Campaigners criticise ‘disablist’ coverage of Brown’s health


Disability rights campaigners have condemned widespread speculation around the health of the prime minister, Gordon Brown.

A string of journalists have commented on rumours about the prime minister’s visual impairment, suggesting his eyesight may be deteriorating and hinting that he would have to resign if he lost his sight completely.

And the BBC’s Andrew Marr asked Brown during an interview if he was taking medication for a mental health condition.

The disability campaigning network RADAR said that “using impairments – real or imagined – to denigrate a public figure and insinuate it could affect job performance is deeply disablist and perpetuates dangerous stereotypes”.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “Ironically, the prime minister has said he will act to outlaw the practice of issuing disabled job applicants irrelevant health questionnaires before they are even interviewed – a practice which leads to so much discrimination.

“It is a pity that there is no law to stop him being subject to the same intrusion.

“Too many politicians are afraid to talk openly about mental health issues and other impairments because of the continuing stigma they attract. “

Julie Newman, acting chair of the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council, said she was saddened by the media stories but also by the prime minister’s defensive response to the questioning.

Newman said: “I felt very sad that he felt that he had to defend his health.”

She said there was a clear emphasis in public life on the need for leaders to be “fit and energetic males”.

She added: “I think it’s sad that Gordon Brown has not felt able to come out as a disabled person in a strong way and align himself with our movement.

“He would have been stronger in his response if he had been able to do that.”

The mental health charity Rethink also expressed its unhappiness with the media coverage.

Paul Corry, Rethink’s director of public affairs, said: “We must stop looking at mental health problems as something to be ‘admitted’ or ‘denied’ – like a guilty secret or a terrible weakness.”

He said the former Norwegian prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, was open about his depression and found his popularity shot up in the polls.

He added: “The way rumours about the prime minister’s health have been handled in the media can only reinforce stereotypes and help increase stigma.”

29 September 2009