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Torstein Lerhol is responsible for 700 staff. Now he wants to become mayor.

Torstein Lerhol is responsible for 700 staff. Now he wants to become mayor.

| Text: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen, photo: Lars Erik Skreftsrud/NRK

Torstein Lerhol can only move one finger, but feels he can contribute to society just like anybody else thanks to the support he gets from his home municipality of Vang in Oppland, Norway. He wants to give something back. That is why he will run for mayor this autumn.

Torstein Lerhol works as a section head for a large company. But he is also top of the list of the Centre Party in Vang municipality.

“Political decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, closest to the people who will be affected by the decisions. That is why I am a fierce opponent of the merging of municipalities, for instance. Because proximity to political governance leads to better services. When we as politicians have to relate to the people we make decisions for, we make better choices,” says the mayoral candidate.   

He has been a member of the local and county councils since 2015. He does nearly everything except from swinging the traditional mayor’s gavel.

Do people mainly associate you as a politician with issues that concern people with handicaps?

“I try to limit myself as little as possible, and do feel I am being taken seriously. I engage in anything which is on the political agenda. I am probably quite an ordinary politician who has an opinion about most things – from upper secondary education to how many beds there are in the old people’s home. So no, I do not feel stigmatised,” he says and laughs a little.

Photo: Lars Erik Skreftsrud/NRK

Lerhol’s election prospect are not bad. The Centre Party had the mayor in Vang for 35 years before Labour took over in 2011. Lerhol says he has been interested in politics for a long time, and that he is particularly interested in the Norwegian Armed Forces.

“Yes, defence politics is and always has been one of my passions. Both of my brothers have served in the Telemark battalion,” he says. The Telemark battalion is made up of 470 professional soldiers, and have been involved in a range of foreign missions, according to the Norwegian Armed Forces. 

“I joined the Centre Party in 2005 because of the EU. I am a fierce EU opponent. Decisions must be made as close to people as possible,” he repeats, and makes it clear that he thinks the EU is in breach of this principle. 

Section head

“I have a master in teaching with history and social sciences. I started out teaching social sciences to immigrants in Trondheim in the adult education sector. Then I was head-hunted by Aleris,” he says contentedly. The company has since changed its name to Stendi. 

Lerhol works full-time in Asker for the private care company, as a section head with responsibility for 700 people. Legislation was introduced in the year 2000 obliging all Norwegian municipalities to offer user-controlled personal assistance – known as BPA.  Lerhol makes sure all BPA users get what they need. He is passionate about making sure anyone who needs and is entitled to help are told about the offer of user-controlled personal assistance. 

“The three things I need to be in work is my wheelchair, my own car and my assistants. These are the aids I am dependent on.”

Not incapacitated

The Nordic Labour Journal is read by many outside of Norway. Do you think some people believe there is a special Norwegian attitude to people with handicaps?

“Yes and no. On the one hand I feel we have all the aids and services needed to get people with physical handicaps into the labour market. But the Norwegian state has had so much money for so many years and many people have remained passive. They get incapacity benefits and many feel this is better and less stressful than finding a job,” he says.

Photo: Stendi

Photo: Stendi

“There is hardly any obligation for people with physical handicaps to get jobs. But it should be possible to be a bit more creative and to see the inherent resources among people with physical handicaps. Many of them have been seen as a challenge that does not need facing. But we are now starting to see that people with physical handicaps represent a resource which can benefit society.”   

Assistance for integration 

When he was one year old, Lerhol was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The illness means he has to lie down in a wheelchair, and he needs help with most daily tasks. This means he brings plenty of personal experience to his job at Stendi. According to the company, adults who are entitled to BPA usually have full control over what it is they need. That is why the company focuses on tailor-made solutions in order to achieve the best possible integration and participation.

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