Disability is no obstacle in my life

JEREMY BALFOUR is used to being asked if he is a thalidomide victim. But it's a query that no longer makes him flinch. After all, he's had 38 years to get used to the fact that he has no left arm, and his right arm ends at the elbow, from which two elongated fingers protrude.

The thalidomide question is also an obvious one for a baby born in the sixties when the pills were being dished out to expectant mothers suffering morning sickness. But Jeremy isn't a victim of that medical disaster - rather one which has never been explained.

Doctors have never been able to discover the cause of his disability, which left his parents, who already had two healthy children, and medical staff, shocked when he was born.

"When I was born I wasn't actually breathing, so I was rushed to hospital," said Jeremy. "Then of course there was the realisation that I had no left arm and a disabled right arm."

Gesturing with his right fingers, he says: "These fingers were stuck together when I was born. After six months the surgeon took the risk to separate them. But that decision, along with lots of physio, made the biggest difference to me.

"I did get to know lots of children who were thalidomide babies, because I was treated alongside them at the old Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital."

Being born with such deformities, has meant Jeremy has worn a succession of false left arms since he was three. He left off wearing one for ten years and has only just started doing so again.

Sitting in his office at the City Chambers after winning the Murrayfield by-election for the Tories earlier this month, launching his new career as a politician, he says the reason he has returned to wearing a false arm relates to another key event in his life - marriage.

"If you don't wear one people stare more," he says. "I hardly notice that at all but other people, particularly my fiance, found the staring very intrusive. You can't walk down the street without everyone looking at you."

Tapping his latest false arm, which is much lighter because it is hollow, he adds: "I got this in May and we got married in August."

He sounds equally unconcerned by the fact that no-one seems to know why he was born with the disability in the first place. "The causes are still very unclear," he says. "It is not genetic. I was talking to a genetics doctor recently and she said it's almost impossible to say why it happened, it's just an act of nature, or an act of God."

The fact that God may have been involved is of some comfort to Jeremy, whose strong religious beliefs, he says, have helped him deal with his disability.

Both his parents, Ian and Joyce - now in their seventies - are Christians and took Jeremy his older siblings, Lesley and Robin, and younger brother Sandy to church every Sunday as children.

Jeremy himself is a Baptist minister, and credits his faith with helping him "come to terms with his disability". He is also grateful to his parents and teachers for giving him as "normal" a childhood as possible.

"There probably was a danger, on the one hand, of making no allowances for me, which could have made me feel inadequate - or on the other hand I could have been wrapped up in cotton wool. I think my parents got it right," he says. "At Edinburgh Academy, which I attended from primary one to sixth year, I think the teachers got the balance right too, between pushing me to do things and when I could not, finding other ways of getting me involved. For example I could not play rugby but I was made touch judge."

He also says that despite his physical problems he was never really bullied at school. In fact his earliest memory of how his disability set him apart stems from frequent falls because his missing arm affected his balance.

"I was not so much aware that I was different because of my disability - more that there were things I could not do. When I was younger my balance was quite bad and I used to fall over a lot."

But it was not a problem for long, and Jeremy soon learned to walk like anyone else. He became a keen swimmer, going regularly with his family. He also skis.

Leaving school, Jeremy trained as a solicitor in Edinburgh, following his father into a long established family career because "he had the qualifications to train and didn't know what else to do".

It was at Edinburgh University, where he studied part time while working, that he joined the Conservative Party. But at that stage he was still keen to go into law.

He enjoyed his job, but left to go to the London Bible College in 1995 because he felt he had a calling to be a minister.

It was his first real move away from home and the security of being surrounded by people who knew and accepted him. Suddenly the reality of his disability bothered him greatly.

"I was immensely scared," he says. "I could do most things for myself by then, taking notes and using a word processor with my two fingers and feeding myself. But I couldn't fully dress myself and I was wondering who was going to help me. But people were very supportive and helpful.

"People who don't know me have questions about my disability and I have always been open and honest about it. I think that has helped in my relationships with people."

When he returned to Edinburgh he started working as an assistant minister at Morningside Baptist Church, which was where he met his wife, 29-year-old speech therapist Jude, with whom he lives in Murrayfield Avenue.

He also moved closer to politics, joining the Evangelical Alliance as a parliamentary officer, lobbying the Scottish Parliament.

Among the issues he has lobbied against on behalf of the EA are gay marriages and promoting homosexuality in schools.

Explaining his position he says: "Marriage is for a man and a woman. That would be the Bible's perspective. But we have to recognise there are different views in society.

"My role with the Evangelical Alliance is to put across the Christian perspective. It does not mean that I feel people with different lifestyles should be discriminated against."

His new role as politician in his home city begs the question of whether he intends to campaign on disability rights. It seems not.

Jeremy says: "I'm not passionate about disability issues. I'm against discrimination of any kind and I don't think I have been discriminated against because of my disability, but I know people who are, and we need to look at that.

"I think subconsciously my disability has shaped me. People remember you, and from a political perspective that's no bad thing. But I hope my disability does not define me."

That said, he hopes that, like former Labour minister David Blunkett on a bigger stage, his achievements will inspire others with disabilities.

His role looking at education for the Tories is close to his heart. "I think many schools today are doing well in helping young people to become the best people they can be, but others that are not, and need to be supported and helped to improve," he says.