The irony that Lee Ridley has become something of a spokesperson for the disabled community is not lost on him. The comedian, born in Consett, County Durham, was diagnosed with a neurological form of cerebral palsy when he was just six months old, affecting his movement and rendering him unable to talk. But now, aged 38, and better known by his stage name Lost Voice Guy, he represents one of the most prominent and vocal (through use of a text-to-speech app on his iPad) champions of disabled rights and representation. “There aren’t that many disabled people in the public eye, so it’s important for those of us who are to stand up and shout,” he said.
Shortly after the launch of his memoir, I’m Only In It For The Parking, which is billed as a “collection of answers to the many stupid questions I get asked”, Ridley took the time to meet me this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was his seventh appearance at the festival since beginning his comedy career, but his first since gaining mainstream attention and acclaim from winning the 2018 edition of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.
That experience, Ridley admitted, “is still taking some getting used to.” The transition from a lesser-known novelty act to a household name who sold out his Fringe venue has, at times, been “a little overwhelming”. But speaking to him in the city’s swish Loft Bar at Teviot Row House, the journalism graduate and former member of Sunderland City Council’s media team, was unwaveringly confident, quick-witted and charming. “Doing stand-up has taught me to let go of my inhibitions,” he said. “When I’m up on stage I feel like I’ve found the perfect way to express myself. I have always used humour to help me feel more relaxed. To make other people laugh is wonderful … I feel like people actually want to listen to me for a change. Comedy has finally given me a ‘voice’.”
While Ridley was happy to praise the “significant progress” that the Fringe has made in improving accessibility to its venues over the past few years, he stressed that the process was still ongoing, and will be for some time yet. “I appreciate that Edinburgh is one of the oldest cities in the world and that is challenging … they say every cupboard is a venue up here. But if I’m honest, I think some venues care about it more than others, which is a shame, and that is why for real change to happen at the Fringe, it needs to be done centrally, by the organisers overall.”
Too often, Ridley added, attempts to improve disabled access are not led by disabled people. “I think sometimes [able-bodied people] can fail to grasp that not every disability is the same. A ramp won’t solve every issue. At the moment, it can feel like they are doing what they think disabled people want, rather than asking different disabled people what are the requirements that they need. Comedy should be for everyone.”
While Ridley could not be accused of being thin-skinned or a stickler for political correctness – his routines include plenty of self-deprecation and certainly do not lack sass – he noted that any positive changes in “attitudes towards disabled people” hinge on an evolution of how they are portrayed in the media, on stage and on screen. Unhelpful stereotyping “along the lines of benefits cheats, scroungers and dependents” must be challenged, Ridley said, and replaced by “the reality that yes, actually, disabled people can contribute a lot. It is only with that [representation] that disabled people can feel fully part of society. It would be nice for every disabled child to grow up and believe that they can do whatever they want. They’ll only believe this if they see other disabled people in a variety of roles.
“The comedy scene can play a huge part in making this happen, because it is the perfect way to tackle difficult subjects in a way that can make people laugh and think seriously at the same time.”
Ridley accepts that he talks about disability “a lot” and did not dismiss the challenge of being viewed as a single-issue comic out of hand. “I’ve been disabled for 38 years, so I have a lot of material about it. It would be silly for me not to use it. But I am conscious that I will need to branch out. I just think it’s important to address the elephant in the room first.” What else would he like to cover in the future? “I definitely want to do more stuff about relationships, because I’m pretty bad at those. I’d also like to interact more with the audience.”
Lee Ridley, based on our encounter, is an optimist about life, even if he’s not when it comes to his football team. His disability has had both an empowering and humbling effect on his outlook. “I don’t think I would appreciate things as much [if I wasn’t disabled],” the boyhood Newcastle United supporter told me. “I don’t think I’d have had the confidence to pursue comedy either. Part of it was about proving to myself that I could do it and I’m grateful that I get to make people laugh for a living. Besides, I needed something else to do with my Saturdays, and I was always shit at the chants anyway.”
Lee Ridley’s autumn tour runs until 25 November. His book, I’m Only In It For The Parking, is out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.(lostvoiceguy.com)