A disabled MP has spoken of how being diagnosed as autistic has helped him to understand his behaviour as a younger man that led to his suspension from the Labour party.
Jared O’Mara has told Disability News Service (DNS) that he was diagnosed in January this year by a psychiatrist, three months after his suspension from the party.
He was heavily criticised by disabled campaigners last year when a series of offensive remarks he made about other minority groups and women as a younger man came to light.
But O’Mara (pictured, centre) has now appealed for understanding and forgiveness for the comments he made as a younger man on an internet chat forum, pointing out that he and other autistic people “don’t understand the social nuances of language and humour in the same way as neurotypical people do”.
The Sheffield Hallam MP told DNS this week: “I still don’t now, and I’m scared that I might be bullied again for my language choices and how I express myself.”
His comments have this week secured support from two leading autistic campaigners, who suggested that he should be forgiven.
O’Mara “unreservedly” apologised again for the comments and said he was “horrified” at the offence he had caused and still felt “so sad and ashamed”.
But he said: “Parliament is a very scary and threatening place and I don’t think it has anticipated what the needs of members with mental health disabilities, autism and other learning disabilities will be because it hasn’t anticipated that it would get any members who have such disabilities (or who would go on the record about having them as I have).”
O’Mara – who also has cerebral palsy – said he believed that people with invisible impairments were “made to feel ashamed and treated worse” than those with physical impairments.
He added: “We can work and we can contribute and take part in public life, but only if great effort is put into providing us with the understanding and adjustments that we need and that, I may add, we are legally entitled to.”
He also said that he found political correctness “scary” as an autistic person, and that he believed it had been “weaponized” by people across the political spectrum “to bully those who make language and humour choices and errors that fall outside of its arbitrary realms of acceptability, even when those people passionately believe in equality for all”.
He said: “I am not a homophobe, I passionately believe in LGBTQ equality, I am not a sexist, I am an inter-sectional feminist and I am not a racist because I simply don’t judge people in terms of their ethnicity or nationality and to do so seems ridiculous for me.”
He said he had nearly taken his own life “as a result of being falsely labelled these and from being bullied and harassed and I want to stop being publicly shamed in this way.
“We should not judge people on their diction, register or choice of words nor their humour, we should judge them on what they believe, their policies and what’s in their hearts, particularly when they have ASD [autistic spectrum disorder] or a learning disability as we don’t understand the social nuances of language and humour in the same way as neurotypical people do.”
O’Mara also stressed his strong opposition to disability hate crime, and said he had “been called spastic and cripple and been beaten up for being disabled on several occasions”.
But he said there was no comparison between this kind of abuse and the discussions he had had on the internet in his 20s – he is now 36 – which had been private discussions in chat forums with long-time friends.
He said he had “erroneously misunderstood the taboo words I used to be slang and not terms of abuse, loaded with so much darkness” and also had not been “aware of how my use of humour could be misunderstood”.
He told DNS: “Those chats were meant for people in that era and exclusively for the people I was chatting with who understood that I held no prejudices against marginalised groups and who understood the context.”
Labour launched an investigation last October into a series of comments O’Mara had made on these internet chat forums and comments he denied making to a woman in a nightclub.
He was told last week that he would be re-admitted into the party, given a formal warning and told to attend equality training.
But he quit the party soon afterwards, telling his constituents in a letter that he had “not been listened to or been given a fair investigation” by the party and had “been made unfairly to feel like a criminal”.
He said he could not continue “under the pretence that I feel there is a place of acceptance and empathy for me as a working class, underprivileged disabled man within the Labour Party”.
He said: “Nobody should be made to feel ashamed for mistakes they make when they are young.”
Two leading autistic campaigners offered their support to O’Mara this week.
Dinah Murray, who leads the autistic-led National Autistic Taskforce’s communications and advocacy subgroup – but was not speaking on behalf of the taskforce – said: “Many adolescents take a while to get the hang of what may or may not be acceptable to whom.
“Society is nuanced and it is true that a lot of the boundary setting (these days especially) is far too fluid or volatile to make any lasting sense and thus does not suit autistic (or most other) dispositions.
“It is arguably the situation of being marginalised and precarious because of his autism, rather than the autism itself, which was behind his ill-judged attempts to be part of the gang.”
She also said that “a person’s autism can make them more vulnerable to manipulation and ill treatment” and that “an autistic person who adopts the bullies’ way of talking may be hiding from a particularly vile form of persecution”.
She added: “Youthful folly is the norm, and everyone needs to be given another chance. To me he seems to have spoken very honestly about past mistakes and with sincere regret.
“I feel very sad that he has experienced another round of bullying as a grown-up to the point that he’s left the Labour Party to which he had devoted so much time and effort.”
Another leading autistic rights campaigner, Adrian Whyatt, said he believed the MP’s comments were “valid” if he had a “formal genuine diagnosis” (which O’Mara has) and that being autistic “may explain his use of inappropriate language”.
He also said that O’Mara had “disowned his remarks from this distant past” and “appears to have repented of them”.
He said: “That should surely be enough in what still purports to be a Christian country. Where is the forgiveness?”
Another autistic campaigner said the impact of O’Mara’s autism on his use of language was “a complex area” and he added: “It can be difficult to gauge the impact, the way people will take things.
“Sometimes we speak or type before really thinking about our message.
“I have said some politically incorrect things in my time. I may inadvertently do so in the future.”
But he also pointed out that he “would have to know the person in question to really be able to tell where they are coming from”.
The disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, which was highly critical of O’Mara last October when his remarks emerged, and Disability Politics UK, which said last year that O’Mara was “entitled to due process and a fair hearing”, both declined to comment this week.
But Stephen Brookes, who has recently retired as a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, and was outspoken in his criticism of O’Mara last October, said the MP “really doesn’t seem to accept what his offence meant, both in relation to those he insulted and why it matters to equality and society”.
Brookes said: “O’Mara let many people down with his original offence and has done nothing to convince me there is any difference now.
“He abused others in totally inappropriate language, and which any of us as disabled people would challenge if made against us by a non-disabled person, so to now use the ‘disabled card’ denies equality and as an excuse is even worse in my view.”
But he also suggested that O’Mara should have done more to declare his invisible impairments and seek support from the Commons authorities when he became an MP.
Brookes said: “That was why the House [of Commons] didn’t work for him and he left himself open to all kinds of criticism.”
O’Mara, who believes he is parliament’s first autistic MP, has asked his constituents for patience, understanding and sympathy.
He told them in the letter: “I ask for everybody to go on the internet and read about autism, and about my other disabilities; clinical depression, cerebral palsy and anxiety.
“Then, with that reading and research, seek to exercise empathy over apathy and antipathy.”
He told DNS: “Young people make mistakes but regularly learn from them, I certainly have.
“My message to all disabled people is that I still dearly hope to be a force and a voice for them (and for equality as a whole) in my work as an MP, and after then too when I eventually leave.”
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