On Friday night I loaded up iPlayer on my laptop to tune into BBC Newsnight – as any self-respecting member of the liberal elite is compelled to do – and right at the end of the programme something slightly profound took place. The segment in question was a review of various newspaper columns and sees a guest invited into the television studio to provide punditry on, well, punditry. Proof that the media can’t resist being meta.
This time, however, it was the turn of Esther Webber
, a political journalist at The Times, whose work until now I was only vaguely familiar with. What I certainly didn’t know is that Webber is disabled. It wasn’t noticeable right away and then I got ever-so-slightly emotional (there goes my hard-nosed journalist image).
I’ve waited almost my whole life to see a pundit with a disability invited on the telly to provide commentary on a topic entirely unrelated to disability. Disability issues are definitely talked about more in the media and in public discourse today than when I was growing up. This is thanks to the internet’s ability to provide a platform for a plethora of voices to be heard and the work done by outlets like Channel 4 News here in the UK.
However, I’ve always taken the view that progress in this area is just the end of the beginning. Real progress will have been achieved when disabled people are visible in every facet of life: they just happen to have a disability.
Let me repeat that: just happens to have a disability. Like, just happens to be a woman. Or just happens to be a man. Or just happens to be black. Or just happens to be LGBT. And so on.
It’s a profoundly simple idea but an incredibly powerful one, something I’ve experienced firsthand. The internet doesn’t know you have a disability (or if you’re a dog
). That’s not to say that how you identify isn’t important but identity is multi-faceted.
Would I prefer to be remembered as a decent journalist (hopefully!), a disabled journalist, or just a disabled person? The intellectually honest answer is probably all three (and many other things) at different times and in the correct context. But I certainly wouldn’t want disability to be the default focus. It’s a part of who I am but it isn’t who I am.
The social media reaction to Webber’s appearance was mixed. Her disability slows her speech, which some idiots took issue with. Others, like me, didn’t know she had a disability even though they were already familiar with her print work, which is probably just how she likes it.
Finally, one specific tweet sent to Webber warrants unravelling (I’m not going to link to it because the person clearly meant well):
“I follow you because you’re the best in a very large pack, had no idea you are disabled, complete respect to you & I hope life’s not too difficult for you”.
Life with a disability can be difficult, some of the time, most of the time, or not very often at all, as it can be for someone without a disability. Each person’s situation is different and a lot depends on the attitudes of others and wider society as a whole and if the support a person may need is in place.
To focus on how difficult life must be is patronising, and feeds into a narrative that says that whenever a disabled person has success it is something extraordinary when really it needs to become ordinary. That would truly be a measure of progress.
I hope we see many more disabled pundits on the telly soon.