Apart from paying tribute to his predecessor and talking proudly of his constituency, he spoke with passion – and from personal experience – about the need to support special needs education and to challenge the fears and prejudices of some about people with disabilities:
“I feel passionately as a new Member that I want to introduce or try to reintroduce that culture of aspiration, because educational aspiration matters to me personally. As far as we can tell, I am the first Member of Parliament to be elected who attended a special school, and I particularly ask those on the Front Bench to pay special attention to needs of special schools, because they do matter. Had I not gone to that special school for the first few years of my education, I would not have been able to transfer to mainstream education. Without the speech therapy that I got at primary school, I might not have been able to stand here today and make a speech, so special needs education does matter.
“Once again, as far as we can tell, I also the first Member of Parliament to be elected who has cerebral palsy. I do not claim that that marks me out as anything special at all. I have never let it define my politics. Those who know me know that my interests are wide-ranging and far-reaching, and I will not let it define what I do in this Chamber—certainly not. I do not see myself as a role model for anyone. I have too many frailties, weaknesses and imperfections for that. I am but a weak and humble man after all.
“None the less, I hope that I can be a role model to the many people out there who might feel that they want to play a role in public life, but may not quite have the confidence to do so. I know from experience that one needs a bit of courage, yes; a bit of self-deprecation, yes; and the humility to accept that sadly, yes, the bar is still that bit higher for some of us. I found that during my campaign, when my cerebral palsy was used against me by some. It surprised and shocked me, but on 29 April I picked up The Economist and read in an article about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget crisis in California that people with cerebral palsy and epilepsy—the combination I have—had “mental disabilities”. If a publication as august as The Economist cannot get it right, it shows that there is an awful lot of work to do.
“Just last week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Lord Morris’s Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which introduced the basic concept of rights for disabled people, an Act without which I would not be here in the public sphere today, and I pay tribute to that. But it is abundantly clear to me that no matter how much we legislate, no matter how many laws we pass, we cannot legislate for what occurs in people’s minds. I hope, by my presence in the House over the coming years, not so much by what I say but by the very fact of being here, that I can challenge some of the misconceptions, prejudices, fears and suspicions that go with my conditions.”
Paul has uploaded the full speech onto YouTube, for you to watch it in its entirety below.