Martin Whitfield: MPs have a responsibility to shape how society treats disabled people

Posted On: 
18th June 2018

We must shift the perception of what a disability ‘looks’ like and articulate in a compassionate way the challenges people with hidden disabilities face, writes Martin Whitfield

Disability campaigners stage a protest at London Bridge station last month
PA Images

Perceptions matter, more so than ever when it comes to disability awareness. You wouldn’t think it, but according to the World Health Organisation, more than 1 billion people in the world live with a disability. That means one in every seven friends, colleague or acquaintance carries a disability in some form. Yet a large proportion of those who are disabled show no explicit sign of their condition. They do not rely on wheelchairs or require any piece of equipment which visually indicates their health.  

Of course, we cannot afford to shun or ignore the accessibility challenges for those who do rely on wheelchairs or mobility assistance. We have made huge progress but there is still a long way to go to ensure, from street furniture to narrow doors and steps to bollards that Britain is open and inclusive for all. Yet, infrastructural improvements must go hand in hand with challenging preconceived attitudes that exist towards people with both visible and hidden disabilities.

I want to briefly explain why I’m proud to raise this matter. It stems from the tireless work of a young woman who I have had the privilege to know, teach, fundraise for and someone I’m proud to call a friend. Grace Warnock, a diligent and inspirational campaigner for disability awareness.

Grace has Crohn’s disease, a condition I watched my mother in her 60s also suffer with. When Grace was just in primary school she noticed how people looked at her differently when she left accessible toilets. It was often a look of bemusement, “why are you using those?” and it was sometimes a glare of open hostility “You should queue like everyone!”.

Grace could have ignored this, she could have simply pretended she didn’t hear or acknowledge the antagonism she faced. Yet Grace went home and decided to do something about it. She didn’t want to shout back at those people, she wanted to show them that disabilities are not always explicitly clear.

She developed Grace’s Sign. A powerful visual aide which articulates an inclusive message, and reminds the public that not all disabilities are visible. I’m proud that this campaign has spread throughout Scotland, from the Parliament building in Holyrood to airports, shopping malls, leisure centres, businesses and council offices. Slowly, but surely, we are changing attitudes across Scotland, and it is now time to spread this campaign across the whole of the UK.

This campaign however does not just stop at a toilet sign, we need to shift the perception of what a disability ‘looks’ like and try articulate in a compassionate and reasoned way the challenges people with hidden disabilities face.

We see these false perceptions play out daily. People who are recovering from serious, often life-threatening brain injuries are often falsely viewed as ‘drunk’. People who carry painful muscular conditions questioned for their commitment to work. The inability to recognise and value the contribution of those with bi-polar or other mental illnesses. These falsehoods create anxiety and pressure for disabled people when socialising and working. 

I do not blame people for arriving at false assumptions, rather I see it as our responsibility as Members of Parliament to do something about it. We can make a start. A small recognition that this parliament, in 2018 is standing up for all disabled people.

I will call on parliament to break new ground and install Grace’s sign across the parliamentary estate. I will challenge ministers to roll these signs out across Whitehall and will invite all MPs to install these signs in their constituency offices. I will do this because I feel politicians and public bodies have a responsibility to challenge and shape how society treats disabled people in Britain.


Martin Whitfield is Labour MP for East Lothian. His adjournment debate takes place on Monday 18 June