Questions of influence


theblogsubThe time will come when The List – hosted by Disability News Service – will be narrowed down to the UK’s 100 most influential disabled people. Deciding upon who makes The List will be an unenviable task. After all, how do you begin to rank people and influence? 

Most people would agree that by sitting on boards, using the parliamentary system and holding senior positions in large organisations gives you a certain degree of influence. But should this automatically secure a place on The List? Personally, I think other factors should also be considered.

Disability matters, but context is everything. Take David Blunkett. At one time he was the third most powerful politician in the country, but today he is still an MP and a regular political commentator. This should rank him highly, though he has rarely talked about his impairment. Dame Anne Begg is influential in politics and previously in education, but without focusing on her impairment. Arguably, by being disabled people working in the big, bad world they do as much for the disability movement as those who work within it.

I think Stephen Fry should be high on The List, particularly because of his role as president of Mind. That role is influential by definition, but he is also influential by being open about his own mental health. When he chose to talk publicly about his suicide attempt he influenced many more people to seek support. Fry deserves his place for using his impairment to influence others, as do Blunkett and Begg for focusing on issues unconnected with their impairments.

The appeal of The List is that it covers media, sport, business, science, politics, culture and entertainment. But The List should not aim to represent each area of interest or impairment group equally. That would just be tokenistic.

The top 100 should definitely include people who directly or indirectly influence disabled people. Grassroots, user-led organisations should be represented, and I would vote for Mike Adams, from ecdp, who influences both at local and national levels.

Making television or radio programmes, publishing magazines, newsletters or websites, and producing podcasts, also make you influential, but not necessarily enough to make The List. However, Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley are influential both in their own right and through their on-line magazine, Disability Horizons, run for and with disabled people. Having them together on The List also means we get two for one!

By making or commissioning a TV programme you are not by definition being influential. Other factors will determine your influence. You will certainly be influential if you disclose your disability and make public that you made or commissioned the programme, and that it manages to persuade your audience on the subject you have chosen. The BBC’s Peter White and Channel 4’s Alison Walsh have this kind of influence.

Without dismissing the disabled people who influenced in the past, The List is, rightly in my view, about those who “currently influence within modern society”.

High-profile people like Professor Stephen Hawking and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson are obvious names for The List. But how does it accommodate less well-known disabled people who influence within their communities? Should the list reserve some places for the unsung influential disabled heroes of modern Britain?

Entertaining the public directly influences people outside disability and is just as valid as some of the other factors. The London 2012 Paralympics were a fantastic example and David Weir certainly deserves his place on The List. Another great example is Jack Carroll, Britain’s Got Talent runner-up. The final averaged more than 11 million viewers, and Jack has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter. The stage is his platform to change people’s perception of disability, while making us laugh. As for Evelyn Glennie, her influential reach is global and long-standing. But should length of service be a determining factor in measuring influence?

There are many people on the list who have been influential in multiple areas. I’m talking about the likes of Tara Flood, who has been influential in sport, education and activism, and Francesca Martinez, who influences through her comedy and her campaigning on welfare reform. Both are worthy of their spots on The List in any of their capacities. But does having influence in two areas make you twice as influential?

Ranking influential disabled people throws up lots of problems. In trying, I seem to have raised more questions than I have answers. One of the main problems is that there are so many influential disabled people. One thing I am certain about, though: this is a nice problem to have.

Steph Cutler is a partially-sighted professional development trainer and coach. She supports disabled people to achieve their goals and potential and raises awareness of disability issues with employers and organisations. and on Twitter: @Steph_Cutler