by Leanna Benjamin
Thanks to a grant from Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, I have been delighted to be able to commission two essays by disabled writers based in Leeds. This first one is by the brilliant Leanna Benjamin. She shows how difficult this year has been on disabled people, drawing on her personal experience. Yet despite this, she has had successes and is able to see positives. She also reminds us how important creativity is in our lives. – GC
When the global pandemic finally hit the UK in March 2020, for the first time in my life I felt expendable. A virus was wrecking havoc on the world and nobody was coming to protect me. The stark reality I was facing kept hitting me with waves of pain. I started to form an action plan, identifying people who might be able to help. As the enormity of the situation started to reveal itself, my support network dwindled.
I live by myself supported by a mix care package of carers and PAs [personal assistants]. My parents live 100 miles away in Leicestershire. My mum had to choose whether to stay at home with her husband who’s in his eighties therefore at a higher risk or stay with her disabled daughter in Leeds. A choice no mother should have to make.
I remember saying goodbye to my mum on the day Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be going in to the first lockdown. We were both head to toe in PPE and as her apron rustled in protest we cried not knowing if we would see each other again.
Armed with the cleaning products, vitamins and non-perishable food my parents had provided, I was ready to keep this virus at bay. I wrote my own Covid 19 protocols for my care team and did my best to get a supply of PPE. Getting hold of gloves was a particular challenge, thankfully my friends helped to source them for me. I knew that my body’s compromised immune system would struggle to fight against this deadly virus, so I had to do everything to make sure it didn’t get pass my threshold.
I should tell you that I, like a lot of people, started 2020 excited, declaring it to be my year. I had been accepted on the BBC Writersroom Northern Voices program and I was beyond excited. My writing journey was taking a giant leap forward and I was thrilled to see a glimpse of success on my horizon. The euphoria of being accepted was quickly overshadowed by the realisation that I had a huge learning curve to climb. I remember the first day I met the amazing northern voices writers at the media city in Manchester. I was giddy because I was certain that I was in the right place.
Then Covid 19 hit and writing no longer seemed like a priority. I faced some really big challenges and at first, I did all I could to meet my basic needs. As the barriers kept being piled on to me, my desire to fight dwindled very quickly.
I reached out to my neighbours via my PA who delivered my notes. The low tech approach was used because many of the residents on my road are elderly and either don’t use technology or require assistance to use it. The endless calls to social services and various organisations distracted me from the necessary house arrest I was in.
I was also supporting people with M.E. to cope with the emotional rollercoaster that we were facing. The increased number of deaths not due to Covid or M.E. but due to the psychological trauma the pandemic was having on the M.E. community, was heart-breaking. My mental health was deteriorating quickly so I reluctantly stepped away from social media.
My script editor at the time was offering creative coaching and it was one of the many lifelines that helped me to find my ‘new normal.’ I also enjoyed finding ways of making food stretch and when it was difficult getting hold of bread, I even jumped on board of the sourdough bandwagon.
Crafting has always been helpful to me so it’s not surprising that I turned to it, when I was struggling the most. A friend introduced me to diamond painting, which essentially is making pictures using flat backed beads. It soothed my fragile nerves as well as creating beautiful gifts for my friends.
Northern Voices continued thanks to the power of Zoom. We were treated to invaluable workshops with key industry people and I did my best to attend all of them even though I was struggling to write. At the point when I was going to give up, I received an email from the Graeae Theatre about an exciting opportunity to write a duologue for their Crips Without Constraints showcase. I honestly don’t know why I asked to take part as I had very little desire to write. It’s a decision I will never regret. I wrote a piece called The Gift that I am extremely proud of. The semi auto biographical nature of this piece made it difficult to write but it also allowed me to voice my feelings about the pandemic in an emotive way.
The Gift was written specially for a Zoom audience however I would love to see this short play on stage. Nothing compares to being in a theatre, listening to an audience react to the actors saying the words you have written. The socially distanced, sterile nature of online theatre can’t compete with live theatre.
Online theatre has grown out of necessity as theatres were forced to close. Emerging writers like myself are being offered exciting opportunities to showcase their work in a way that wasn’t available before. As a direct result of this crisis the industry has become more accessible and is reaching a more diverse audience. I have watched more plays in the last year than I have in the last five years. As a wheelchair user I have experienced many obstacles when attempting to see a play as not all venues are accessible. I hope that online theatre isn’t reduced to a short term fix but is appreciated as separate art form.
When the global pandemic hit, it highlighted the inequality that exists within our society, as well as forcing communities to work together to improve the quality of people’s lives. The focus initially was on protecting our physical health but importance of maintaining our mental health and the vital role the Arts plays in our daily lives, is slowly being recognised.
On a personal note, I have discovered that there are many blessings in this storm. Despite not being able to leave my home for the best part of a year, I have found that my safe space is on blank page. I can express myself free from judgement and I can use my writing to highlight issues that are important to me in a creative way. The quote in this exhibition that struck a chord with me is that ‘No-one is you and that is your power.’ I had no idea one of the worst years of my life would teach me that being creative isn’t something that I do but it is who I am.
You can see more of Leanna’s work online.
Her play, The Gift, praised by audiences and critics alike, is part of Graeae’s project, Crips Without Constraints part 2.
There’s an interview with Leanna on the Graeae website too.