Interview: Robert Softley on disability and his Fringe show
Robert Softley

Robert Softley didn’t set out to make a point in his Fringe show, but as Mark Fisher find out it seems events have conspired to help him do so

Robert Softley

[Robert Softley at Castle Terrace. Picture: TSPL]

Robert Softley was in a buoyant mood. It was back in June and he and his civil partner, Nathan Gale, had triumphed in the Scottish Charity Awards in Glasgow. Their work on equal marriage in conjunction with the Equality Network had won Campaign of the Year. They were ready to celebrate.

As they had done many times before, they headed to a popular club for a drink. Unfortunately, a doorman had different ideas. According to Softley, he was told he couldn’t go into the club with his wheelchair because there were no disabled facilities. Despite their protests that turning someone away on the grounds of disability was a violation of the Equality Act, the manager agreed with the doorman.

Softley was undeterred. He simply got out of his chair and crawled up the steps into the club, demonstrating to the staff that he could get by without a wheelchair ramp. “It’s only four steps, it’s not the Taj Mahal,” he laughs.

When Gale, who is also disabled, tried to go after him, he was stopped by a bouncer and ejected. Their evening ended 20 minutes later when two police vans showed up and they were persuaded to leave. The owners of the club later claimed Softley and Gale had been refused entry because of their “disorderly and antisocial ­conduct”.

Having made an official complaint, the two men are now pursuing legal action. They know it’s a hassle to take matters further, but claim there’s a principle at stake. “On one level, it’s just going to a pub,” says Softley. “But on another level it might be someone’s only chance to meet friends or a partner.”

When I heard this story, I was particularly struck by Softley’s method of entry. For those of us able to use our legs, the act of crawling has negative associations. It reminds us of infancy, powerlessness and subservience. To stand on two legs, like the corrupt pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, symbolises maturity, superiority and authority. For Softley to choose to enter a public space in this way seemed like the ultimate humiliation.

But he doesn’t see it that way. The actor and playwright, who has cerebral palsy, says crawling is nothing special. When he’s at home, it’s how he gets about. That’s why in his current one-man show, created before that night at the club, he makes his entrance under his own steam and crawls on to the stage.

“Crawling is a very interesting thing – in both circumstances,” he says. “For me, I crawl because I can’t walk. It’s that simple. I get out of bed and crawl to the kitchen. As humans, we react to that quite viscerally. There’s something animalistic and infantile about crawling and we can’t quite handle that. A lot of the headlines about the incident were about ‘Robert crawled up the steps – oh my God!’ But actually, why is it such a big deal?”

Revived for the Fringe as part of the Made in Scotland programme, If These Spasms Could Speak is a lighthearted attempt to make people think differently about disability. Two years ago, Softley starred in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Girl X, a large-scale show, complete with a 16-strong chorus, about the ethics of playing God with disabled people’s lives. After that, the actor was ready to try something more intimate. “I wanted this to be quite friendly,” he says. “I’ve collected stories that people would find surprising, interesting, funny and sad.”

He didn’t write the show as a comedy, but was pleased his early audiences last year at Glasgow’s Arches did find it funny. Quick to laugh, he was inspired by a hot date that went embarrassingly wrong. “It happened when I was away on holiday in Crete. My partner had just got a first in his degree, so we were having a couple of glasses of Champagne and it was all going wonderfully. We had just been put at the table and my hand spasmed and the whole table went flying. He was wearing white linen and it was all over him. He was covered in Champagne. Nobody else could have stories like that: things happen to disabled people that don’t really happen to other people.”

Although much of the play is autobiographical, it also draws on other people’s experiences of disability. Softley is not the self-pitying type and didn’t want to raise issues that were just about him. “I wanted to collect these stories and just present them and say, ‘Here’s a different way of being in the world.’ There’s not any deep message about how clever or important we are. They’re just different experiences that inform who we are and how we see the world around us.”

Softley’s run-in with the club bouncer isn’t the only time he’s been in the news of late. When, a year ago, the Scottish Parliament announced plans to legalise same-sex marriage, he and Gale were put in front of the cameras as an example of a couple in a civil partnership. What was refreshing was that, because the story was about homosexuality, the news reports accepted their disability at face value and made no reference to it.

“It came about because Nathan works for the Equality Network, so when the press called up and said, ‘Could we get a couple who are vaguely articulate?,’ they went, ‘OK, there you go.’ It’s funny, because they didn’t ever tell the press that we were disabled, so they would turn up and go, ‘Oh … OK, right,’ and then just carry on. And none of them mentioned it at all. To me, it’s a very powerful message: it’s just there, get on with it.”

And that, in the end, is all he wants. “The problem is people begin to think we’re angry disabled people who always want to make a point and get a banner out. Actually, we’re not. We just want to get on with stuff.”

MORE INFO: If These Spasms Could Speak is at the Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Made in Scotland programme 

Originally published in The Scotsman