Opinion: The voices of people with disabilities must be heard

PUBLISHED: 12:55 19 October 2018 | UPDATED: 13:41 19 October 2018

Oliver Marshall who had to move out of Norwich to avoid hate crime. Photo: Staff

Oliver Marshall who had to move out of Norwich to avoid hate crime. Photo: Staff

Opening Doors

Nicola Barrell spoke to Oliver Marshall about the rise in hate crimes against people with disabilities. He taught her a valuable lesson...

I became a journalist quite simply because I love meeting people and listening to their stories- it has given me incredible access and insight into so many different walks of life.

I have interviewed Government ministers and international celebrities but actually my most memorable interview was with the parents of a woman who had died in childbirth.

The elderly couple had kept silent for 10 years awaiting the outcome of an out of court settlement against the hospital in which their daughter had died. They were finally able to talk about the tragic experience of meeting their grandson for the first time on the same day they lost their daughter.

When my story ran on the front page of the Great Yarmouth Mercury, they called the office and spoke to a colleague who scrawled the message on a note. “Thank you - this is the best day we have had since our daughter died.”

During my 26 year career as a journalist and television producer I have occasionally remembered that note – it meant so much to me, the value they placed on finally having their story heard.

This week I wrote an article about people who had experienced being spat at, verbally abused and harassed because of their disability.

My report followed the release of Home Office figures revealing that Norfolk and Suffolk had the highest figures of hate crime against disabled people in the country.

I contacted Norfolk-based Opening Doors – a charity for people with learning difficulties run by people with learning difficulties – to see if they could comment on the issue.

I was on a tight deadline so my heart sank when a member of staff said that she couldn’t offer her opinion. However, she explained that I could wait until the trustees who themselves had learning difficulties returned to the office and they would talk to me.

I thought to myself: “Why can’t you just speak on their behalf, it will only take a few moments and then I can get on and file the story. I haven’t got time for this.”

But I cordially agreed and rang back an hour later. With time running out, it took what seemed like a very long minute to organise the conference call with Oliver Marshall who had been brain damaged since childhood.

Oliver explained that he had had to move out of Mile Cross to live in Strumpshaw because of people throwing stones at him and other abuse he had experienced.

He went onto explain to me that it was important for disabled people not to keep quiet about hate crimes and to report these matters to the police.

My cynicism was replaced with admiration for both this man and the organisation he is a trustee of, which believes that “everyone has the right to speak up and to be listened to.”

My own impatience and possibly even prejudice had almost resulted in not talking to Oliver. His voice would not have been heard by me or by the readers of this paper.

We often hear from official representatives whether politicians, police officers or charity leaders and we often report on statistics, surveys and research but this one version of a story.

It is just as important to make the time to talk to those people behind the headlines and give a voice to those who often aren’t heard.

In fact I could probably apply a little more patience and take time to listen in my every day life as a mum, a neighbour and a friend.

I hope the conversation with Oliver will have as much impact on me in the future as the note I received as a young reporter 26 years ago.

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