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Ruth Madeley exclusive: “Every disabled person has been waiting for a show like this”

Jun 30, 2021

Ruth Madeley talks exclusively to Stylist about her role in a new factual drama about a group of activists who changed the rights of disabled people in the UK forever. 

In 1995 the landmark Disability Discrimination Act was passed. For the first time it became illegal to discriminate on the grounds of disability in the workplace. The act was bought about thanks to the tireless work of disabled protestors who took to the streets to fight against injustice, and included chaining themselves to public transport.  

Activists Barbara Lisicki and her then-husband Alan Holdsworth, both disabled cabaret performers, were the driving force behind the Direct Action Network, who led the fearless campaign for disabled rights.  And the BBC will be bringing Lisicki and Holdsworth’s trailblazing story to life in a new factual drama Independence Day? How Disabled Rights Were Won (working title).

The one-off drama is written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, His Dark Materials, The Virtues) and Genevieve Barr (The Silence, The Fades). And we can exclusively reveal that portraying Barabara will be Years and Years and Don’t Take My Baby actor Ruth Madeley.

Stylist spoke to Madeley about bringing to life this vital, and life-changing, piece of history and why the fight for disabled rights is still far from over.  

Ruth Madeley at the Bafta awards

Stylist: Why is taking on story of Barbara Lisicki so important?

I’ve known about Barbara’s work for a very long time. Never in a million years did I think I’d get to play her, she’s so special. I think it’s really important that more people know about her because so many people still don’t. She blazed the trail to make sure that disability rights were taken seriously. And to make sure that disabled people have choice and rights, with everything that they do in life. I was a child when this was happening, and knowing my rights as a disabled woman are down to her is huge.

It sounds like it must be quite emotional …

I cannot stop crying every time I read this script or stop and think about it too much. I’m going to be an emotional wreck on set. It’s very real. I think every disabled person has been waiting for a show like this. So many people think that the access to things that we have now are just a given. And a lot of the things that Barbara and Alan, her partner, were protesting for are still being protested for today. The fight is definitely not over. 

Ruth Madeley in Years and Years on the BBC

And so many people won’t have heard of her…

That’s why we’re in such a privileged position in our industry, because we can tell these stories that have been hidden away for too long, and teach people about what has gone on, and why it was needed.

Have you had the opportunity to meet Barbara?

Yes! She’s a complete legend, but I’ve never been more terrified to meet anyone. She’s a powerhouse. I become really inarticulate when anyone asks me about her because I don’t think I can put into words how incredible she is – and she’s still protesting now. After spending five minutes with her, you can see why her, campaign got to where they got.

Do you get a sense of where her determination came from?

With disability, and we feel it now, everything is a fight. Absolutely everything. To get every drop of what you are entitled to as a human being is a real fight. You often find that with disabled people they have a resilience you couldn’t even imagine otherwise  

What might it have meant to you to see a drama like this growing up?

I only learned about Barbara when I was a young adult and I was eight or nine when the Disability Discrimination Act got passed. You live in this bubble, where you think: they have to put a ramp there because it’s the law. But for the first nine years of my life, I didn’t have rights as a disabled child. I had rights as a child but not as a disabled child.

I’m really passionate about disability representation on screen because it’s so far behind what it should be.I think not only would it have been incredible growing up to see a show like this with disabled actors telling disabled stories but it would also be massive learning curve. It’s a huge part of British history that a lot of people don’t know about. I’m always excited to see disabled stories told on screen because I know the 12-year-old me would have loved to have seen that. Now 12-year-olds will see it.

I remember when Jack Thorne and I first spoke about it and I said: “It’s going to be so beautiful”. And he said: “It’s not going to be beautiful it’s going to be a brick through a window.” And that is what I’m holding onto. It’s needed, it’s been too long. I can’t wait for the world to see it.  

Stay tuned for more updates on Independence Day? How Disabled Rights Were Won (w/t) when we get them. 

Images: Getty, Joanne Warren

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