The Norfolk County Council offices where Tom is based

“You have to fight being pigeon-holed”

Guest post by Tom Garrod, an events manager, public speaker and councillor in Norfolk who has ataxic cerebral palsy. Here he shares his experience of being a councillor and what being a disabled person in politics can mean.

I was elected as a councillor when I was 19 and I have been a councillor for six years. People are still surprised when they meet me as their councillor, they’re surprised I’m the bloke from the leaflet! I think this is equal parts my age and my disability.

You have to fight being pigeon-holed because of your age, your disability and your label. I’ve been asked “Tom, you’re very young for a councillor, do you think the council should be run by teenagers and young people?” And I said no, of course not. You couldn’t have a Tom Garrod, a councillor for Norfolk smiles at the cameragroup of 60 or 70 year olds running the council. They would be missing a different perspective. You need a mix.

Sometimes I have the same issue with my disability. A role relating to disabilities came up in the council and someone said “Tom that’s a perfect role for you! You know what disabled people are like.” And I said , what do you mean? I have cerebral palsy. I don’t have autism or Down’s Syndrome. I’m not blind and I don’t have hearing loss. I have no idea about lots of disabilities. But there was the assumption that I’m part of that label and we’re all the same.

Don’t make assumptions

I think being disabled can give you that perspective. My experiences have taught me not to make assumptions. I don’t know what it’s like to be a blind person but I know that I don’t know. I know I need to go and find out about these experiences. When you commission services, you’re not treating a disability. You’re treating the effects.

I remember being really nervous when I gave my first speech to the council as a councillor. It was budget day so the full council was sitting. I was nervous not only about the politics of what I wanted to say but also how I was going to say it. Would I be listened to?

The leader of the council helped me with my speech and afterwards I asked him what he thought of how I delivered the speech? He said what was interesting was that five councillors spoke before me and there was the usual chatter as they talked with people whispering, making comments. But when I stood up to speak you could tell everyone was nervous about not understanding me, so everyone stopped and really listened to every word. I thought I was the only one nervous!

Because of my disability, I make a conscious effort to only speak if I have something to add. With my disability, I have a subconscious instinct of thinking, do I need to say what I want to say? How can I say this as effectively as possible? Of course, I do enjoy the sound of my own voice but only when it makes difference. Otherwise, what’s the point?

It’s time to get involved

Now is a brilliant time to be involved in politics. When I was elected, during the first round of budget cuts, people said, “Tom, you could have chosen a better time to get elected. Maybe when there was more money about!” But I see it as now being an important time, with real decisions being made at a local level. If you’re a young person or a disabled person and you want to be involved in politics, just ask. Don’t take no for an answer.

With approaching local council and London Mayoral elections, as well as the EU referendum, we want disabled people to have a clear understanding of their voting rights and options. Read our blog about voting and elections for more information.

Header image: Norfolk County Hall, Martineau Lane (Graham Hardy) / CC BY-SA 2.0