Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lessons from England

My nine to five job is with Access Living, a disability rights and service organization in Chicago. I work on the third floor of Access Living's building. On the wall just outside the elevator banks of the third floor hangs a picture of Mat Fraser holding a cinder block and giving the camera a menacing look. In the four years since Access Living's new building has been open, probably about 10 people, both staff and visitors, have mistook the photo of Fraser either for me, or for a person of short stature.

As a result of Mat's disability, he has shorter arms, which I am guessing is why people may mistake his image in this particular photo for a little person. Though Mat is not a dwarf, I think he sets a good example for the implementation of media work that I would like to do.

Mat is an actor, musician and performer from England. Much of his work is connected to disability. On April 8, Matt gave a presentation at Access Living called Code of the Freaks. The presentation was about his work as an artist with a disability, and the differences between how he presents his work to the media, and how the media portrays his work.

Almost anyone who works in media will attest to the notion that there is often a disconnect between how stories are pitched to media and how the media presents the stories. Sometimes the disconnect is because unclear messages or incomplete messages were given to the media. Then, by no fault of the media, the story doesn't turn out the way subject hoped it might. Other times, similar to what I wrote about on April 10, the media has a preconceived idea of what the story should look like before it is written or produced.

In his presentation on April 8, Mat talked about the frustration with the media he experienced earlier in his career. He'd be in a city to perform at a local theater. As part of his publicity efforts, he'd conduct interviews with local radio stations and papers. Mat agreed to the interviews because he wanted to more people to come to his show. At the interviews, he'd want to talk about the show. But, according to Fraser, the media wouldn't want to talk about the show (if his shows are like Thalidomide-The Musical - photo below right - why they wouldn't want to talk about it I don't know). The reporters would ask about his life growing up as a person with a disability. They'd ask if it was difficult, hoping to get a dramatic story about a young man who overcame great obstacles to achieve his dream as a performer. Inevitably, the media stories never appeared as Mat hoped they would. They didn't give information about his show. They gave information about his disability.

Similar circumstances impact many stories about people of short stature. So many stories I've read include some type of cliched or punned headline like, "little person shows big heart," or "little person overcomes big odds." Headlines like this really throw the read off the original intent of the story.

Fraser went on to say how he dealt with this problem he was having the media. He began to implement guidelines. If he participated in an interview to promote a show, he refused to talk about anything but the show. If a reporter asked about his childhood with a disability, Mat would say, "I'd rather talk about the show." He said he has made some media folk upset over the years, but he has been able to assert more control over how he and his shows are presented.

I was glad to attend Fraser's presentation. In person, unlike his photo on the third floor of Access Living, there is no mistaking him for a dwarf. But I certainly could learn something from him.

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