This week, YellowDog has been playing ball at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield.
And what will I remember forever? The arrival of a superhero into the Crucible Theatre on my very first night there: Tourettes hero!
Tourettes Hero was co-founded by Jess Thom.
18 months ago, after a blisteringly shallow night filled with consumption of beer, Sambuca, and gin, I found myself curled up on a sofa on a Sunday morning beneath a blanket, watching Russell Howard’s Good News. This particular episode stays with me to this day.
It was Russell interviewing Jess Thom.
So here I was, wrapped up in a blanket, expecting to watch this woman called Jess talk to Russell about how difficult her life was living with Tourette syndrome whilst also shouting some random words and clicking her teeth and getting a few laughs. Rolling onto my side to reach out for a half-eaten chocolate bar, I heard Russell tee up his first question, laced with his usual endearing clumsiness and embarrassment.
At this moment, Jess did something extraordinary – she became full of life, passion, comedy, purpose; the audience laughed, Russell became virtually obsolete in his own show and absolutely no one in the room was in any doubt – Jess was incredible.
I suddenly felt very sober and ashamed of myself. I put my chocolate bar down and sat up– I’ve never enjoyed an episode of ‘Good News’ so much and I never will.
So, here, sat in the Keynote, seeing Jess wheel herself on to the stage to speak in front of hundreds of people at the CMC in the famous Crucible Theatre, I knew that she was going to be brilliant.
She didn’t disappoint.
Somewhere close to the start of her talk, she tells the audience:
‘You’re going to hear the words ‘biscuit’ and ‘hedgehog’ quite a lot over the next twenty minutes. And if I say something funny, you’re absolutely allowed to laugh. Biscuit’
[Audience continues to laugh]
Jess is a real life superhero; she breaks all the rules of gravitas: she flails her arms and shouts ridiculous things like ‘biscuit cat-flap’ in the middle of a touching memory layered with personal experience; she is entirely distracted by herself and yet her audience are entirely glued to her every word.
Jess’s point to her audience was simple: as creators of children’s media, we all have a responsibility to educate our children about what the world is actually like. What it is like for people like her, that endure a different world to people like me, who endure a different world to people like you.
Her message resonated – children’s media is well ahead of the game in this, but what more can be done to enable the disabled. The challenge is set.
But there was more, as if to contextualise the very speech she had just made.
On came the wonderful Lemn Sissay and he started to speak and move us all to a different tune – a new message and a new creative mandate.
[Stage left, Jess shouts in audience] ‘Biscuit’…’Cats’….’Hedgehog’.
Lemn continued his semi-autobiographical tale splintered with bits of poetry and we all listened. And Jess continued shouting tics and we all giggled.
Lemn moved to a serious point about how society fails to look after young people in care. Why does it fail, when fostered or adopted children are all around us and throughout our upbringing: in our literature, our media, our religion. He went on, ‘Think about it, Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, Jesus…’
Jess’ brain was triggered by the word ‘Jesus’;
[Stage left, Jess shouts in audience] ‘Little Donkey’
And Lemn paused and looked at her and pointed.
‘Yes! Little donkey too’ he grinned as if suddenly thrown off course by a wonderful hilarity slap across the face; the audience roared with claps.
And here is the shame of where we are: had we not known who Jess was or known anything about Tourette’s or been inspired by her, her random interjections from the audience would probably have been very annoying. I suspect, at the very least, someone would have whispered: ‘Ssshh….be quiet’, and with that, her wondrous gifts would have been disabled by people’s ignorance all around her.
A disability is only a disability if society disables the person who owns it. When we find ways to understand, empathise, and embrace ‘disabilities’, they stop stopping people from being who they can be.
In Jess’s own words: we can change society for the better ‘one tic at a time’.