Shannon Murray (Old Queen 1987-1991) is an actress, solicitor and disability consultant, she shares her work during lockdown and the secret staircase at Queen’s.
Shannon was left paralysed from the waist down after a diving accident when she was 14 years old and first received international media attention a few years after her injury when she won the first-ever search for a disabled model.
For the past 20 years she has campaigned for the better representation of disability in the media and has gone some way to improving this, appearing in several successful dramas for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 as well as being the first disabled model to feature in a high-profile advertising campaign for the British store Debenhams. She is also a qualified solicitor.
How have you found the past year with all the lockdowns and work?
I got the part for a new ITV drama series and then we went into nationwide lockdown the day before filming - so that got shelved and I just kept on doing my legal day job. In July I got contacted by the production company to ask about restarting filming with strict COVID protocols, this meant strict bubbles and weekly testing - it was an exciting opportunity with a completely different character for me. I felt really lucky that I could carry on with both my jobs whilst other people had their lives flailing apart.
I was really fortunate to be working with an old friend, Noel Clarke (pictured: left), who I went to sixth-form with. It’s fun when you go away to a big television production set, your every need is catered to, somebody does your hair and make-up, sorts your clothes, someone gets your food and scripts!
What positive change have you seen in your time as a disability activist. And what changes would you like to see in the future?
I have definitely seen access improved. My accident was in 1990 and disabled access was appalling, it was surprising to find somewhere accessible.
Seeing more disabled people out and about, contributing to society like everybody else is what affects change. However, you need to have the infrastructure in place that allows people to access these spaces - it's a chicken and egg situation.
I would love for RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and universities that are teaching architecture courses to have a mandatory module about access. Not just for public buildings but for apartments, there are so many buildings are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
I think the 2012 Paralympics being held in London saw a big shift in consciousness and attitudes around disability. Channel Four did an incredible and empowering ad campaign. It had a huge, booming ‘Public Enemy’ track; it was bold, brash, sexy and strong and it made me proud to be disabled - I had never felt that way before. Seeing people be active at the top of their game opened a lot of people's eyes, particularly the generation who still have quite patronising attitudes towards disability
When I first started going out after my accident, I would get stopped by people saying, ‘I've never seen somebody in a wheelchair in a club’. By going out and saying, ‘I'm here, I'm contributing, I want to go to school, I want to work and socialise’, makes the difference. I’m happy to answer questions about what happened to me and in clubs and bars, after a couple of drinks, any kind of social etiquette goes out the window, so people ask all the questions!
I used to really minimise my accident, I used to play it down, as if it was just a blip and it's taken me a very, very long time to be able to say that it was a life-changing incident. I overcame significant hurdles and obstacles and I’m strong.
What is it like travelling around London?
I didn’t use the tube for about 25 years until the Olympics when the easiest way to the Olympic Park was to take the Jubilee Line. This first time I did the journey it was step-free and empty - it was a novelty and I felt like a princess! Then I went back the following week, and it was rush hour. It was packed and people were leaning over me and breathing on me, so this is why I drive everywhere and I can do so independently.
If you’re using the tube in a wheelchair and there’s a mechanical fault, often you have to go back in the other direction for an hour to the next step-free station, which makes it difficult and your whole day is ruined.
Did you have to be your own advocate?
I was very lucky to have a spinal consultant who encouraged me to speak up for myself and not let anyone intimidate me. At medical meetings, I asked questions and spoke for myself.
It was a lot of hard work but it's not the worst thing in the world to use a wheelchair. I found it frustrating after Stephen Hawkins died that people said ‘now he’s free from the restraint of his chair’ - the chair is what gave him freedom.
Everybody is terrified of ending up in a wheelchair and when something happens overnight, you don't have the opportunity to worry about it. It’s done.
How have you found working as an actor with a disability?
When I first started acting, I really wanted to do these amazing stunts as a Bond girl, where you could have all these contraptions that fly out of the chair. You could literally make the chair an armoured weapon - taking disability and spinning it on its head is so much more fun.
I've done a couple of things now where they cheated me walking. I did a Doctor Who spin-off called ‘Class’ and there's a scene where my character regains the use of her legs and we did that with CGI, trickery and fishing wires to make it look like I was standing and walking.
Shannon stars alongside Keeley Hawes in 'Finding Alice'.
While social media has its pitfalls, how have you found it to be useful?
I think it's become an essential tool but it's a double-edged sword. It gives several people a platform and a voice. By having followers on social media you make companies sit up and pay attention, particularly when we receive poor or even derogatory service.
If I have been treated poorly somewhere and I take to Twitter, the apologies are forthcoming unlike writing to a customer service department where I know I'm just getting a template back. I had to do it with regards to a taxi company who wouldn't take me, and it went to a tribunal.
It happened at Law School where I had mandatory classes before our final exams and the venue had really bad access and a dangerous chairlift. I simply tweeted an image and said ‘This is ridiculous’ and a website called ‘Legal Cheek’ picked up on it and it went viral. The Dean of the Law School got in touch, apologised profusely and fees were refunded.
Social Media gave people a voice and a platform and it's made companies appreciate that there are 14 million disabled people in the UK, but we're still treated like a minority.
There’s a long way to go. Yes, you're seeing a few more disabled people appear on panel shows, but it's still not enough, disabled presenters should be the norm and shouldn't just be presenting disabled TV shows.
I think social media has helped a lot in that way, but the flip side is being trolled or abused and unfortunately that does happen to a lot of people with disabilities.
As someone who consults public and private organisations on the recruitment and retention of employees with disabilities what have you found to be the barriers?
If buildings were made accessible, you could have disabled employees. If people aren’t recruiting disabled people, it is because quite often people recruit in their own likeness. They make up their mind within two minutes whether they like somebody. You can have all the attributes on your CV, but if they don’t want to spend 8 hours a day with you, then you're not going to get the job.
Until you have disabled gatekeepers, you don't really see change. You need to see disability at a senior level because then that feeds into the decision-making process.
I think people get a bee in their bonnet about it and they see a whole row of obstacles that don't exist. As disabled people, we are incredibly resourceful - we have to be, that's how we get around in our daily life. We're very creative and that leads to incredible problem-solving at work. We just want to come in and do the work. I think non-disabled people who have no experience of disability, attend disability awareness courses and think they’ve got it nailed, without an internal shift in their attitude. That comes through experience and interaction.
As an actor do you have any standout moments?
I have a very funny moment on a series called Get Even (available on iPlayer) where I was talking to the Assistant Director Ros Howe (OQ 2001-2008), we realised we both lived near one another in London and it turned out, she's an Old Queen as well - that was a funny and lovely moment.
I think working on EastEnders - going to the set makes you starstruck because it's so familiar and being in Albert Square was quite surreal. Also, Viewpoint which I filmed last year with Noel Clarke will be on ITV in the spring - that was really good because it has lots of interesting twists and turns.
Any memories of Queen’s?
I've got really positive memories because I had such a great time there, I made brilliant friends, a lot of whom I'm still in touch with now.
I can still remember Queen’s so clearly. I remember the classrooms, the corridors, the creaking of the table in the library while trying to do homework during detention. Also, I remember the big staircase that nobody was allowed to go up which led up to our Headmistress, Mrs. Fleming’s office. It was this big marble sweeping staircase with a black iron handle, a real ‘Gone with the Wind’ type and students weren't allowed to use it - it was totally incredible.
It’s an incredible, historic building and I'm completely relaxed about the fact that you can't make Queen’s wheelchair accessible. You simply can't. I had a great time; I wasn’t wild about physics, but I loved English.