Interview with John Quinn,
31st October 2021

John Quinn's photo.jpg

I’m very happy to welcome John Quinn to the e-studio. Originally from Dumbarton, Scotland, John has lived in Sheffield for most of his life. He worked as a journalist from the age of 18 until he was 45, when he had to retire due to a rare degenerative neurological disorder he’d had since childhood. John and I met on the BBC’s message boards for disabled persons, aptly named ‘Ouch!’ When the boards closed, we kept in contact via Facebook and I always enjoy reading his updates. It’s a real pleasure to chat with him today.

So, John, you’ve mentioned in passing that you continue to write occasionally; and I’m intrigued! What are you working on at the moment?

Well, I do regular stuff for a local disability charity’s website, the occasional bit for newspapers and other publications – not always under my own name, he said enigmatically – and am looking at maybe revisiting the PhD I started earlier in the century but never completed due to health problems.

That all sounds very interesting, John. Let’s start with the charity’s website! What topics do you cover there?

I just tend to cover local and national disability topics, Fliss. It’s voluntary stuff so I either suggest items or my ‘boss’ asks me to do pieces on certain topics. I also do the occasional ‘personal’ piece on things like my involvement in a campaign to ensure PIP assessments are recorded or on taking part in online fitness sessions set up by the charity. 

John, I remember seeing an article about that campaign, in which you were trialling the recording methods. How did the campaign go?

Well, the local branch of Disabled People Against Cuts set up the campaign to buy and lend out recording equipment to people having assessments. I’d done articles about the fundraising and then by sheer chance I was the first person to use it, so we did a video which was posted on Twitter etc. The campaign went very well. We raised enough to buy several sets of equipment and now anyone has the right to ask for face-to-face assessments to be recorded. This was just before coronavirus struck, though, so assessments weren’t done face to face for quite a while.

 

Of course, the curse of Covid once again. But the success of the campaign is brilliant, John! Next up, you mention bits for newspapers and other publications too; and I’m interested you say you haven’t always used your own name. Are you allowed to tell me about any of this? You can keep things anonymous, if you prefer.

It basically started when for personal reasons I didn’t want people I knew to know I’d written an article on a certain subject. It wasn’t about anything illegal, just something I hadn’t made public. And still haven’t. There are also articles I’ve done for the local paper that I used to work for on controversial political subjects under the name Wheelchair Warrior. Not my choice, that one. I wanted to be the Secret Spastic. I also do things for them under my own name, though, so it really depends what sort of mood I’m in. The other name I usually use is a real name and a hilarious pun, which only a small amount of people will ever get. So it amuses me every time it appears in print.

John, I’m rather taken with ‘Secret Spastic’, as it happens! Thanks for explaining why you prefer anonymity or a pseudonym. Of course I’m very intrigued by the hilarious pun and I’ll have to go looking for it right after this interview.

I’m also Volunteer Placement for Disability Sheffield. Not my favourite fake name. You won’t find the pun one. It’s used sparingly and I think maybe three people know it’s me. I like being mysterious sometimes. It’s a top pun, though.

John, I don’t doubt that! Yes, not so catchy with that other name. Now, I assume you’ve been using your real name for the PhD? As I recall, it’s about the new Labour government’s disability policies.

Yeah, my PhD attempt was under my real name. I genuinely can’t remember if I had anything published on it. I was in a world of my own when I was doing it and have blanked most of it out. On Ouch I originally used my real name. I only changed it when I had computer problems and had to change my login details. Jockice was a school nickname. Because I was Scottish and cool. And also covered in chocolate.

Yes, I remember ‘Jockice’, John. I thought it was pretty cool. And who didn’t spend some of their childhood covered in chocolate? I know I did! It seems a long time since the Ouch message boards closed. An editorial decision by the Beeb, as I recall. Do you remain active on any sites for disabled people?

I don’t really. There is another site called Ouch Too, which was set up by people who used to be Ouch members. I occasionally appear, but not too often. I was contributing to a general cultural site with some disability stuff (and some other things too), but I’ve left that recently because some of the people on there are just so offensive. And I speak as someone who’s not easily offended. I’m not even going to name it, but I hope someone sues it and puts it out of business.

 

Well, that sounds rather horrific, John. But I’m not surprised; for some people, being online seems synonymous with being offensive. You’ve mentioned being trolled in the past and it seems a very common thing nowadays, unfortunately. 

This time I wasn’t so much trolled as ganged up on. Without going into details, apparently I hate women because I said that I’ve not always been treated fairly by them on the grounds of my disability. Absolutely bizarre. The thing is that I was getting plenty of private messages of support, but the people involved wouldn’t post on the public site because they knew they’d be shouted down too. So sod that place. There are some good people on there, who I’m going to keep in touch with if possible. But the screaming mob can do one. I’m surprised they didn’t accuse me of anti-semitism while they were at it.

Yes, that is bizarre, John. It sounds like woke gone wack, to use an expression I’ve just invented, in which a single innocuous observation is interpreted as some sort of general diatribe. Tricky! And frustrating to have a lot of private yet not public support. Sod that place indeed. Mob behaviour just seems fashionable at times; I suppose it’s an attractive option for those who are unable to make more positive connections with other people. Does it seem that way to you?

 

Yep. It was indeed a totally innocuous comment which one person objected to. And then my attempts to defend myself just led to more people joining in against me. So, let’s get this right. No women has ever discriminated against a disabled person. And if I think that it’s because I’m a sexist pig. I’d been on that site for around seven years and only ever had one big argument (which got resolved), whereas the person who objected is well known for starting arguments. I’d never had any interaction with her before that, but she really is a nasty piece of work. Especially with her gang of arselickers behind her. She reminded me of that bloke on Ouch who used to pick on people seemingly at random and then claim they were bullying him. I found out his real identity (and why the site kept ‘banning’ him and then letting him join again under another name, whereas others wouldn’t be allowed back).

 

John, I know exactly who you mean, having been picked on by him a few times myself. So what was the Beeb doing, letting him rejoin? Was he working with them in some capacity?

Well, it turned out he was quite a powerful man in the disability world. A union official. Which apparently let him break all the rules that everyone else had to stick to.

That seems to happen sometimes. A forum or whatever it is will have rules, but a few members are allowed to break them. Bleurgh. That’s my disgusted sound. But let’s talk about the positive stuff that came out of Ouch. I always enjoyed your posts about coping with ‘help’, for example.

Yeah, ‘help’ is a bit of a bugbear of mine. Some ‘normal’ people seem to think that disabled people exist only to be helped and we’re not allowed to turn down any ‘help’ even if it isn’t actually helpful. This leads to the situation like the one I had recently where I actually had a wheelchair wrestling match with a stranger determined to ‘help’ me put it back in the car. I know how to take the wheels off, how to put it in the right way and also how my body works. He knew none of that, but he still wouldn’t let go. I politely asked him to leave it, then more firmly but he still wouldn’t, so I actually ended up having to help him steer it into my car. Then when I was getting into the car, he actually grabbed me by the legs and stood there as if expecting a grateful thanks. He didn’t get it. I slammed the door and drove off. I bet he’s now told all his friends how he tried to help a poor disabled man who was SO rude to him. The next morning part of my chair actually fell off.

Oh John. It’s hard work when non-disabled persons think they know better. And pretty awful when they end up interfering in some way. Once I was changing after hydrotherapy. I was just putting my trainers back on, using my long-handled shoehorn, when a therapist burst in to tell me Ambulance Transport had arrived, grabbed my feet, and started cramming them into my trainers. She actually twisted my ankle in the process. And then there are the people who think we can be cured by religion…

Ah yes. Religion. I’m not religious but don’t mind if people are. As long as they don’t try and impose it on me. I’ve had religious people spotting me from a hundred metres away and running towards me, knowing that I won’t be able to get away fast enough. But the weirdest example was in my crutches days, when I was in the city centre and someone came up and asked if I wanted him to pray for my legs. I was actually in a hurry so just said: “Whatever.“ At which he stepped in front of me, got down on his knees and grabbed my legs. He’s just lucky I didn’t have a sudden ‘spasm’. A few weeks after that a group of teenagers came up to me in the same area and asked me if I wanted praying for. I said ‘‘No’’ and they seemed surprised. For all I knew they could have been totally sincere and were going to do it in private, but no way was I going to take that risk.

Yes, it seems reasonable to avoid the risk of having our legs grabbed, if possible! But the ‘spasm’ is a great thing to have in reserve. Have you ever used the ‘spasm’, John?

Er, sort of. At a concert once. I was with a loose group of people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn't. One of the latter was off his head on something and kept bumping into me. This was before I even used crutches and he nearly knocked me over several times. I kept trying to move out of his way, but it was like he was magnetically attracted to me. At one point one of the people I know grabbed him firmly and moved him well out of my way. But 30 seconds later he was back bumping into me. At which point I had a sudden spasm with my elbow. He didn't bump into me again.

Excellent. And was the concert good otherwise?

 

It was. I love a bit of punk. I used to be a music writer, so I went to lots of concerts. I don't go to many now, but I still listen to music most days. And this is my favourite single of all time. A minute and a half of punky pop perfection.

Brilliant, The Undertones! And great that you’re still listening to music, John. What’s next with your writing? Anything specific?

Best band ever! As for writing, I have nothing specific planned at the moment, but I said I'd help a friend with a bit of proofreading. Then maybe get on with that book of my own that everyone says I should write…

Is it a chronicle of leg-grabbing incidents?

It’s about tartan blankets.

Hooray! Sounds like a bestseller. I wish you every success with it, John, and it's been brilliant talking today.

 

Fliss, it’s been a pleasure.

John writes regularly for Disability Sheffield