In the final day of The Yorkshire Post’s series of special reports focusing on disability, a Sheffield MP tells of his battle to adjust to Westminster life while living with cerebral palsy and autism. Arj Singh reports.
Jared O’Mara, the disabled MP who sensationally ousted Sir Nick Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam seat in 2017’s snap election, feels “battle-worn”.
It is easy to understand why after a start to a career in Parliament as inglorious as they come.
-> Autistic Sheffield MP Jared O'Mara reveals he cannot attend Prime Minister's questions due to shouting and aggressionBut after a months-long suspension from Labour - a party he has quit – for racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments made in his 20s – the man once dubbed Yorkshire’s missing MP for his lack of activity in the Commons is back in Westminster.
And the 37 year-old is clear that as his views have changed, Parliament now needs to catch up with the times.
Mr O’Mara, who has cerebral palsy and is autistic, admits that he has not been able to represent his constituents “in the best way I can”.
But he insists this is because he finds it near-impossible to deal with a centuries-old institution that in his eyes is failing to make the “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people required in “every other workplace in the country” by the Equality Act, which does not apply to Parliament.
Mr O’Mara has praised Commons Speaker John Bercow for allowing MPs to go tieless, a decision he says was made partly because his cerebral palsy affects his coordination and ability to do up a tie, while a clipper would irritate the skin around his neck.
But the former DJ and music promoter argues that the authorities needs to go much further to make Parliament accessible for disabled people like him.
Among his demands is a zero tolerance policy on shouting and heckling, as he cannot currently attend the weekly raucous Prime Minister’s Questions session as the aggression “cuts through me” and “my anxiety goes through the roof”.
-> Jared O'Mara may quit as an MP at the next electionMr O’Mara also wants to be exempt from taking interventions during his speeches, making clear he is happy to answer questions at the end “like a normal person”. And he wants to see the introduction of proxy voting and speeches via Skype, arguing that his anxiety makes it hard to leave the House and his inability to stand up for long periods means he cannot go to the chamber if it is full.
Mr O’Mara says he has made these demands of the Speaker’s Office but was refused, a position he argues is only possible because the Act does not apply.
“I’ve spoken to lawyers,” he says.
“It’s called reasonable adjustments and there’s no way that could be seen as unreasonable.
“I didn’t know the Act didn’t apply and I wouldn’t have applied for the candidacy in the first place quite frankly if I’d have known they wouldn’t get everything in place for me as required by law.
“I’m used to having adjustments in place in previous jobs, any voluntary work that I’ve done. It’s just shocking and I feel like I’ve been led up the garden path.”
Mr O’Mara has already spoken in a debate about the “hurt” caused to him by MPs not realising the tie rule change was made partly to accommodate him, with colleagues accused of being “scruffy” when choosing to wear an open-necked shirt.
And he thinks it is a symptom of a deeper problem.
“I do think there’s a culture of ableism in this chamber and within the political parties as well,” he says.
“They don’t care about disabled people in the same way they care about other marginalised groups, particularly when it comes to adjustments.
“Why would they exempt the Equality Act from here if they cared about disabled people? It speaks for itself.”
Mr O’Mara has apologised for the string of highly offensive comments that earned him his suspension from Labour, and repeatedly says he “really regrets” his behaviour which has left him “sad” and “horrified”.
But nonetheless he controversially argues that part of the problem was a lack of understanding of his disability.
“You need to have a consideration of the context of the conversation, of the context of the era, and the age of the person, and particularly with someone like me where I had a learning disability – it takes me a lot longer to learn and understand the world in the way that other people do,” he tells The Yorkshire Post.
“That wasn’t considered.”
His critics may be pleased with his insistence that if a general election were called tomorrow “I wouldn’t be standing again” because the entire saga has “taken a lot out” of him.
But Mr O’Mara claims he has support from his Sheffield constituents, whose concerns he is now representing in campaigns against fracking and for a second referendum on Brexit.
“I’m not able to represent them in the best way that I can because I’ve not been given the equality adjustments that I need,” he explains.
“But I’m trying to be a conduit for the things that are most important to my constituents in volume.
“Where there’s strong public opinion in the constituency, that’s where I need to be there for my constituents above all.
“All along there’s been a heck of a lot of support and that’s what’s making me stay in this job above all because there’s so, so many nice people in Hallam and they want me as their MP, and I’m proud to serve them in that respect.”
Jared O’Mara says that despite the success of events such as the Paralympics and Invictus Games, attitudes towards disabled people in public policy are slipping backwards.
The Independent MP highlights a series of areas – cutting of special educational needs and disability funding for schools, failure to prosecute hate crimes and a welfare system which declares people fit to work but does not create jobs they can access.
But ultimately there is also a lack of understanding, he says. “Part of the problem is nobody uses Google. People encounter a disabled person and make a faux pas or assumptions about their disability, when they could just use Google and find out. For me that’s a serious problem.”