Why do some people insist on denying their disabled status? Peter White ponders in the light of some recent encounters.
It’s often argued that one of the main reasons politicians of all parties get into such a tangle over disability is that very few of them have direct experience of it, or if they do, don’t recognise it as such. I pointed out in this column before the general election that only about half-a-dozen existing MPs had disabilities and as predicted, that figure has altered little since the vote last May. And of course you can add to the numbers issue the fact that just being an MP puts you into that category of people who can offset some of the inherent difficulties because of income and the help available to you which goes with the job.
But of course the problem is compounded if even those MPs with clearly definable impairments and conditions are reluctant to acknowledge, or discuss them in detail.
In my recent Radio Four series of ‘No Triumph, No Tragedy’ I talked to Robert Halfon, one of David Cameron’s surprise ministerial appointments, and new deputy Chair of the Conservative party. Robert was born with a form of cerebral palsy and many operations on his legs in childhood to help him walk have left him with arthritis, which results in his using crutches.
It was something of a miracle that the interview took place at all. Mr Halfon acknowledged that he had hesitated long over agreeing because, as he put it, he didn’t want to be defined by his disability. Indeed, he didn’t like the term ‘disabled’, and admitted when pressed, that he thought he’d buried some of the childhood memories involved with his treatment. He was adamant that if there had been any suggestion that his appointment had any whiff of positive discrimination he would have turned it down.
Most of us, if we’re honest, could sympathise with parts of this. I don’t want to be (wholly) defined by my blindness, the language surrounding disability is seldom sexy, the ministrations of doctors in your childhood rarely make rivetting cocktail party conversation and few of us would want to think we’d got a job just because we’re disabled. The problem is that if you take that package as a whole you are close to ‘disability denial’, not a helpful position if as an MP you’re in a position to improve the situation of disabled people as a whole. I wanted to discuss this dilemma with Robert Halfon, and quickly ran across the mantra, not restricted to his party, that what help there was should be concentrated on ‘the vulnerable’, a category in which very few of us, if we’re honest, would want to put ourselves.
It’s classic disassociation language and there’s a concerning implication behind it, which is that if you were really trying you could deal with this problem without help. Interestingly that wasn’t the principle on which much of the new help introduced by Robert’s party in the 1990s, such as Disability Living Allowance, was based. It had more to do with compensation, than with subsistance support. I’d have liked to discuss just how we define where disability ends, and vulnerability begins but we didn’t really get there.
Unease with aspects of disability is certainly not confined to politicians. Nor could my second guest in the series be accused of disassociation. Melanie Reid has been writing a weekly column in The Times since the riding accident which left her with very little movement. But even she admits that she wouldn’t like to turn herself into a single-issue campaigner and, more significantly I think, she has resisted many of the accoutrements that go with her disability. She’s still resisting converting her traditional farmhouse kitchen into a disability heaven of lowered surfaces, raised plugs, lightweight kettles, etc. Is there not just a hint of denial here? I think Melanie would readily admit that there is.
There was a time when it seemed possible that we might increasingly see ourselves as a group with common needs, achieved better together than apart. But it’s not happening is it? Accusations of scrounging, whingeing, and vulnerability seem to be doing their divisive work.