Yorkshire Post - - FEATURES & COMMENT - David Blun­kett Lord Blun­kett, from Sh­effield, is a Labour peer. He was Ed­u­ca­tion and Em­ploy­ment Sec­re­tary from 1997 to 2001.

I WAS re­minded of an ex­tra­or­di­nary event which oc­curred when I was Ed­u­ca­tion and Em­ploy­ment Sec­re­tary (more on that later) when I heard of the de­ci­sion by Univer­sity of Manch­ester Stu­dents’ Union to ar­gue for au­di­ences not to clap.

If you haven’t come across this ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of non­sense, this is about hi­jack­ing the im­por­tant is­sue of Bri­tish Sign Lan­guage (BSL) by in­di­cat­ing that those who are hard of hear­ing, or of a ner­vous dis­po­si­tion, might well be deeply up­set and in­con­ve­nienced by peo­ple putting their hands to­gether.

By en­cour­ag­ing “jazz clap­ping” which in­volves mov­ing your hands out­wards, palms fac­ing away, I feel, in one sense, quite sorry for the stu­dents who ini­ti­ated this po­lit­i­cally cor­rect ap­proach to pro­tect­ing their fel­low stu­dents and cit­i­zens.

They ob­vi­ously gen­uinely meant well, and be­lieved that they were be­ing thought­ful about oth­ers. That is to give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt.

How­ever, what lies be­hind ges­tures of this sort is a deep mis­un­der­stand­ing about how those who have very spe­cific needs – sen­sory de­pri­va­tion and the like – would wish the rest of the world to be­have.

This brings me back to the in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of my own.

Many moons ago, I was in the mid­dle of one of my many con­tro­ver­sial clashes with the teach­ing unions.

Bizarrely, I was just an­nounc­ing a mas­sive in­crease in fund­ing for both build­ing and re­con­struct­ing schools, and for school bud­gets, which had been so badly hit over the pre­vi­ous decade.

In re­turn, I wanted a gen­uine drive to dra­mat­i­cally im­prove stan­dards and proper eval­u­a­tion of the con­tri­bu­tion that teach­ers were mak­ing be­fore they went up the pay scale.

At what was con­sid­ered to be a rea­son­ably mod­er­ate union (now amal­ga­mated), the As­so­ci­a­tion of Teach­ers and Lec­tur­ers, I re­ceived a very po­lite and re­spect­ful wel­come, a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to one or two of the ex­pe­ri­ences of shout­ing, heck­ling and wav­ing flags which I hap­pily en­joyed else­where.

How­ever, a cun­ning plan had been put to­gether which, in terms of or­gan­i­sa­tion, ac­tu­ally worked. At the end of my ora­tion, in­stead of boos and cat­calls, there was ab­so­lute to­tal si­lence.

It is hard to de­scribe the im­pact. For any­one used to pub­lic speak­ing, ap­pear­ing on a pub­lic plat­form and ex­pect­ing at least some re­ac­tion, it would have been bad enough. If you can’t see, it’s dev­as­tat­ing.

I don’t ex­pect ever, and I didn’t then, to be treated any dif­fer­ently to any­one else so it never oc­curred to me un­til much later than this had far greater im­pact on me than it might have done on some­one who could see the au­di­ence.

There are of­ten un­in­tended con­se­quences of ges­tures like the one by Manch­ester Stu­dents Union.

The same is true in re­la­tion to peo­ple’s con­de­scend­ing and of­ten pa­tro­n­is­ing ap­proach to race and other equal­ity is­sues. In­stead of peo­ple speak­ing for them­selves, those parad­ing their con­cern about oth­ers, and their well­be­ing, de­cide to make de­ci­sions for them.

When I was leader of Sh­effield City Coun­cil, we had a bizarre in­ci­dent. A well-mean­ing coun­cil of­fi­cer de­cided that the term ‘black’ was dis­crim­i­na­tory. So words like ‘black­board’ or ‘black­balled’ were to be ruled out of coun­cil re­ports.

When I found out about this, I im­me­di­ately in­ter­vened, al­though, by then, it had been given a pub­lic air­ing.

I re­ceived an avalanche of let­ters. Not from trendy lib­er­als but pri­mar­ily let­ters from the African Caribbean com­mu­nity in the city. Yes, I mean lots of let­ters!

And what did they say? ‘Thank you’. They said we don’t want other peo­ple speak­ing for us, and cre­at­ing ten­sion and un­wanted de­bate on our be­half. Words ‘in the right con­text’, to misquote Humpty Dumpty, ‘mean what we know they mean’.

In my early days, I don’t think I would have con­tin­ued in pol­i­tics if ‘jazz clap­ping’ had been the or­der of the day. How could I pos­si­bly know whether I was get­ting through to the au­di­ence, touch­ing a nerve or lift­ing spir­its?

It is just nor­mal to test out and to value a re­ac­tion, good or bad, in re­spect of or­a­tory – which it­self seems to be go­ing out of fash­ion.

Of course, sen­si­tiv­ity to the ev­er­in­creas­ing fragility of the emo­tional state of young peo­ple is to be wel­comed. But all of us live in the real world, which is the world that other peo­ple in­habit. So I don’t ex­pect that when peo­ple are mak­ing pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tions, de­liv­er­ing lec­tures and the like, they will de­cline to put up slides, on the grounds that this would be ex­tremely up­set­ting to me given that I can’t see them!

Just be­cause I can’t take ad­van­tage of a par­tic­u­lar as­pect of life around me, or would find it some­what be­wil­der­ing or even ex­clud­ing, doesn’t mean that ev­ery­one else should not get on with their life.

Sorry but it’s true. Con­sid­er­a­tion and where pos­si­ble com­pen­sat­ing ac­tion yes, ges­tur­ist rub­bish – no.

So, next time you see me in an in­cred­i­bly busy and over noisy restau­rant – which, if I can help it, will not hap­pen – don’t spare a thought for the fact that I’m hav­ing real dif­fi­culty with con­ver­sa­tion and de­cide that ev­ery­one in the in the venue should ‘eat with­out speak’.

In­stead, give me a bit of ad­vice on where I might find a quiet cor­ner to en­gage in a dy­ing art – con­ver­sa­tion.

In­stead of peo­ple speak­ing for them­selves, those parad­ing their con­cern de­cide to make de­ci­sions for them.

Stu­dents have been urged to use jazz hands in­stead of clap­ping – but al­though their hearts are in the right place, it’s a use­less po­lit­i­cal ges­ture that helps no one.

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