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Corrie star Cherylee adds dog training to her long list of talents

Coronation Street actor Cherylee Houston has many strings to her bow. She was the first wheelchair-using cast member to regularly appear in a soap. She’s a tireless campaigner for the rights of disabled artists. She’s also a dab hand at dog training.

Yes, you read that right, dog training, and that’s something about Cherylee that many people don’t know. She trained her two-year-old Cockerpoo Bernard to be an assistance dog.

Training started as soon as she bought the pup, but it’s been stepped up during lockdown as Cherylee’s care support has had to be reduced. Bernard can now bring her the post, fold washing, take clothes out of the dryer, pick things up and other simple daily tasks.

For Cherylee who was diagnosed with Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome at the age of 24, Bernard is worth his weight in dog chews.

Cherylee’s assistance dog, Bernard

The actor decided to buy a dog after discovering the waiting lists for a trained assistance dog were too long, but when Covid ensued she decided to step up her inner canine trainer.

“He’s very clever and he loved learning. He’s a joy to have around, he adores people and he’s so useful in the house. He makes life easier in many ways. He can even help me turn clothes inside out and pull items of clothing off, like socks and jumpers.”

During lockdown, Cherylee has been working with DANC (the Disabled Artists Networking Community) @DANC_UK which helps to connect performers with disabilities with media professionals and change industry practices and accessibility.

Her charity, TripleC, has been instrumental in getting arts based education for disabled children into schools, and has produced tangible results. The Bee Vocal choir that she helped to create in order to bring people with mental health issues together, performed at Wembley Stadium to launch A Heads Together Initiative.

Cherylee as Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street

So during lockdown, Cherylee has been running webinars and workshops, mostly with her co-host Melissa Johns – over Zoom. Consequently, membership has doubled.

“Disabled artists were just getting included then Covid came along and the Arts Council wants to make sure that that doesn’t fall off. Covid is very isolating, I’ve been locked down since March because it’s just not safe. So it’s about making sure your skillset is stretched and you’re still learning.”

And she’s had some big names helping out with an hour of their time to share their knowledge including comedian Matt Lucas, writer Jack Thorne, leader of Sony International Productions Wayne Garvey.

“It’s been about furthering the conversations around inclusion. One of the benefits of Covid is that people have had the time to talk. The more we see disabled people on the screen, or writing a book or a play, the more usual it will seem. It’s about shifting society’s preconceptions.”

Cherylee was the first actor in a wheelchair to get a long term role in a soap in 2010

Next month, TripleC will be launching a talent database for disabled artists for prospective employers.

 “Attitudes have definitely shifted in my working lifetime. The industry is ready to accept people with disabilities. There just needs to be more conversations about access.”

Cherylee has spoken about disability issues at the Labour Party Conference and on television.

She also stars in the series Tinsel Girl, a fictionalised version of her own experiences, for BBC Radio 4. She plans to do a podcast of the series this year.

Her illness started at 11 and diagnosed at 23. She has chronic pain throughout her body as her skeleton dislocates and her connective tissue tears.

Bernard in his element

“I had very tricky teens. I was in that generation when people listened more to the doctors than the individual. Now people are more conversational and understanding. I didn’t talk about it because I knew people didn’t believe me. It took me until I was in my 30s to talk about my pain.”

She joined The Dukes Youth Theatre in Lancaster at 16 where she developed her work ethic. At 18 she was offered an Equity card after appearing in Cinderella as the back end of a horse and Cinderella’s body double at the strike of midnight.

She went on to Arden Theatre School in Manchester and that’s when the illness kicked in.

“I was told I’d be in a wheelchair within five years, but in fact it was just two. And that’s when the work stopped. I wasn’t in lead roles in drama school any more. The unconscious bias kicked in because everyone suddenly doubted my capability. Actually the school was great and allowed me to stay on even though in the 90s a disabled person didn’t have the right to a university education. That law was passed in 2000.”

Upon graduation no agents were prepared to take her on as they didn’t think there was a future for an actress who used a wheelchair. After doggedly writing to casting directors and starting her own theatre company she began to break through into television, appearing in amongst others Holby City, The Bill, Doctors, Emmerdale, I’m With Stupid and Little Britain, before landing the role of Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street in 2010.

“Things have changed considerably. In the 90s I would not have had the right to transport access. So, If I’d have been travelling on a train I would have been put in the guards van on my own and sometimes in the dark. It’s come on a lot but we’re not there yet.

“When someone becomes disabled it’s people’s opinions and reactions that are far more impactful than the actual disability.

“Frances Ryan wrote in The Guardian that disabled people have been prepping for Covid all their lives. We’re used to long periods of time at home and finding new focuses and that’s been a tool in my armoury.”

“I got called ‘Spastic’ out of a car window a couple of years ago. I’ve not been able to gain access to so many places, it’s so regular. Disabled people adapt by not noticing otherwise it consumes us. I’m resilient, but with 19 per cent of the UK population having a disability and 45 per cent of the over 65s, we need to look after each other a lot more.”

Cherylee’s not sure when she’ll be back on the cobbles of Coronation Street and is sorely missing her fellow actors in the long-running soap.

“Frances Ryan wrote in The Guardian that disabled people have been prepping for Covid all their lives. We’re used to long periods of time at home and finding new focuses and that’s been a tool in my armoury.”

Cherylee’s partner, actor and comedian Toby Hadoke has also had to isolate but he’s started a new podcast and built a sound booth in the house.

“We’re surviving the now because the now is manageable. But being creative is what inspires and helps us through.”

Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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