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.


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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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.