Our politicians don't "get it" on speaking plainly. Photo: Getty
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They just don’t "get it": time to muffle mealy-mouthed politicians

As a party leader celebrated for being straight-talking dominates the political agenda while our potential future prime minister can’t stop talking like a wonk, it’s time to call our politicians out on their mealy-mouthed mumblings.

There is no place for "got" or "get" in the English language, my grandmother often tells me. Her theory is that the use of this all-purpose verb can always be replaced with "to have". So rather than "I’ve got a pedantic grandmother" – "I have a pedantic grandmother". Or "I’ve got to watch my words" can be "I have to watch my words". She sees the words "get", "got" – and their terrifying American cousin "gotten" – as a lazy and ugly linguistic shortcut.

Perhaps this is a bit of a rigid rule from a lady who steadfastly calls a single piece of broccoli a "broccolo", but I think communication at the top of British politics would be improved vastly if it were applied there. Because you can’t move for politicians "getting it" into their speeches these days. And it’s a particularly rhetorically flaccid feature of a growing trend for mealy-mouthed answers to urgent questions.
 

  • “People in Ukip always say that the other politicians don't get it. I mean, I do get it and I get them,” Tony Blair told the Today programme yesterday, weighing in on the European elections analysis.
     
  • “The Tories don’t get it,” Ed Miliband earnestly declared in a speech about tackling the cost-of-living crisis in April. And he’s used the phrase often in Commons appearances, particularly during PMQs.
     
  • “I want you to show the public that you get it,” Theresa May instructed the Police Federation annual conference last week.
     
  • “I get that,” David Cameron conceded in the Commons after losing the vote regarding military intervention in Syria last year.
     
  • Then there are the multiple variations on the perpetual mantra of “working hard to get on” employed by both halves of the coalition in their elucidation of a uniquely vague British dream.
     

"Getting it" and "getting on" are ways of avoiding identification of a problem, and fudging the proposed solution to it – in an irritatingly faux-colloquial tone, to boot.

The author of books about etymology and Inky Fool blogger Mark Forsyth tells me: "It's not just the word 'get' which is so vague (though it has 34 primary meanings listed in the OED), it's the 'it' that amuses me. Whenever I hear a politician saying 'I get it', I like to imagine that they're talking about diarrhoea or syphilis. Mind you, it's easy to be cruel to politicians. You find just as much of this meaningless stuff in pop music. With it. Where it's at. etc."

Yet he does acknowledge why such phrasing is employed by politicians: "The important thing is, of course, that everybody can imagine for themselves what 'it' is. It's the same idea as 'decent people' or 'hard-working families'. Coal miners and hedge-fund managers both believe they're hard-working. The words are mirrors in which each voter sees themselves. Everybody believes they're decent. Or almost everybody. I wish sometimes that there were a party representing indecent, workshy bachelors like me. But I fear it shall never come to pass."

And "getting it" is just a symptom of a wider problem: politicians refusing to speak plainly. A recent example is the Labour leader failing to sum up his leadership and what he offers voters in one word. “I’ll give you two – One Nation”, Miliband replied to the journalist, after making a big show of rolling his eyes. He then went on to give a fuzzy description of what One Nation means. He wouldn’t deign to speak concisely and clearly, regarding it as a silly challenge set by a frivolous journalist.

This is a problem for politicians. Nigel Farage and his party were overwhelmingly successful in the recent European elections, and are dominating the political agenda. It’s often discussed that Farage’s straight-talking manner is appealing to an electorate starved of politicians speaking human. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston pointed out this week that the election results have taught us that people "like straight-talking politicians". Miliband gives convoluted, wonkish answers, and Cameron is often compared to a PR man for his superficial style – saying little and sticking to his lines. And the majority of their MPs aren’t much better.

Political jargon is inaccessible and alienating, but vague, fluffy phrases can be equally as evasive.

It may be a hackneyed reference, but George Orwell’s Newspeak, the language invented in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, warned that the fewer ways we have to say something, the less call there is to say it at all. If we want transparency in our politics, we have to ask our politicians precisely what they mean by their weasel words. Because at the moment they just don’t seem to get it.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.