On the fringes?

The mainstream media gives disabled people precious little coverage

Disability is regarded by many commentators as being a fringe concern and we receive precious little coverage in the mainstream media, in comparison with many other sections of society.

On the one hand, disabled people would not welcome the obsessive treatment that is given to Islam by the national press, but it would be nice for our existence to be at least acknowledged once in a while.

This neglect is compounded by the attitude of many employers and service providers, who resent making changes to their business practices for what they see as a tiny minority of the population.

In many cases, the only time that we are discussed is to ask the question, ‘Have disability rights gone too far?’ It is surely premature for the backlash to begin before widespread acceptance has yet been achieved.

It is a truism that there are far more disabled people than most people expect and there is an oft-quoted statistic that one in five of the UK population qualify for protection under the Disability Discrimination Act.

However, this figure is easily dismissed by assuming that most of these people have impairments which are regarded as relatively minor, such as back problems, dyslexia or depression.

Such a view is highly patronising and seriously underestimates the extent of exclusion faced by members of these groups. In any case, even if we grudgingly ignore them, the ‘disability problem’ stubbornly fails to disappear.

For example, 3% of British people have visual impairments that cannot be remedied with glasses, 2% use wheelchairs, and 1% will be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their lives.

We are not hiding. These numbers seem surprising because very few organisations have workforces even remotely reflecting these proportions, and most high street shops cannot be accessed by a lot of disabled people.

Even if there was a reason to visit the city centre, many people are completely unable to get there by public transport. Meanwhile, the total collapse of community cohesion combined with a general inability to cope with unusual behaviour causes many people with mental health difficulties to become socially isolated.

Although the encounters that we have on a day-to-day basis can sometimes be a reliable indicator of the composition of society, in this case they produce a dangerously distorted picture. I have given up any hope that TV with ever do enough to correct this perception.

When it is argued, to choose one example, that websites need not be made accessible to blind people, because not many of them use the internet, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.

To quote a sentimental Kevin Costner film, ‘If you build it they will come.’ Being located in a deep pit, the Eden Project did not find it easy to provide access, but it has been rewarded with thousands of extra visitors, and the number of wheelchairs on show is a striking contrast to other tourist attractions. To someone who is not used to it, they seem to be everywhere.

It will only be possible to get a realistic perspective of the size of the disabled population when the same can be said of every single building in the country. Just one inaccessible shop does more to create segregation than a million veils.

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.