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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.