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Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Cherylee Houston interview: Corrie to highlight issues faced by disabled workers during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in many ways. In an upcoming storyline, Coronation Street will highlight the struggles faced by people with a disability, as well as the pressures they are under whilst working from home and shielding. Cherylee Houston chatted to us about how Izzy Armstrong starts to struggle with remote working, and how this reflects the reality for disabled people around the country.

During the pandemic, Izzy has been at home shielding, and so Underworld agreed to let her work from home. However, Carla and Sarah are increasingly frustrated by the standard of her work and the government having already announced the end of shielding, they expect Izzy to return to the factory. Cherylee said: "[Izzy]'s terrified. She has been shielding. She's been, same as us, wiping down everything that's ever come in the house, quarantining things. Slowly, over time, people started to forget about her because that's what happens. 

"It got to the point where the shielding finished, the government said: 'Go back to work', which I remember at that time going: 'But it's still out there.' How on earth can I, as a human being who's at risk, go and take those risks? It's do or die. It's horrendous."

Carla and Sarah insist that if Izzy doesn't come back to the factory, she'll lose her job. These attitudes reflect real life experiences disabled people have had to face with isolation and the ending of shielding. In upcoming scenes, we will be introduced to Izzy's neighbour, Fergus, who explains to the Underworld team that Izzy's health is a priority. 

Cherylee's partner, Toby Hadoke, has joined the cast as concerned neighbour, Fergus, so that they could film together in their own home. Cherylee has worked closely with Coronation Street to create this storyline with heart and authenticity. She said: "I think we've reflected on my covid experiences as a disabled person and isolating and shielding. I was actually in a very safe place with ITV and very well looked after, but that wasn't the same for most of my disabled peers who were in employment.

"I've been talking about it with Debbie Oates, one of the writers, and she went and talked to Iain and Verity [MacLeod] and the rest of the writing team, and they sort of started to explore, how can they tell this story in Coronation Street, because it's so important to see how we've really been forgotten about, disabled people. It was also about looking at how to make it safe, because I am shielding, how they could set that up in a safe environment. Then, they were aware Toby was an actor, were aware of his work, so it was probably Christmas that we did a self-tape."

To film inside Cherylee and Toby's home, Coronation Street sent them all the equipment ahead of time so that it could be quarantined and cleaned down, and Toby was responsible for settling up the lights and moving cameras around. Cherylee told us: "It was nice to be able to rehearse, figure things out, so we could make it as smoothly as possible. Just the luxury of being able to go: 'Oh, can we run our lines?' which you normally don't get.

"The first few bits we filmed, it was so lovely to see friends, and I did live conversations, the bits that have already been out. When we started to do our bits, we did it to the 1st AD's so it could be much better quality."

Cherylee and her assistance dog, Bernard.

This storyline is one that is very close to Cherylee's heart, and it has an extremely important message. During the pandemic, disabled people were left out of the conversation regarding keeping safe, and the statistics are staggering and at times, horrifying. 

Disabled workers told a survey carried out by YouGov how they had been treated by their employers during the pandemic. 12% said they were concerned their disability had affected their chances of a promotion in the future, and 13% said they were concerned their disability had affected how their performance would be assessed by their manager. 

"There was no information about covid, really, in terms of disability and where that impacted our lives," said Cherylee. "It's really impacted on us an awful lot. There's no BSL interpreters on the news, which is horrific if you think that's your line of communication. There were no easy read guides, so a lot of people with learning disabilities died early on. I was stunned when I was reading the statistics that 59% of people who died last year were disabled. "

As this storyline focuses on bringing attention to how disabled people have been treated during the pandemic, Cherylee hopes for change. "It makes me a bit sad because I just hope that people see our lives as much more valuable. I want them to get rid of that word which they used at the start of the pandemic: 'It's just the vulnerable and the elderly that's going to be affected by it.' I'm one of those. How dare you say I'm a 'just'? I want to get rid of that attitude of the 'just'. 

"We're not on anybody's agenda. We're 21% of society, but we're not on the agenda, so when they're designing drop kerbs, they don't think of us. When they're having a global pandemic, they don't think of us. That's abhorrent. I think the pandemic has opened people's eyes a lot, and how we can make things accessible for everybody, but I just would really wish people would start thinking about us as well as part of everybody else. 

"Our own government didn't do that. Our own government allowed 'Do Not Resuscitate' notices to be put on people with learning disabilities, purely because they had learning disabilities. If they had covid, they were allowing them to die. What the heck is that? We're 2021, that is abhorrent. I know disabled friends who went to hospital with signs on their chest saying: 'Do Not Resuscitate Me.' Imagine if that was your life."

Cherylee also helps to run a charity called Triple C which focuses on how disabled people are treated in the arts, and to create more inclusion. "We did a lot of work in disabled schools, in the community, and in the professional strands. I have a disabled nephew, and I don't want him to have the same life experiences I've had. 

"I thoroughly believe through storytelling and being in our media, our representation, if we get our disabled people in that area, that will change how we're treated in society because at the moment, it's just a lack of understanding and a fear of getting it wrong. 

"Pre-lockdown, we'd done DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community) for a couple of years, and it was about, as a disabled actor, I was always made to feel like the only one. The idea was to bring the community together."

Before lockdown, around 450 disabled artists were involved with DANC, and that figure is now around 1,150. Cherylee told us: "Over lockdown, because of exactly what these things we were talking about is how isolated we are, I think we've run at least 150 webinars, master classes. This week, we've had dance workshops, writer's drop-in, how to create a play in a day. What we're really keen to do is take the fear away. It's not a tell-off because what's gone behind us isn't any of our faults, but we can work together to make that change.

"Previously, the industry didn't know there was that many of us, and believe me, there's a lot more than 1,100 of us. I think our stories, exactly like this with Izzy, if you bring the human side to it, it's not about what our preconceptions are about disability, because we're all just human beings. It's about supporting and giving the solutions in a very creative way, and it's really exciting."

Cherylee continued: "I think over the last 12 months, our society as a whole, our attitude towards diversity and change is really shifting, and people are ready for that. Being a disabled actor for 20-odd years, I know what people feel the blocks are, as do many of my colleagues, so therefore, we bring those as a solution in a friendly way and it's really beginning to make a change already."

Sophie Williams

I'm on Twitter @sophie_writer1

All original work on Coronation Street Blog is covered by a Creative Commons License

1 comment:

Fluttershy said...

What a moving post. I'm really looking forward to this storyline and hope the writers don't wrap it up in a week as they are wont to do.


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