Removing the Stigma of Disability | Adam Pearson | TEDxBrighton


Translator: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Hello, good afternoon.
My name is Adam Pearson. Some of you may recognize me from the TV – I’ve got one of those faces! (Laughter) See, did you feel that? Did you feel the awkward tension
just fill this room? For some reason,
when disability is mentioned, it turns us all into morons! Alright, case in point. I used to live here in Brighton. I studied at Brighton Uni,
just up the road in Moulsecoomb. And I was emptying my house one day. I used to live on the avenue, and the gas man came around. I was the only guy in, and I let him in. He did his job well – it was great. But the entire time, he was looking
at me really, really awkwardly. I was just standing there thinking, “Either he’s worked out I’m disabled … (Laughter) or … I’m getting laid.” (Laughter) (Applause) Either way, Monday’s just got brilliant! And as he’s leaving, he turns to me, and just casual as you like says,
“My friend Paul has a disfigurement. Do you know him?” (Laughter) “Well, no. However, my friend Bill
is a bit of a twat. Do you … (Laughter) know him?” (Applause) And that got me thinking,
“Why does this happen? Why when there are 10 million
disabled people in the UK?” Like, FYI, we outnumber dogs
by 1.8 million, and we all know how to handle a dog. Why is it like that? And it’s because it’s almost invisible. When you look at things
like the mainstream media, you very rarely see it. And as children, when we look for heroes,
when we look for role models, we look for people we identify with, people from either similar backgrounds
or the same interests that do what we want to do or excel at. The title, the name on the marquee,
TEDxBrighton, “We Can Be Heroes” – that’s got a real (Grunts)
to it, doesn’t it? As a business badge for me,
this is like perfect marketing. I imagine maybe ambience, the feeling in the room
would have been a lot less so had they called it –
had they kind of half asked at the brainstorm meeting. Toby had a rough night out,
comes in and goes, “We can be average. I don’t know.” And it’s also much harder to sell it
to the speakers as well. I imagine I’d be a lot less excited
had the call come in, “Hi, is that Adam Pearson?”
“Yeah.” “The Adam Pearson?”
“Yeah.” “Um, hi. My name’s Toby Moore. I’m calling from TEDxBrighton.”
“OK.” “We’re having an event
called ‘We Can Be Average.’ And we thought you’d be perfect … (Laughter) to talk at this” – (Click) And so, when I got
into TV, this still narked me. Whenever you see disability
or disfigurement on TV, as I said, over 10 million people
with disabilities in the UK, 5 million 40 thousand of which are people who have
some kind of facial disfigurement, which is ballpark average. Over 1 in every 144 people …
where are they? And you hear the word “hero.” I don’t know who your heroes are. Some people will jump
to the great athletes of our time: 1966, World Cup Final. 1974, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali – the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Some of you might be looking forward,
like I am, to UFC 205. Come on, McGregor. Eddie Alvarez – puf! Some of you may think
of the great humanitarians of our time: Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Bob Geldof – if that’s your kind of thing. (Laughter) But for me, as someone with a disability, I didn’t have that. And that left me confused
as to where I could fit in, in general, and it also made me want to become
a broadcaster or a journalist – incredibly unlikely. I’ve always been a campaigning type. I campaign for several charities. All my work in TV has been
a very fortunate byproduct of being very, very good at that. And a lot of the documentaries I make look at the world of disability,
but through a very different lens. Disability in documentaries, historically,
has not been done well. If you look at Channel 5, they have these ridiculously,
sensationally-named programs, and it starts off
with this heinous voice-over: “Jimmy was born … ” And then Coldplay’s “Fix You”
starts playing in the bloody background. ” … with a shark for an arm.” And then the parents sit
and go, “It was hydrogen!” No, that’s not how we want
to be portrayed on television. And it dawned on me, from walking around the hallowed halls
of BBC Television Centre – long may it rest in peace – that a lot of the decisions
about disability were being made by what were mainly
white middle-aged middle-class men who weren’t disabled. And I started asking
the right questions to the right people and eventually caught the attention
of the head of TV, Danny Cohen, who, when my contract ended at the BBC – I originally worked in diversity
and commissioning – I then got into the more
production side of things. And BBC Three ran this season,
about two years ago now, called “Defying the Label.” They wanted to put out
a whole season of programs, looking at disability
from different angles. And in order to get
a very good steer on it, they had this crazy focus group. And one of my friends who I’d worked with
in my time who was organizing it, she called me and said,
“Hey, we’re on this focus group. Are you into it?” I’m like, “I don’t like focus groups. We’ll have to go around the room,
say our name and a fact about ourselves, and no one will listen
to what we’re saying. It’s all [wait a month or two].” “Okay, fair enough.” And then I heard nothing about it. On the day of this focus group,
she called me in tears saying, “Everyone’s quit.
I need you in that room.” “Fine. Number one: you owe me dinner. Number two: if at any point I have to say
my name and a fact about myself … I’m gone, gone!” (Laughter) And so I’m in this room. I’m far away from the door,
which, in retrospect, was a mistake. And I’m sitting next
to my now commissioner Elliot Reed. And the lady started a session and lo and behold,
name and fact about ourselves. And this girl stood up and said,
“Hi. My name’s Ellen.” And we all had to go, “Hi, Ellen.” (Laughter) Then she said, “My interesting fact
is I have ten different disabilities.” And I said, in what was
a very quiet voice, “Alright, shut up. It’s not
a fucking competition!” (Laughter) And then Elliot next to me
burst out laughing. I’m trying to be really subtle about this,
but we both look like idiots. Anyway … And yeah, he approached me and one of the independent
TV companies I worked with to make a program
looking at disability hate crime, which is quite a loaded issue. Within law, there are five
protected groups under hate crime legislation – them being based upon race, religion, sexuality, disability,
and gender identity. And I wanted to really highlight
the massive disparities in the law under
the Criminal Justice Acts, section 163. If a crime is committed
that’s motivated by race or religion, there is a kind of two-year uplift
that can be put in place. Whereas the exact same crime committed against someone
with a disability, the uplift is only six months. And there are all these really interesting
discrepancies that exist when you have a disability. And I don’t want to stand here
and sound like I’m moaning or that I’m not grateful
for the provisions for disabled people that exist in the UK. As far as the rest of the world goes,
we have it pretty good over here, all 10 million of us. Dare I say we have it better
than the 8.2 million dogs that are in the UK. And then after that went out
that did rather well. In between that, I got to do the earlier-mentioned film
with Scarlett Johansson, which is good work
if you can get it, I suppose. (Laughter) I didn’t tell my parents
what had happened in the film. I thought I’d let that be a nice surprise. (Laughter) Going to the cinema expecting
a jolly old romp through Scotland, and then they see
their son’s … on the screen. How are you doing? Then, after that film came out, I took a bit of a break and did
what my mom calls a “proper job.” And then I got this random
Facebook message from Los Angeles. You know when you get an email, read it,
and it just jars you slightly? It was like, “Hello, Adam.
My name is Todd Ray” – fair enough. “We saw you in ‘Under the Skin’
and we thought you were great.” I was great, wasn’t I! (Laughter) “I own and operate the Venice Beach
Freakshow in California.” Aah! That’s what this is! I wrote back – I’m a polite guy
and all the jazz. “Dear Todd. Thank you for your email,
glad you liked the film. Unfortunately, I have no real skills. Here is my mother’s email. She will verify, I have no actual skills
that could benefit your establishment.” “Um, keep in touch, Adam.” And then I told my boss about this
in the pub one night after work, and he just looked at me
and went, “Would you do it?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” And then we ended up making
a whole documentary about freak shows. So, what started off as this really
drunken conversation in a pub turned into this three-week
whirlwind tour of America and Mexico, visiting various freak shows, which is not something
that you’ve previously seen on TV. With everything, it’s all about taking
what is quite a foreign subject – disability – and doing it in a different way
that’s engaging with the public. The worst thing that we can do
in TV with disability is just make it all medical. When you just start putting
a more human spin on disability, whether that is taking people
out to concerts or just doing the right thing,
just saying, “Hello” – that’s all it is. And people may be sitting here thinking,
“That’s all well and great for me, but what can we do?” And I think we all have it
in us to be heroes, we all have it in us to tell great stories
and make a real impact in our lives. There are three simple questions
I believe we can ask ourselves to enable us to make a great difference, not only in our lives
but in those of the people around us. Number one: What do we like? Number two: What are we good at? It’s at this point I normally stop
and have to clarify that if what you and I
are good at aren’t legal, then please find other things. So often I say that to young people
who come up afterwards and go, “I can do that?” I’m like, “No, that’s not what I meant. Put the porn away
and think of a different idea … (Laughter) … and then come back to me.” But number three: What pisses you off? Quite often, if we can find
what our misery is, we can find what our “ministry” is. I came walking around the, as I said,
hallowed halls of BBC TVC, saw what I didn’t like about our industry, saw how badly we’re handling disability and decided to be
that irritating voice of reason that was part of making the change. And we are now … six years have gone, six years from when I first started in TV, and we’re making very good strides. Channel 4 and the Paralympics
have done wonders – Alex, Adam, and Josh
on The Last Leg – amazing! And that’s really helped
to normalize disability. So, I would encourage all of you – find what difference
you want to make in this world. Decide what you want to be
and go and be it. No excuses, full throttle. I’ve been Adam Pearson.
Thank you for your time. (Applause)


  1. personally I don't think anyone really care about your disability you look perfectly normal to me just like every other jackass

  2. I am legally blind, so do not have long sight. I have watched most of the TED videos of disability, and everyone sounds unbelievably experienced with disability and smart. It is only when I get close to the screen that I realized all of the speakers actually are disabled. Based on this experience o my own, I conclude: the only difference between disabled and ale body is what your eyes feedback.

  3. I think what impresses me the most about Adam is his confidence. Personally I’m twenty years old and I have Aspergers Syndrome, which is something I’m still incredibly insecure about. To see someone else be so open and even joke about his disability (which, frankly, is probably a much more difficult disability to have then mine) is incredibly encouraging to me. And btw he was amazing in Under the Skin.


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