglect that, for example, led Fiona Pilkington to kill herself and her disabled daughter, began because that behaviour was "normalised", she believes, by the casual acceptance of disablist abuse.

When Gervais started to use the word "mong" on Twitter last year Clark, whose daughters had in the past been on the receiving end of the term, argued passionately that it was abusive (as a reference to Down's syndrome). Gervais argued that in its modern accepted usage it simply meant "idiot".

The debate went viral on Twitter and was picked up in the press. Clark got abusive tweets from hundreds of Gervais's 400,000 twitter followers. "I got bombarded for 10 days by people who thought I was Mary Whitehouse," she says. But she prevailed.

Gervais called Clark to apologise, and agreed to a Twitter interview with Clark in which he explained why he had changed his mind. "He was genuinely apologetic. He talked to me for an hour, he talked to Lizzy. His whole attitude was, 'I'm not going to use that word any more.'"

Clark then took on the writer Caitlin Moran, who used the word "retard" in her autobiography. Moran promptly apologised and had it deleted from the book's next print run. "It's not the language people use, it's how they respond to being asked not to use it. That's the real test of someone's humanity," says Clark.

The welfare reform bill is also in Clark's sights. She expects that her daughters will lose their disability living allowance. "We are lucky, my husband is working. But if it happened when he was unemployed for two years we would have lost the house."

Her latest project is a series of short films for the Guardian in which she interviews celebrities who are either disabled or carers: DJ Jo Whiley, actor Warwick Davis, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker, and former paralympian Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson. "Warwick and Tanni had amazing parents who said to their children, 'Get out there and do anything.' That's our job as carers," says Clark.

"Don't wrap your children in cotton wool: raise them right and let them go."