Last week, on Thursday February 18th, I had the great honour to be invited to take part in one of the festivals held at London's Southbank Centre. As part of the Imagine Children's Festival, which ran from February 9th until the 22nd, I joined celebs, such as Cerrie Burnell and Carrie Grant, and many others to read a chapter of the classic kids book Matilda for Dahl In A Day. The readers were also joined by the cast members of the West End production to create an event that captured the wonder and magic of Roald Dahl. Alongside those on stage at the Clore Ballroom, the entire Southbank Centre became a wonderland of fantasy and imagination for kids from all over London.
As I waited for my turn, to read the heartbreaking chapter Miss Honey's Story, I paced like a caged tiger. Nervous? You bet. Many years back I was a kids TV presenter, as well as being one of the first disabled presenters on TV, but it had been decades since I last put on my working with kids head. It's a real skill to tread the balance between talking to kids in such a way that they don't feel patronized, but that doesn't go over the heads either. Especially when reading a chapter filled with parental death, child abuse and poverty. Gulp. I was also a little worried about the audience's reaction to my wheelchair when I scooted onto the stage. While I had no negative reaction way back when I was on the nations TV screens back in the 1990s, disabled CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell was the target of much panic among the parents of the UK, well if the media were correct from their headlines. I need not have worried. All I was met with was a sea of enthralled faces as I took up the baton from Violet Dahl and began reading. The thirteen pages flew past and I was soon wheeling off stage, as Carrie Grant read the next chapter.
It was such an amazing experience to watch so many children hang on my every word, as Mr Dahl's story unfolded. It was also a joy to see how children now truly see nothing special about disability. Not one child took the mickey out of the BSL interpreters as they signed out the story. Disabled and non-disabled kids sat together as one as the magic of Mathilda transported them. This is the world of tomorrow, and I was blown away to witness it. This is the result of kids seeing people like Cerrie Burnell on their TV, seeing the Paralympians excel and attending integrated schools where disability is no longer a barrier to qualifications. Just as race is a social construct to young children, so is disability. We're all different, so who cares if someone walks or uses wheels?
I hope that every parent, whether they were lucky enough to attend any of the events at the Southbank during the festival or not, remember this. Next time your child asks "What's wrong with that man?" as someone like me wheels by, don't pull them away as if they have done something wrong. Answer them in a calm manner. Tell them that some people walk but others cannot. So they use a wheelchair to get around. Same goes for whatever impairment you come in contact with. That way the inclusivity and acceptance that exuded from every young face as I read aloud will not be changed to fear. If we do this I might even get to see a truly inclusive society in my life time. Now that would be a magical thing.
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