Are Disabled People Dangerous?

The aim of this blog is to tackle some of the issues, both personal and political, faced by disabled

Hi, my name is James Medhurst and I am disabled. However, before you try to visualise me, I should point out that I am not sitting in a wheelchair and nor am I accompanied by a cute yellow Labrador. In fact, I have a high-functioning form of autism which is similar to, but not quite the same as, Asperger Syndrome.

This means that I have a great deal of difficulty with non-verbal communication, especially in social situations, and a few other symptoms, such as very poor motor co-ordination and a little compulsive behaviour.

It may surprise some people to discover that I do not spend most of my time in a state of distress about these circumstances (I have had thirty years to get over it) and I do not harbour an intense desire to be normal, whatever that means.

The aim of this blog is to tackle some of the issues, both personal and political, faced by disabled people in the United Kingdom today. I will not be giving a detailed account of the unusual features of my visual system, fascinating though they are, but rather I shall be looking at the ways in which the structure and practices of society, as well as our bodies, impact upon the lives of disabled people.

Uncomfortable reading?

In many cases, I will have direct experiences of particular situations and I will be happy to share these with you but, given the vast array of different impairments, both physical and psychological, under the general umbrella of disability, it will not always be possible for me to provide such direct examples, and I shall rely instead upon the experiences of others or upon thought experiments. Under no circumstances do I claim to speak for all disabled people on any topic.

A number of the areas discussed will be familiar territory for readers of magazines such as the New Statesman, such as arguments over politically correct language and incapacity benefit. At other times, I hope to show the importance of issues which you may not have previously considered such as the problems of wheelchair users using public transport, deaf people visiting the theatre, and blind people trying to find copies of the latest books.

Some posts could even make uncomfortable reading for those of you on the left - disability rights campaigners have often found themselves allied with the Christian right regarding euthanasia and genetic engineering, while a few of the views expressed may seem very bizarre and unfamiliar indeed. For example, many disabled people are highly ambivalent about the charities supposedly founded for our benefit and are far from comfortable with medical research designed to rid us of our impairments. There is a lot to get through.

However, the first subject that I want to write about concerns the perception of disabled people in society, which is often different from that of ethnic minorities. Recent media reports about Polish immigrants seemed excessively concerned with numbers, treating a large influx of foreigners as inherently scary, regardless of the economic consequences. By contrast, disabled people are often patronised as helpless victims rather than portrayed as a threat. Television dramas rarely depict people with cerebral palsy as gun-toting serial killers or even blind people as scheming adulterous politicians, as though they are too incapable to present any sort of danger.

This strange idea reached its most ludicrous extrapolation when the chief executive of Ryanair questioned the government's policy of searching everyone, including wheelchair users, who was boarding a flight, presumably on the grounds the latter are simply incapable of concealing explosives about their person.

Disfigurement

Nevertheless, there is one curious exception to the rule, the concept of the "evil genius", a disabled person whose rage at the world has created a desire to destroy it, with the classic archetype perhaps being Dr. Strangelove. The latest series of 'Doctor Who' revealed that the Cybermen were created by an embittered wheelchair user played by Trigger from 'Only Fools and Horses', just as the disabled character Davros gave life to the Daleks. It is too great a coincidence that the Doctor's two worst enemies have these origins when he has never had a disabled assistant himself. The message seems to be that we must accept our lowly status lest our chippiness should spiral out of control.

It is not just wheelchair users who are affected, with albinism and facial disfigurements being particularly popular impairments for villains. The latest example is the albino monk Silas from the 'Da Vinci Code'. In this case, the logic appears remarkably similar to that of racism – anyone who looks different is assumed to be morally corrupt in some way. Granted, the most guilty programmes and films are not noted for their high levels of realism or moral engagement but the risk remains that these attitudes will be transferred to unthinking viewers.

If people who look different are viewed with suspicion, people who think differently are regarded as potential enemies of the state, and this is one area in which media stereotypes clearly spill over into public policy.

I marched against the government's proposed Mental Health Bill as long ago as 1999 but, although it has yet to be enacted, it remains possible that something very similar could still be introduced. Briefly, it was intended that people diagnosed with personality disorders could be held for long periods without appeal and forcibly treated, a policy opposed not only by mental health campaigners but also by the psychiatrists required to carry out the treatment.

The concept of the personality disorder itself is highly flawed because the people so diagnosed often experience no distress and it has been suggested that the term reflects social disapproval of their behaviour rather than a health issue. While the perception of criminal risk is usually associated with men, there is also a raft of similar conditions seemingly aimed at regulating the actions of women, a disturbing consequence of the misogyny of modern medicine, and perhaps a bad break-up with a girlfriend for one or two of the psychiatrists involved. It is true that people with personality disorders are at high risk for depression but this may well have more to do with the attitudes that they face than with the inherent features of their personalities.

Norman Tebbit

A new and very worrying development is the proliferation of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders being given to those with conditions such as autism and attention-deficit disorder, more often than not to children rather than adults. Because these matters are dealt with by the civil courts, the children are denied the right to a medical report to which they would be entitled in the juvenile criminal justice system.

In one case, a boy with Tourette's Syndrome was ordered to stop swearing. It is nonsensical that so many resources should be deployed to attempt impossible transformations in people who present little danger, and the rhetoric resembles that of Norman Tebbit's cricket test, the idea that immigrants should assimilate in order to make everyone else feel more comfortable.

Embracing unconventional people may result in tolerance of alternative ways of thinking and these may be hard for some members of the establishment to accept. Perhaps it is this fact which makes the existence of disabled people threatening to mainstream values, in which case I am proud to be so.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.