STEPHEN LEWIS speaks to a young man taking a courageous stand against those who see people with disabilities as different

MATTHEW Harper doesn’t need a wheelchair. He’s fully mobile, he says. “Just a bit wobbly!”

It’s a typically humorous aside from a young man who is determined not to be po-faced about disability. Growing up with cerebral palsy he quickly learned the value of humour as a means of coping. For example, he loved swimming as a boy. But because of his condition one side of his body is much weaker than the other. So when his friends talked about doing lengths, he always talked about ‘doing circles’. “Because one arm was stronger, I was always going around in circles.”

His parents always encouraged him to see the funny side of things, he says. “They said, ‘You can either sit in a corner and cry, or go out and do as much as you can’.”

Humour was one way of coping: talking about his condition was another. He grew up in Cumbria and his parents made sure he knew about his condition from an early age, and could explain it to anyone who might wonder why he walked differently to everyone else.

As a consequence, he says, he was never bullied at school. “People say children are quite cruel. But they can be the most understanding people, too.”

He was offered a place at a special school, but opted to attend a mainstream school. Some people need the extra help and support available in a special school, he says. But his condition is fairly mild, so he and his parents decided a mainstream school would be more challenging. “If I had gone to a special school my disability wouldn’t have been challenged. It might have been a quite complacent thing.”

He went through sixth form, then came to York St John University to study for a degree in Theatre Performance. “Theatre has always been my strong passion.”

He took that passion back into special schools, doing theatre with disabled children, and also works as a director in youth theatre in York – most recently, he directed Honk! The Musical at the Upstage Centre Youth Theatre in Monkgate.

Having graduated with a first-class degree, the 23-year-old now works as a customer services officer at the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust in New Earswick. It is his job to help make sure all housing trust staff treat clients with courtesy and dignity, and that residents have their proper say in the way they are treated.

He may find humour in his own condition, but there is no doubt that he sees the issue of disability – and how we as a society perceive and behave towards people with disabilities – as a hugely serious issue.

He wrote a powerful blog on the subject, which saw him named runner up in the Young UK and Ireland Programme’s Young Thinker of the Year award, and which was also published on The Guardian’s website.

It doesn’t pull any punches, accusing us as a society of operating a system of hidden segregation against people with disabilities. He likens it to the segregation of white and black people in the southern USA in the 1950s – a segregation challenged by Rosa Parks’ courageous refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955.

The way that disabled people are segregated in Britain today is more discreet than that. And as a society, we are getting better at dealing with ‘easy’, more socially acceptable disabilities such as paraplegia or people in wheelchairs, he says.

But other conditions are still seen as socially unacceptable: even if we wouldn’t admit that openly. “There is a repulsion in canteens or restaurants if the person with a disability is ‘dribbling’ or ‘making a mess’; it is smething we do not want to look at,” he wrote in his blog.

So how do we battle this segregation? “Maybe we can start with me?” he wrote.

“I have cerebral palsy; it’s mild, but I’ll probably limp back to my seat, unbalanced, and awkwardly work through my meal later on. But how would I have been taken if I was dribbling throughout or if autism meant that my language abilities were impaired? Disability isn’t cool or fashionable, but it is real and it is now. The apartheid culture and the Rosa Parks era has not left our reactions towards disability and still limits people’s lives today.”

To read Matthew’s award-winning blog in full, visit