Tom Shakespeare

Do you recall the story of Chen Guangcheng? You know, the so-called “barefoot lawyer’? The self-taught advocate who fought against illegal sterilizations and forced late-term abortions in China? No? What if I called him by the description which was used in all the newspapers and broadcasts:“blind activist”? Ah, now you remember!

The media coverage of Mr Chen was extensive: his house arrest, the mistreatment of not just him but also his family and friends, and then finally his departure for the United States with his wife. I just wonder why it had to be pointed out in every feature that he was blind. Does every news report about Wolfgang Schauble remind us that he has a spinal cord injury?

Chen’s blindness was not relevant to his house arrest or to the campaigning that caused him to be persecuted by the Chinese authorities – although he did start his activist career fighting for disability rights.In my opinion, blindness was always mentioned because of the contrast in people’s minds between the stereotype of a severe disability, and the stereotype of a forceful campaigner.It made the story more interesting – how could a blind man escape like he did? It also made the Chinese authorities seem more repressive – see, those terrible tyrants even bully a poor blind person! Maybe, for some very ignorant journalists, it was also a matter of thinking – my goodness! I never knew that a blind man could have a wife and two children.

One day, disability will be ordinary, so ordinary that journalists will not feel the need to point it out, and disabled people will be known in every walk of life. Until that happy day arrives, please just remember that despite the endless fascination of disability, most people with disabilities would rather be known by their achievements or their personality, than by their diagnosis.