Monday, January 24, 2022

‘A Lot Of The Stories You See About Disability, There’s No Joy, There’s No Humour.’ Attitude Awards Winner & Disability Advocate Olivia Shivas

Disability advocate and journalist Olivia Shivas always knew she wanted to work in media, as it was one of the best ways to create a difference in the disability community. After co-creating the brilliant What’s Wrong With You? podcast, she’s just been awarded one of this country’s most prestigious honours at 2021 Attitude Awards. She talks to Capsule about capturing the humour and joy of being part of the disability community and how everyone can play a part in making the world a more accessible place.

When Olivia had the idea to create the brilliant podcast What’s Wrong With You?, about the realities of being disabled in Aotearoa, she had a couple of goals she was looking to achieve. One: she wanted the podcast, which she co-hosted with Paralympian Rebecca Dubber, to be an inclusive and warm-hearted look at the different lives people with different disabilities have. Two: She wanted it to have the real-talk feel of the conversations she has grown up having with her disabled friends – and that meant a serious number of jokes.

The result was seven episodes of some of the most brilliant, eye-opening and at times hilarious content available in the podcast world. It’s also seen Olivia take home the top award at this year’s Attitude Awards. At an on-line awards show this weekend, she was crowned Attitude Enterprise Winner and then overall Attitude ACC Supreme Winner, as well.

Olivia with her What’s Wrong With You? podcast co-host, Rebecca Dubber. Photo credit: Pictvre

It was her huge pride in the success of the podcast that saw Olivia so excited to be a part of the Attitude Awards, she says. “I knew about the awards and I’d been before, but this year felt like the right year – I felt really confident to back myself to enter. I was so proud of the podcast and the work that we’ve done. It felt like the right time to be nominated and obviously, I’m thrilled with the results!”

“When I got one of my friends to listen to the podcast, she said to me, ‘Wow, there’s so much joy here.’”

Right from the starting point, Olivia knew she wanted to create a podcast that was unlike anything currently available in Aotearoa. What’s Wrong With You? is, as the title might suggest, a no-holds-barred look at what it means to be part of the disabled community and breaks down the teary, sympathetic-to-the-point-of-patronising portrayal we’re used to seeing around disability.

“When I got one of my friends to listen to the podcast, she said to me, ‘Wow, there’s so much joy here,’” Olivia says. “I think a lot of the stories you see about disability, there’s no joy, there’s no humour. My friends and I don’t sit around having conversations like, ‘woe is me, please pity me’.”

“My friends and I don’t sit around having conversations like, ‘woe is me, please pity me’.”

Working at Stuff as a digital producer, Olivia had always wanted to be a journalist and saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the world. Born with muscular dystrophy, Olivia is a wheelchair user and, as a big consumer of pop culture growing up, was all too aware that none of the people on the shows she loved looked like her.

“You could never see people with disabilities represented in a good way. In mainstream shows, when characters had what was perceived as a deficit… it’s really negative,” she says. “Whereas when I was growing up, I never really saw my disability as a negative thing, because it was just what I grew up with. It was something that was normal to me.”

As part of her role at Stuff, Olivia has also worked as a consultant to help the company be more cognisant of how they can make the workplace more accessible. It’s a role that she’s happy to have in this workplace because Stuff has been so open to being helpful, she says, but she says it’s not a role that should be required of people like her.

“I don’t think disabled people necessarily want to be an advocate or a teacher, it’s just that we are forced to, in a way,” she says. “I have a friend, Dr Robbie Francis Watene, and she says that basically your existence as a disabled person is a protest against ableism. And I really like that because just the fact that I exist as a disabled person, forces people to think about it.”

“I don’t think disabled people necessarily want to be an advocate or a teacher, it’s just that we are forced to, in a way,”

She mentions that the first year she was at Stuff, they had a Christmas party that had stairs at the entrance, meaning she couldn’t get in. “It just wasn’t something they thought about until afterwards,” she says. “But now, every Christmas party they plan is accessible. It’s really awesome when it shifts from me having to always check to the people in my world, checking for me. Because every day, every decision that disabled people have to make requires planning, so when other people do it for you, it means there’s been some kind of shift.”

In the planning stages of What’s Wrong With You?, it was details like this that helped shape the narrative structure of what they wanted to achieve – as well as knowing they would have to do a sex-focused episode because “that’s what so many people are interested in,” Olivia says drily.

The episode synopses themselves perfectly summed up the humour of the overall show – the disability and media episode, for example, is called “The Eternal Curse of Sad Piano Music,” as a reference to the fact that most media portrayals of disabled people are done with a mournful soundtrack. The disability and faith episode – titled “No, I Don’t Want You To Pray For Me, Thanks” – nails a Fight Club joke by stating that “first rule of disability club is that if you sit in a wheelchair long enough, someone is going to come over and offer to pray for you.”

But for all the show’s success, it wasn’t easy to get off the ground due to one horribly ironic reason – finding an accessible studio that could fit up to four wheelchairs in it at once, where the parking and the toilets are also accessible. It was a logistical nightmare, Olivia says, and it also points to the whole other level of time and effort required by disabled people just to go about their normal day.

When it comes to how non-disabled people can help carry some of that load, Olivia says listening to the podcast is a great first step. “Consume different media, follow disabled influencers on Instagram, read books about disabled people. It’s about proactively seeing different stories that aren’t negative stereotypes,” she says. “A lot of the advocacy and work done to improve the lives of disabled people is done by disabled people; whereas, actually, it needs to be done by everyone.”

For more information on the Attitude Awards, click here. For more information on What’s Wrong With You?, click here and to check out our interview with the podcast producer, disability advocate Grace Stratton, check out our How Are You Today… Grace Stratton chat from earlier this year.

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