Local Stars: Chris Cooper
In the first of a new series of profiles for St John Street News, discover the story of a man who’s won accolades for his work with Islington’s disabled community…
“Hot chocolate,” he whispers. He hesitates, then adds: “Medium.” After a moment, he turns back to me again: “With cream on the top!” To him, even the simplest things such as beverages have to be handled exactly right.
His hair messy, he softly shakes my right hand while we sit in a café close to Highbury and Islington tube station. He looks at me nervously with a pair of transparent, light-blue eyes, wearing a polo-shirt of the same colour.
I’m sat with Chris Cooper, the Alternative Abilities Ambassador for a youth communications charity known as Exposure. To Chris (pictured above), it seems that the idea of disability represents a “misconception” on society’s part. He says people do not handle disabilities the way they should and “this is quite annoying”.
Since he was a child, Chris has fought to make people understand that being autistic is not a ‘problem’, as most of his mates named it. This is what really pushed this young man to campaign for the rights and wellbeing of disabled people.
“It’s very complex,” he says. His disability, in fact, has been “treated as a disease” at every stage in his life: schools, jobs, social activities and family life. Nobody he encountered seemed equipped, on any level, to deal with autism. This seems to reflect a condition that affects society itself, rather than single individuals, as a symptom of its inability to cope with different needs.
School was “terrifying”, he recalls: teachers treated him differently from other people, making him feel the weight of a disability that had previously never seemed limiting to him. Classmates bullied him. His family was extremely overprotective.
“You know, we live in a scary world,” he says, “Disabled people often commit suicide for this. There are still barriers and so much ignorance in the world.”
So, Chris did what some said was the “unthinkable”: left mainstream education early and looked for assistance in local organisations such as Exposure and Wac Arts. These centres provide disadvantaged and vulnerable young people with an alternative educational path in the creative arts and the media.
What distinguishes organisations like these from public institutions, Chris claims, is their sincere will to help those who are regarded as ‘different’ by modern society. “This fills me with joy and gratitude,” he states smiling.
Soon, Chris became Alternative Abilities Ambassador for Exposure, and started fighting for the rights of disabled people. Thanks to his role – which involves providing advice to disabled people who want to enter the workplace and helping them do so – he has built a direct dialogue with the authorities and politicians of London and, in particular, of Islington.
“I’d rather have someone to speak in person, so I can push for our needs to be fulfilled,” he argues.
It’s no surprise, then, that in March Chris received a mayoral award for his great commitment and help to the Islington disabled community. A 24-year-old man, Chris used his personal experience as a disabled to help his peers. He taught them the value of ‘willpower’ and helped them thriving in the professional field they liked the most.
But his role as an ambassador is not his only job: thanks to his work with such charities, he has finally stopped feeling “different” and discovered his strong passion for art and the creative industries.
Today, alongside his position at Exposure, Chris works both as an independent contemporary artist and for an advertising agency called Red Brick Road. “I wanted to explore my creativity,” he says, “And express who I really am.”
When he uses his creativity to produce artwork, Chris is driven by a core aspiration: he wants to “bridge the gap” that exists between disabled people and the rest of the world. His art is mainly “abstract and experimental”, as he describes it, and includes paintings, photography, sculptures, jewellery and multimedia works.
Chris says that creating art is not so different from his other passion of helping people. He believes that both the act of assisting others and the creative process need three stages: the formulation of an idea / objective, the planning, and the action, which he uses to make all of his projects come to life.
As we bring our discussion to a close, Chris Cooper now looks more confident. Talking about his life-long work to help his peers has clearly given him a sense of joy and satisfaction. “Since I was a child I have always pursued happiness, and now that I’ve found it I know for a fact all that those people who looked at my autism as a problem were completely wrong.”
To find out more about Chris’ work at Exposure, check out the organization’s website here. If you think you know a Local Star who deserves recognition by the Islington, Hackney and Shoreditch communities, then why not let us know on Facebook or Twitter?