National Disability Smorgasbord

 

The concept was utterly brilliant.   A perfect political move: a strategy targeting over 14 million people, a fifth of the population, of whom the vast majority are voters.

And it goes on giving: With hospital waiting lists already topping 5 million and forecast to reach 14 million, there’s potential to double that disabled constituency.   Just ask someone like Peter who’s been waiting two years for a hip replacement: constant pain, can hardly walk, had to give up work, income crashed.   With 40% of the population to play for, it’s no wonder that politicians and public servants are aiming to up their game (Command paper 512 Published 28 July 2021).

How does this new National Disability Strategy measure up?   Surely everyone can applaud the broad ambitions buried away in Part 2 of this long document:

  1. Ensure fairness and equality – we will empower disabled people by promoting fairness and equality in opportunities, outcomes and experiences, including work.
  2. Consider disability from the start – we will embed inclusive and accessible approaches and services to avoid creating disabling experiences from the outset.
  3. Support independent living – we will actively encourage initiatives that support all disabled people to have choice and control in life.
  4. Increase participation – we will enable greater inclusion of a diverse disabled population in the development and delivery of services, products and policies.
  5. Deliver joined up responses – we will work across organisational boundaries and improve data and evidence to better understand and respond to complex issues that affect disabled people.”

 

So good so far and, sometime, someone will hopefully provide the baseline and target data so we can actually measure performance against all those stirringly impressive goals.   But there’s another wrinkle: surely the Equality Act has already had 10 years to achieve pretty much the same?   It may be too optimistic to expect a mere ”strategy” to do better when it doesn’t have the muscle of legislation or the alleged enforcement role of the EHRC.

Step forward Part 3 to provide that essential accountability muscle: hapless Ministers making personal commitments for their respective Departmental actions.   Presumably, each time there’s a reshuffle, new faces and names will simply replace them.   Perhaps it would be a good idea to include the top mandarins too as they might have more longevity?

It seems curmudgeonly to look this gift horse in the mouth by asking if the commitments of Government Departments tackle the most important challenges facing disabled people.   The original strategy concept seemed so brilliant, but the end-product gives the overwhelming impression of civil servants desperately cobbling together actions that were already underway or would cost little or nothing in the future.   For example, extending jury service to Deaf people is certainly overdue but where’s the data and commitment to reducing the wholly disproportionate number of prisoners with mental health conditions.   Both are important but probably don’t have the same impact on society and fairness.   Likewise, there are huge gaps in the “strategy”: The Treasury doesn’t feature so presumably there’s no link between financial or tax policy and fairness; likewise, that massive NHS waiting list and its potential to double the disabled population doesn’t merit a mention.

The strategy is like that weary buffet after someone has taken all the choice cuts: an unappetising mismatched miscellany of scraps.   If this brilliant concept is to realise its political potential, Government needs to go back to the drawing board: ask Departments to share the data about where their current policies, practices and procedures have the most negative impact on fairness and equality for disabled people and then tell us what they are going to do about it.   We want dates, data and targets that will prove that there has been real progress plus the carrots and sticks to motivate them.   Meanwhile, this disabled person isn’t holding her breath for any significant change and just wishes that Government acknowledged that equality law applies to them too: leading the way would encourage the rest of society to do better too.

 

(P.S.   It’s taken me longer than hoped to read the strategy: the “Special” Policy Adviser in the Cabinet Office didn’t really understand what accessibility means in relation to blind people – say no more)

 

 

The cards are stacked against us but who is dealing?

One fifth of the population has a much tougher time than the rest and it’s been getting worse.  We are becoming an isolated and impoverished underclass because the law and decades of Government policy just don’t work.    Optimistically, this could simply be due to rather incompetent and poorly coordinated policies that, together, have a disproportionate impact on the weakest in society but others might see it as just cynical targeting of the most vulnerable.

Life is a constant uphill battle for nearly 12 million of us with long-term health conditions and disabilities.  And, it’s official according to the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission

https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/being-disabled-britain-journey-less-equal

If nearly one in five of us have health conditions or impairments, the chances are high that you come within the disability definition or know someone who does.  Here are some of the battles we face:

  • You won’t do as well as others at school, are more likely to be excluded and to drop out of education.  Not surprisingly: “the proportion of disabled people with no qualifications was nearly three times that of non-disabled people in 2015/16”.
  • Your social and community life is probably limited by transport problems.  Alongside, getting health, tax, benefits and other public services has probably become increasingly difficult – not least due to the wide gap in your access to online services compared with other people.
  • You are more likely to face health inequalities, face major health conditions and die younger.  If you have a mental health condition (whether your “original” disability or as a result of it), life is even more difficult
  • You are more likely to have experienced crime and feel unsafe while the criminal justice system still isn’t good at understanding disability hate crime
  • If you are in prison, you are more likely to have a mental health condition than the rest of the general population.  Health and social care detentions have increased but assessment and treatment is still problematic.
  • You are less likely to be in work and Government initiatives such as the Work Programme, Work Choice and Access To Work haven’t made much difference.  Even if you do work, you are likely to be earning less.  With  all of this against you, its not surprisingly you are more likely to be living in poverty  and this has been made worse by the combined effects of the much disputed and criticised benefit changes.   Other changes in the legal aid system have limited your access to justice, for example, there has been a 54% drop in disability discrimination cases going to employment tribunals.
  • Overall, you probably still experience the very obvious negative attitudes towards disabled people throughout Britain and all aspects of our society – and which can be even worse for those with mental health conditions, learning disability or memory impairment.
  • And not much of all this is likely to change while your voice isn’t heard:  it is more difficult for us to vote and we are few and far between in politics or the key decision making roles in our public institutions.

 

It seems that life has become more difficult over many years but we aren’t seeing any coordinated action to make it better.  What are the politicians, the courts, the Commission and all those others with power and influence doing?    I suspect that we can’t rely on morality and conscience to create change.  But the financial imperatives are striking: we are probably the most expensive section of the population and the vast majority want to contribute to society and the economy.  But it’s going to take a much more robust, cross-Government change of attitudes to make a difference.

And I’m not suggesting that any one political party is offering the solution.  We need manifestos that recognise that nearly 20% of voters (and all their families and carers) want big improvements – and solutions that are good for the economy and everyone else too.

Before using your vote, check out each manifesto: do they recognise the full range of problems, have practical answers and the funding to make it all a reality?

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000