Latest

Toy Like Me: a statement

18% of the UK population are deaf or disabled, and this figure is on the rise due to people living longer. Every man, woman, and child is likely to see disability on the street every day. If toys are to educate about the world around us today, shouldn’t their manufacturers acknowledge deaf and disabled children too?

Take my daughter Isobel. She is seven and one of the cheeriest little girls I know. (Don’t take my word for it: her school says the same.)

Despite being a happy-go-lucky princess who loves sign-singing, dancing, sparkly shoes and tutus, Isobel has shown little to no interest in conventional High Street toys. She has never embraced her only doll, a Bratz figure given to her as a Christmas present. Indeed, she has pushed it away with such regularity and force that her younger, non-disabled, brother has quit trying to get her to play with it.

Of course, Isobel isn’t your average little girl. As someone living with cerebral palsy and restricted mobility, she is much happier relating to other disabled children (who, incidentally, are a regular feature on her favourite television show, Cbeebies’ Something Special). With its cartoonish, defiantly non-disabled shape, that Bratz doll is the last thing she wants to aspire to.

Before anyone opines that it is a matter of taste, I can categorically state that it is not. In April last year, I plonked a giant teddy bear in her buggy with its legs in splints that she’d outgrown. Upon seeing it, my six-year-old daughter was moved, and gave me a massive hug. (This is significant. Isobel has no speech and signs very little, and had never shown such emotion before.) A lollipop-stick Kay-walker that I made just like hers, to go with a Moxie doll, triggered a similar reaction.

img_4294
An early #toylikeme prototype, and Isobel aged six
Those experiments were among the earliest prototypes created for Toy Like Me, the campaign for better representation of disability in mainstream toys. 

Started by a group of parents who were either themselves deaf and/or disabled, had disabled children of their own – or both – it initially worked by customising toys representing disability in a fun way, and sharing the photos on a designated Facebook page and Twitter with the hashtag #toylikeme.

Together we kept busy calling upon the biggest UK and global toy manufacturers – Mega Bloks, Mattel, LEGO, Playmobil, Fisher-Price and Little Tikes to name a few – to remedy their current ranges by adding positive representation of disability to the toy shop shelves. Rather than making it our business to produce the toys regularly, we wanted them to make it theirs.

Of course, we were aware of toys representing disability already on the market. However before Toy Like Me, you had to do the legwork, or go via medical companies like Cochlear, who supply dummy CI processors for your child to attach to their teddy.

Otherwise, the disabled toy figure you were most likely to see on the High Street either occupied a sterile medical setting, or was nearing the end of their lives. This is surely a major disincentive for assuring a Deaf or disabled child of their place in mainstream society.

Where were the wheelchair-using pirates, the disfigured princesses, the fairies in arm-splints, the deaf cheerleaders, the blind Action Men that would boost the body confidence of Isobel and 150 million other children like her worldwide?

Where were the toys that would give them something to play out their own, real-life, experiences through?

The customised Moxie doll
They would assert to the world that not only do deaf and disabled children have aspirations of their own – but are just as fun to play with as non-disabled children. They would provide an excellent opportunity for non-disabled children to learn the value of living alongside their disabled peers as an irrefutable part of humanity, rather than an abomination. Their novelty value would come from the fact that a child is not born with an attitude, but learns it through the influence of others: specifically, adults.

I am honoured to have been one of Toy Like Me’s founders, working with deafblind journalist Rebecca Atkinson (who I must credit the initial concept to) and play consultant Karen Newell – whose son is registered blind – to raise awareness of the issue worldwide. As its social media manager, I’m proud to have fuelled its exponential growth with the first celebrity retweet – by the disfigured model and disability rights campaigner Katie Piper – in just three days following the official launch, quickly followed by comedian Rory Bremner and CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell.

Two of our first celebrity endorsements. April, 2015
I have never had a project snowball quite like Toy Like Me. The Facebook page alone went from 200 ‘likes’ in 10 days to over 24,000 in four months, with endorsements from not just the aforesaid celebrities but also Glynis Barber, Eastenders actor Rita Simons’ husband Trey, actor Josette Simon, amputee model Kelly Knox (winner of Britain’s Missing Top Model), author Julia Donaldson, comedy writer and actor Stephen Merchant, and many, many more.

Parents from scores of countries including Britain, Israel, Turkey, Singapore, America, France, Italy, and Japan have shared pictures of their own customised toys with the hashtag #toylikeme on Facebook and Twitter. Some have even started their own businesses online. Our first Change.org petition, which addressed Playmobil, quickly amassed over 50,000 signatures and resulted in the multinational giant agreeing to consult us on a new range of disabled toys.

Media from across the world took notice (and still are, as I type). As co-founder I particpated in TV interviews with BBC’s See Hear – where I got to meet the world’s first ever set of disabled dolls (created by Makies), including one with a facial disfigurement named after me, in honour of that first, meteoric, celebrity retweet – and the American TV network station CBS (clip here). 

Me, meeting the world’s first set of disabled dolls, made by Makies. See Hear TV interview, summer 2015
Due to heavy parent-caring responsibilities, I had to step down earlier this year. The decision was not taken lightly and I am grateful to both Rebecca Atkinson and Karen Newell for their support.

Toy Like Me is one of the most singular and greatest successes I have ever contributed to. I couldn’t have wished for a better, or more novel, project to be part of. That a major website has been launched since my leaving – offering a one-stop resource for buying disabled toys online – is exciting news indeed and I, and I’m sure Isobel would, wish my hitherto collaborators, supporters, and everyone else involved in the campaign, every success in advancing the future of toys.

www.toylikeme.org

Advertisements

Guest blog for Leslie Tate

Last March, fellow writer Leslie Tate invited me to write a guest post for his blog about growing up Deaf and becoming a writer and artist. 

The resulting post was well-received, and can be viewed here – Melissa’s Story: a Deaf Identity Reclaimed

Re-taking off Outside: review of David Bowie’s Outside tour first-night performance, Wembley Stadium, 14th November 1995 

 

Note: This review, originally an assignment set by my MA tutor at Central Saint Martins School of Art in 1995, helped me land a Pass with Distinction, and is still considered my best work from that time. Today, in tribute to David Bowie – who died yesterday morning (10th January 2016) – I share it, unabridged, for your reading pleasure.

Having read the reviews of the American leg of his Outside tour, I expected David Bowie to be clad in blazing Rock Star silver. So his selected outfit for Wednesday’s concert at Wembley Arena – his first in Britain for five years – was a surprise. The former Thin White Duke emerged dressed in an artfully stained, crumpled top and trousers that matched the drapes of the masked dummies hanging on the ceiling, and did not change once.

The antithesis of Bowie’s impeccable dress sense, the subdued choice turned out to be deliberate. In it Bowie was able to slide into various character roles as each new song came on – a fiercely sensual Minotaur, a pensive ‘art-crime’ detective, a contemptuous Andy Warhol – with the ease of a mime artist, concentrating his portrayals to the upper part of his body. By the concert’s end, I was left reeling from a virtual resurrection of the old chameleon resplendent in Technicolor.

Support act Morrissey, who preceded him, displayed characteristic ardour in sampling his new album, Southpaw Grammar, lunging repeatedly at an illusory opponent to the strains of Dagenham Dave and narcissistically stroking a bare, fleshy chest to cheers from a half-full Arena.

However, not even an impromptu kiss of the hand from a kneeling fan could raise the temperature like Morrissey’s professed hero could. As soon as the backing band opened the concert proper with the soulful Motel, the whole crowd stood up like a thousand rows of luxurious glam-rock eyelashes opening in anticipation.

Curiously restrained after Morrissey’s foppish excesses though he seemed, Bowie moved with more panache. He struck precise triangular poses with one foot stretched back, the microphone stand leaning inwards to meet his refined profile.

To some unearthly notes, he mimed – beautifully – a bird cruising in slow motion. As Andy Warhol, he stood with his back to the audience, every now and then repeating a haughty half-turn with hand on chin, and then twitched and shook under a flashing solarium light before letting out a silent scream.

A highly developed and futuristic concept places Outside in 1999, centring round an ‘art-crime’ detective, Nathan Adler, and his investigation into the murder of 14-year-old Baby Grace Blue. Gruesome as certain details sound – apparently the victim’s “stomach was carefully flapped open and the intentines removed, disentangle and re-knitted…into a small web” – the story does give Bowie’s band a far more definite idea of how Outside should be played.

In preparation for the recording of Outside, Bowie’s long-time collaborator, Brian Eno, is said to have handed out cards instructing stuff like: “You are about the encounter such a scene of utter destruction that can happen to any human body that you view it as a thing of beauty” to individual band members.

Pretentious? Perhaps. Then again, who else would risk artistic integrity for the sake of such stirring avant-garde music? Satirical? Probably. Could you honestly take seriously Adler’s reflection on Baby Grace’s death that “it was murder…but was it art?”?

Art, design and media is increasingly resorting to apocalyptic means as we near the end of the 20th century – be it a McQueen frock, a Tarantino film or a Hirst shark. Outside is meant to be a satire of our times, a means of illustrating Bowie’s concern about where all this is heading.

Outside re-embraces Bowie’s androgynous chameleon-like persona. The new album is strongly reminiscent of Diamond Dogs, his stylishly apocalyptic 1974 offering, and indeed, the stage is framed with hanging cinema signs announcing ‘Open the Dog’ in French and English. Other old favourites – among them Andy Warhol, which originally appeared on 1972’s Hunky Dory album – Under Pressure and the immortal Man Who Sold the World were also played out to souped-up tunes.

Watching a deliciously hallucinatory recital of The Man Who… I even imagined for a minute that I was viewing a Space Oddity. “Oh no, not me/I never lost control/You’re face to face/With the man who sold the world,” the familiar transatlantic voice warbled, as an awesome sequence of solarium lights flashed, swooped and swerved in Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like chorus.

One main difference materialises between Bowie then and Bowie now. He is make-up free except for the dark eyeshadow encircling those freakish eyes. The physique, once skeletal, is compact and hints at musculature. He might be playing different characters, but instead of dressing up as them he leaves their physical appearances in his computer. Baby Grace, Detective Adler and the Minotaur appear in the accompanying tour catalogue and on the album sleeve, their faces morphed from visages of people who fit the archetype and Bowie’s own.

Since Scary Monsters in 1980, Outside marks Bowie’s return to his aesthetic best. (Hugely popular though it was, Let’s Dance in 1983 ultimately compromised Bowie’s creativity, consequently becoming the beginning of a new low: Bowie fell out of tune with Mars and risked turning into just another coke’d out rock dinosaur struggling to recapture his lost youth. The singer has said that the Let’s Dance era was one he would rather forget.) He evidently relishes performing, and the result is an exhilarating piece of theatre.

All of Bowie’s collaborations with Eno have met with cultish acclaim before, particularly Low and Heroes, both of which cemented Bowie’s status as a far-reaching avant-garde rock musician. If plans go accordingly and Outside becomes the prelude to a trilogy, prepare for your senses to be sent reeling once again to another planet.

(c) Melissa Mostyn 1995

Blog: Deaf survivors and domestic abuse

Originally published on the Women’s Aid website on 7th December 2015. Part of their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign. Blog link here

At the national Women’s Aid conference this year, I was amazed to find I was the only Deaf survivor there. Despite a full house, there was no evidence of British Sign Language (BSL) users in attendance. I asked who in the room supported Deaf survivors – and shockingly, was met with silence.

Deaf women are twice as likely as their hearing peers to suffer domestic abuse. Around 22 Deaf women are at risk of abuse every day. Ironically, a key role in this is played by BSL, their preferred language – as every word and expression could be a potential trigger.

The history of BSL is itself laden with centuries of oppression of Deaf people. That it has survived, and continues to evolve as a living language (and has only now acquired formal legislation in Scotland) is testimony to the resolve of Deaf people themselves. After all, it’s their main form of communication – so they will bloody well use it, whatever the circumstances.

One in six of us are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and only around a third of us are part of a Deaf Community. Two-thirds of deaf or hard-of-hearing people don’t hang out with other deaf or hard-of-hearing people – they might wear hearing aids and lip read but they don’t sign, and they may prefer to integrate with hearing people. Many of those people become deaf through old age and are often isolated from other deaf people.

Moreover, if your perpetrator is active within the Deaf Community, they’ll know how to exploit your communication skills. This inhibits you from reaching out to even your closest Deaf friends – never mind your family (many of whom lack signing skills).

But the experience of domestic abuse for Deaf women is the same as hearing women. We are seduced by our perpetrator’s apparent sincerity, their psychological control – grooming us for abuse. By the time the violence turns physical, we’re emotionally and mentally paralysed, unable to articulate ourselves properly to those close to us.

Your trust, self-esteem and well-being thus broken, your signing breaks up too. You daren’t explain the smallest detail of your abuse to anyone, for fear word reaches your perpetrator (gossip spreads fast in the Deaf Community). With so many eyes on you, clear-headed objectivity feels impossible.

You cannot hide your emotions behind sign language quite like you can with the written word. Deaf people are well-known for bluntness, which doesn’t sit well with a democracy where justice must prevail, and people are innocent until proven guilty.

How best to address this issue? I was lucky enough to be able to access DeafHope, the UK’s first anti-domestic abuse service for Deaf survivors – but sadly, few will be in their London catchment area. The only advice I could give that day at the Women’s Aid conference was placing BSL clips on their websites (see example).

To that, I’d add Deaf awareness training and a few BSL classes. The more we can work together on the issue, the more chances will improve of Deaf survivors ‘speaking out’ like I did.

NHS Safeguarding: Hidden Voices Conference, 27th October 2015

image

The picture above shows over 350 hearing medical professionals standing to give a hand wave in solidarity for the Deaf survivor who gave a raw and painful account of her domestic abuse experiences, in BSL, for 45 minutes.

That survivor was me. NHS Safeguarding’s invitation in October 2015 came courtesy of Women’s Aid, at whose annual conference I had also appeared the previous summer. It was not a public conference, but one attended by senior NHS medical professionals, which made for an ideal ‘safe space’.

It was also oversubscribed: tickets sold out within three weeks of release in July, and there were another 280 on the waiting list.

image

Presenting as a keynote speaker at such a prestigious event was a honour. I was especially touched that NHS Safeguarding made purple – the colour I wore when I ‘came out’ as a survivor during #deafpurplethursday (more info here) – their signature colour, even getting delegates to wear something purple. The theme – Hidden Voices – was established after direct consultation with me.

It is by far the most important presentation I have ever had to make.

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING selected for Aesthetica

LEWYHIC 2015 poster image copy
LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING has had the best news so far since its release.

It is one of two Zoom/Zoom Focus films selected for Aesthetica, a mainstream short film festival taking place over four days this November in York. The other documentary also selected is THE BIG DECISIONS, a 15′ documentary short by John Finn that explores the repercussions of a decision he and his wife, both of whom are themselves deaf, made to give their deaf child a cochlear implant.

What makes this news so exciting is that as a result of this, we have won our first festival laurels, which will improve our chances of selection for future festivals (see the logo incorporated into our brand-new poster image above).

Not only that, but Aesthetica has an additional prestige, as Maverick Litchfield-Kelly, Zoom series producer, explains:

‘Aesthetica is a mainstream international film festival, and being in the official selection means that both films will be eligible to be submitted for the BAFTA Awards in 2016. Only a select number of festivals worldwide are BAFTA-qualifying, so this is a massive achievement for films in BSL.’

Congratulations to everyone involved in both films. See BSL Zone’s report with Melissa explaining more in a clip here.

Women’s Aid Annual Conference, 1st July 2015

Waiting for the Women’s Aid conference panel to start, July 2015

On 1st July 2015, I made my first appearance at a conference specifically aimed at survivors of domestic abuse.

For its latest conference, the national anti-domestic abuse organisation Women’s Aid invited me to join a panel chaired by its CEO Polly Neate that focused on minority perspectives. I was the first ever Deaf survivor to speak out about my experience as an example of the particular issues affecting the Deaf Community. My presentation lasted all of seven minutes – yet it made the biggest impact, due to the specialist subject-matter.

Twice as many Deaf women are at risk of gender violence as hearing women every day, yet still lack access to suitable anti-domestic abuse services due to both language and communication barriers and a persistent lack of funding. The situation is likely to get worse thanks to deepening cuts made by the government, which also impact on women’s refuges and mainstream anti-domestic abuse services.

2015 CINEDEAF Awards

Cinedeaf photo
Me at CINEDEAF Festival, the day before the Awards

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING was unexpectedly nominated for Best Documentary in the 2015 CINEDEAF Awards in Rome on Sunday 7th June, where the film had its Italian premiere and I was invited on stage for a brief presentation in International Sign.

It was also the documentary’s first screening abroad. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved, particularly Neath Films, the interviewees and the children who also featured.

Upon my return I gave a brief account of my visit to Rome on the BSL Zone here. I don’t mind repeating that I felt welcome and loved my stay there.

Click here to watch the nominated film

First draft play script uploaded

My first ever piece of playwriting has been uploaded to Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB website, albeit as an early draft.

How’s Your Garden? is the story of a survivor set in the suffragette era. A ten-minute short involving three characters, the play takes place over one night at a rich dowager’s townhouse, and explores themes of personal freedom, love, and votes for women with a sprinkling of euphemistic fun amidst doses of opium and the heady scent of a summer garden.

Click here to read the draft script. 

Crash and Burn panel discussion, WOW Festival, Friday 6th March 2015

Being on the Crash and Burn discussion panel last Friday was a cathartic event for me. ‘Coming out’ about my grief, and especially the role it played in my life – marriage breakdown, family estrangement, mental health, self-worth, parenting abilities – and how I turned it around (an affair, divorce, counselling, my blog and film) was certainly the most personal thing I’d ever done with a live audience. I have no regrets. 

Because it was so ‘no holds barred’, I was able to assert myself properly as a proud Deaf woman who accepted disability as a part of life, but also had room to accept that there would always be people who could never address grief in the way I had, for all sorts of reasons.

My six-minute summary went down very well. The Purcell Room, where the discussion took place, was fairly well-attended and I got enthusiastic applause when I finished, with about a third of the audience giving a BSL handwave. 

There were five on the panel, including myself and the legendary Rosie Boycott, who was chair. She and two of the other women had their own personal catastrophes to share: alcoholism/homelessness (Boycott), bipolar disorder (Hannah Parkinson), human trafficking/prostitution/rape arising from an early life in extreme poverty (Marieme Jamme) – with the fourth, Polly Harrar, founder of the SHARAN Project, acting in an objective capacity offering information and advice. 

They were all brilliant and I loved how diverse they were. Last, but not least, the Love Language team – Naomi, Vicky, Karen (who voiced me most of the time) and Nicky – all did a fantastic job of ensuring adequate BSL/spoken English interpretation for all. 

See the highlights video for more.