People with disabilities and media representation

Let me first tell you something about one of my role models when it comes to people with disabilities in political life. It must have been in 2012 or 2013 when, in the Australian media, I came across one of the key financial spokespeople of the Australian Labor Party by the name of

Andrew Leigh, and there was something about the man I found incredibly appealing right from the start. Politicians are often scripted these days, but, in his case, it never seemd that he was; he never came across to me like the regular politician and intrigued me with his competent approach and respectful attitudes toward his political opponents. The debates between him and Arthur Sinodinos who was a former chief of staff to Prime Minister

John Howard and minister in the Abbott and Turnbull governments were legendary. Both, even though from different parties and with different world-views, were unique politicians, always dealing with each other in a calm, competent and professional manner; in fact, it often appeared that outside the political daily business the two men greatly liked and respected each other and got along just fine. Even when subject matters became somewhat contentious, they were light in company and always managed to crack the occasional joke or to throw in some personal anecdotes. Of course, I naturally subscribe more to the positions represented by Andrew Leigh and began to learn more about the man.

Eventually, Leigh published his book

Battlers and Billionaires

In which he tackles the question of inequality in Australian society. Naturally enough I purchased the book on Apple’s iBook Store straight away and enjoyed profound, intellectual company, sitting in my favorite Cafe reading through the entire volume. It was then that I learned that he (Andrew Leigh) was visually impaired, and he only mentioned it because he thanked various people for helping him to conduct extensive research for the book. Like no one else I have come across in political life, he embodies for me where the disability movement has to go politically, particularly if we want to become a political force in the mainstream. His disability was never an issue; in fact, if I hadn’t read his book, I would never even have noticed that he had one. Not because he wanted to hide it, but because it never mattered in his career. Perhaps now the reader understands where I am coming from when I add a note of caution whenever disability politics revolves around disability understood within the framework of modern identity politics. I am not denying that there are issues solely relating to people with disabilities, and they need to be understood and addressed through politics as well, but, particularly in continental Europe and thus in Germany, I believe that disability politics has never managed to escape the ideological prison of identity politics, has never transformed itself into a struggle for equal participatory rights alongside other movements and has thus never established itself as a force in the political mainstream. It remains, largely, an issue relegated to the bureaucracy of the social security apparatus, and this is sadly true not just in education, but in employment too. As long as this approach persists the disability movement will not be able to transform itself into an inclusive movement which can appeal to the mainstream and advocate for civil rights. As long as the bureaucracy enjoys the power to determine what life prospects a person with disabilities can enjoy, there will be no Andrew leighs in continental Europe. If, for example, people with disabilities are restricted to one degree and then, as is mostly the case, pressured into either unemployment or underemployment, prospects for social upward mobility and ambitious educational attainments remain illusive. What always put me at odds with the German disability movement in general and the groups advocating for the blind in particular was their emphasis on the welfare system and its imagined capacity to facilitate inclusion in both education and employment.

The differences between the English-speaking world on the one hand and continental Europe on the other is also apparent in the mainstream media and the way in which they approach issues relating to people with disabilities. Whilst in continental Europe and Germany, coverage of such issues in the mainstream media is either non-existent or confined to the margins of public broadcasting, the situation in the English-speaking world is very different indeed, and this is true for the US, the UK and Australia. The issue of disability is covered in mainstream programming rather frequently, and it is covered in the same sometimes even contentious way other political issues are approached. For example, federal ministers in charge of issues concerning the disability community can end up on the early morning program of the


To be grilled aggressively on policies effecting people with disabilities. Imagining a similar scenario on German public radio makes me smile with both sadness and amusement. Honestly, I don’t think it would be possible, and in more than two decades of following the German public media, it has never happened, at least not on programs where such conversations and debates would matter politically.

I have decided to write this little piece because I want to draw attention to the setting up of a royal commission on people with disabilities and the terms of reference which, in such cases, matter more than anything else. Matthew Bowden, Co-chief Executive of People With Disability Australia talks about the remit of this likely new royal commission on a national, mainstream program


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