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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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.