Striking a pose is the perfect job for Kevin French (aka DisabledKevin). Besides life modelling, he's a dancer, one-time politician and aspiring actor.
I was first asked to model by a student at Plymouth College of Art in 2009, when I was doing a contemporary dance and theatre degree at Plymouth University. She asked me if I worked out because I had good muscle tone. I explained that it was because I have cerebral palsy (CP).
After my explanation, the student, Kasia Andrews – who does life-sized, photo-realistic portraits – asked if I’d pose nude for her. Several sittings later, the art college decided to employ me as a professional life model.
Life modelling is easy for meI found it was a job I could do as well as anyone else. Being a life model is one of very few jobs in which my disability doesn’t hinder me.
People are often curious about why I’m so comfortable being nude in front of a class. The truth is that because I’m severely disabled I rely on many different carers to attend to my personal needs, so I’m used to being naked in front of other people. Nudity is easy for me!
How I did my degreePeople may wonder how I managed to complete a BA in dance and theatre. I was the first disabled person to do this course and I didn’t want or need a carer accompanying me to university. The whole department was very concerned about how this would work, but they agreed to try it for a month.
Although some students found it hard, most students and lecturers found I could cope and eventually everyone involved embraced the challenge. They had to accept that when working with me, things would sometimes go wrong, so they had to improvise.
In class, I often worked out of my wheelchair on my knees. If I fell over, the class did not stop: someone would help me up or the lecturer would move me, much to everyone’s amusement. When rehearsals were over, the other students would help me to get my coat on and assist me into my wheelchair.
People are frightened by my disabilityThe real difficulty I have is that most people are reluctant to engage with me because of my disability. People are often shocked and intimidated by my self-confidence and physical presence and their fear of disability seems to create a barrier between us. If they could just talk to me, I could allay their understandable fears. I think they are afraid that if we make contact, I may endlessly chat to them or they might have to care for me!
Despite my appearance, I am completely in charge of my mental faculties. However, some people assume I have a mental disability and can be patronising. When this happens, I try to win them over but if I can’t I take the view that it’s their loss. I try not to worry about other people’s prejudices.
People find it hard to understand that within my body there is a highly intelligent, passionate, lustful guy.
Work-wise, I’m sure having CP has put some people off taking me on but, without exception, the people I’ve worked with have described me as professional and easy to work with.
Technology helps me communicateIf I really want to communicate with someone, I will find a way to talk to them. I’ve been online since 1989 and as technology progresses, I become more liberated and independent. On my desk there are two iPads, a laptop and a Blackberry phone, which I operate with my head pointer.
Very few people can understand my speech until they spend time with me, so I usually communicate via my iPad, on which I write using my nose or head pointer. Over the years I’ve been offered all kinds of communication aids, but I’ve turned them down because these devices are difficult to set up and they have limited vocabulary.
My early treatment for cerebral palsyDuring my early childhood I didn’t have much treatment for my disability and before the age of six I couldn’t sit up unaided. When I was eight, I had intensive treatment in the Peto technique [a form of physiotherapy that is based on the idea that the nervous system can form new neural connections even when damaged] for a couple of years. This took place at the Cheyne Walk Spastic School (yes, it was called Spastic School) in London, and involved up to four people manipulating my limbs for six hours a day, five days a week. Ultimately, this was necessary, but at the time it felt like torture.
Between the ages of nine and 12, I had weekly physiotherapy, which involved my feet being placed in splints and my legs being bound to a table, while my upper torso and arms were pulled in different directions. This may sound barbaric and indeed it was excruciating, which modern physiotherapy now acknowledges!
When I was younger, people, my father, teachers and friends discouraged me from living independently, let alone organising my own care and choosing my own life path. The people I’m close to know that if I want to do something, I will. My family and friends are supportive, but I’m not good at accepting help. I regularly talk to my brother and my mother via the internet and solve their technological problems.
Developing my independenceI couldn’t read or write until the age of 14, so I consider it a great achievement that I managed to pass CSE English before leaving school. As digital devices and the internet have developed, so has my education. Over the last 20 years I’ve spent at least five hours a day watching news and business programmes on television. My carers think I’m mad, but as I can’t do much physically, I consume data from the TV and internet.
I live a very independent life for a ‘disabled’ person. I’ve lived in my own home since 1982. Before that, I spent two years at a residential college, where, despite everyone saying it was impossible, I achieved my goal of living independently.
I can get around my flat on my knees. I need help from carers to wash, get dressed and feed myself. I can’t cook, wash up or clean my home, but I can sip drinks through a straw.
I don’t let CP hold me backI like to socialise and go out on my own every day. I’ve travelled all over the world and ran for Parliament (as an MEP for New Labour) in the 90s. Campaigning really developed my creativity, because I had to find ways to negate my disability, engage with national media and write statements in a way in which they could be interpreted. I was the first candidate to record a video message for selection meetings I couldn’t attend.
My fellow candidates were impressed by my professionalism but, much to my regret, members of local Labour parties could not accept that I would be able represent them despite having a speech problem.
I’ve worked hard to find ways to communicate with people and break down barriers. In 1982, I was one of the first people to receive an award from the Independent Living Fund. This granted me six hours of care per day. I opted to use these hours for my personal care at home and started to go out and engage with the world alone.
After a year of going out alone, I was transformed from a handicapped youth into a confident severely-disabled man who, despite having a very bad speech problem, could cope in the normal world. I loved my growing independence and freedom.
As people get to know me, most are happy to helpThe first time I managed to order a coffee in a coffee shop, in 1988, was a life-changing moment. A few days later, when I went back to the same shop, the person who’d served me before came up to me, asked if I wanted the same drink and proceeded to help me. After six or seven visits, the other staff started to serve me. Within a year, the staff had become so comfortable with me, most of them could understand my speech and one of them became my full-time carer.
Now, when I go into Costa Coffee, someone takes my money, I sit at a table, then a cooled cappuccino and straw is brought to me: that’s the only way I can drink. Finally, the person gets my head pointer and iPad out, places the iPad on the table and my head pointer on my head.
Over time, I’ve found that in all social interactions – in pubs, clubs, shops and banks – once one person has mastered serving me, other people will follow their lead. If our first encounter is straightforward and undemanding, most people are very happy to help me. I feel the best way I can educate people about severe disability is to live as I do.
Today, I rarely go out with a carer because I value my independence. However, I am still asked daily where my carer is, and sometimes other disabled people ask their carers to enquire about my carer. When I see disabled people who are not as severely disabled allowing their carer to do everything, I realise how lucky I am.
Looking to my futureMy self-belief, emotional and creative horizons are constantly expanding. I feel very lucky because I have masses of self-confidence, which allows me to do more than most people in my situation.
I’ve appeared in a television drama and would love to do more acting, dancing and life modelling. Life is for living.
Head shot of Kevin by Samuel Paul Gilmore
Photo of Kevin posing for art students by Stephen Felmingham
Three black and white photos of Kevin modelling by Julia Dando
Photo of Kevin in front of Kasia Andrews' paintings © Kevin
Find out more about Kevin and his career.
Tell your own story on the Storyboard.
Come and chat on Logarty talk.