Jonathan Starling
Jonathan Starling

The House of Assembly will meet today to begin the Budget debate. However, it will follow on from what was a particularly explosive session last week — one which stood out for a rather woeful display of discourse.

There are many different areas of interest: 

Deflection rather than discussion;

Interruption of speakers (and I’m not talking Points of Order or Clarification);

General insulting and childish behaviour, involving, but not limited to, heckles, personal attacks and threats (from both the Premier and the Minister of Tourism and Transport towards the Opposition Leader);

The Minister of National Security using ‘intemperate language’ to insult the Speaker and members of the public (including yours truly).

There is one particular aspect that I would like to highlight here. And that is the insensitive comments by two MPs, at least one a sitting Government Minister, regarding mental health.

During the debate in the House we had the Attorney General accuse the Opposition Leader of having Tourette’s Syndrome, either in reference to that Opposition Leader’s hand gestures or choice of words.

Later on, the current Minister of Public Works accused the Opposition Leader of being either Schizophrenic or bi-polar.

Perhaps these ‘Honourable’ members of the House thought they were making a funny quip and scoring political points in the process.

However, these comments were, quite frankly, insensitive, vile and bigoted.

Mental health is nothing to joke about, or bandy around as an insult, nor something to be used for scoring political points.

Reinforcing stereotypes

The comments expressed by these two Ministers simultaneously reinforce stereotypes regarding these particular neurological conditions and help maintain prejudice and discrimination in our society.

It is particularly distressing that one of the Ministers involved was, until late last year, the Minister of Health, under whose responsibility falls issues of mental health, and who, just last October, presided over Mental Health Awareness Week. One would have hoped that she, of all the Government MPs, would have known better. The other is overseeing the Mental Health Court’s creation, while at the same time belittling mental health conditions.

While MPs enjoy the parliamentary privilege to say as they please, one would hope they would at least try to adhere to the rules of society or social convention — and one would hope that doesn’t include making bigoted comments.  

While comments such as these may stem more from ignorance than malice, the fact remains that they can hurt and normalize abuse and discrimination of the differently abled, which includes not just the ‘visible’ differently abled but also ‘invisible’ diversity, be it hearing impairments or neurological diversity.  

Politics aside, comments such as these can give a carte blanche to those with prejudice towards the differently abled to insult and discriminate.

The comments by these two Ministers were unfortunate – they displayed at best an ignorance of the realities of the conditions mocked and reinforced stereotypes; at worst they expressed wilful bigotry.  

While the OBA should be commended for developing a mental health court, the outlawing of discrimination on the basis of mental health remains conspicuously absent from the Human Rights Act, and our built environment is one that largely maintains segregation against the physically differently abled.

Perhaps these comments can help draw attention to this situation – and help lead to a better situation for all Bermudians?