Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The quest for equality

Significant steps have been made in the past 15 years to create a genuine state of equality in which disabled people can thrive. But this is no time to be complacent

The campaign for disability rights and true equality could be said to be approaching middle age. This summer sees disability high on the political agenda, with discussions and consultations on key issues such as welfare reform, new equality legislation, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This busy period builds on what appears to be real progress for the rights and experiences of disabled people over the past 15 years. As well as the anti-discrimination legislation of the 1990s, more recent developments include the government's 2005 Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People report, which set a target of disabled people being "equal members of society by 2025". The report was welcomed across the board - partly because it recognised the challenges in fulfilling such a broad and far-reaching target, and partly because it highlighted the central importance of directly involving disabled people in the development of both policy and service provision.

The report looked at several core areas, including independent living, education and employment, as well as transport, leisure and support for families with disabled children.

Fifty-year-old Phil Mann, communications and marketing production coordinator at charity Scope, says things are far better today than when he was preparing for adulthood. "I'm filled with optimism for disabled 20-year-olds now in that position," says Mann, who was born with a mobility disability. "More progress has been made in the past 10-15 years than in the previous 50."

Liz Sayce, chief executive of disability charity Radar, echoes Mann's view, saying the incremental changes in legislation have given the UK's 11 million people with ill-health, injury or disability a better deal. She also welcomes a growing emphasis on and recognition of the needs of certain groups of disabled people, such as those with learning disabilities and mental-health conditions, who have historically struggled to have their voices heard.

She wants to see people have higher aspirations: "I still think we are beset with chronically low expectations of what disabled people can achieve." It's no longer just about getting a job - it's about career progression and management roles. "The more that people with direct experience of disability are in positions of influence, the more cultures will shift," she says.

For the greater good

Policy-makers, according to Sayce, should now build on the momentum, as this is of benefit not just to disabled people but to society as a whole, particularly at a time of economic downturn.

"We need to put disability at the heart of policy development and delivery. If, for example, a third of those without skills [that benefit the economy] are disabled people, it makes sense for the government to concentrate on skilling up that group."

The government says that's exactly what it is doing, through initiatives such as its welfare reform programme, with its emphasis on support and help for disabled people who can work. There's also the new Equality Bill, which will draw together nine pieces of anti-discrimination legislation (including the Disability Discrimination Act) into a new law offering protection to a wide range of groups, including disabled people.

"We have introduced new rights in a wide range of areas, including employment, education, and access to goods and services. The most recent changes ensured disabled people now have a comprehensive set of enforceable rights," says Jonathan Shaw, minister for disabled people. "Building on this foundation, we have introduced the Equality Bill, which will further strengthen and streamline equality law, ensuring that this country remains at the forefront in tackling discrimination."

The new bill, parts of which are out for consultation over the summer, has been broadly welcomed, although concerns remain that some key elements of current legislation, such as the disability equality duty for public-sector organisations - which requires them to promote equality for disabled people - might be diluted. The duty is seen as key to a fairer world because of the size and influence of the sector.

Neil Crowther, disability programmes director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is one of those concerned. Overall, the EHRC has been positive about the bill, but he thinks the public sector duty in the proposed new legislation doesn't go far enough on disability. The commission will also be looking carefully at perceived gaps in the bill around employment and education for disabled people. The commission's priority is to "ensure the bill maintains, strengthens and develops the distinctive approach to disability discrimination", he says.

More broadly, there are worries about the government's refusal to sign up unconditionally to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a statement of principles designed to promote, protect and ensure the human rights, freedoms and dignity of disabled people. While other governments such as Germany, Spain and Italy have already put their names to the convention, the UK has been more cautious."The UK takes international treaties very seriously, and our practice is not to ratify a treaty unless we are in a position to comply with the obligations that we are agreeing to be bound by," says a government spokesman.

Rowen Jade is chair of Equality 2025, an advisory group of disabled people that works directly with government departments and was set up following a recommendation in the 2005 Life Chances report. Jade says that although the existence of Equality 2025 proves that the "direction of travel" is right, she sometimes feels frustrated at the pace of change. "Government and disabled people working together can be powerful and challenging, but the machinery of government is slow. I think we would all like more action, more quickly." She will have a chance to hear other disabled people's views on the UN Convention and other disability issues at a public meeting hosted by Equality 2025 on 30 June at Upton Park, home of West Ham United.

For many disabled people, the challenge remains marrying up the rhetoric to the reality, especially with the imminent threat of public spending cuts.

Despite that, there are some grounds for optimism that the disability community can avoid a mid-life crisis and press on towards the promised land of 2025.

The Guardian, 16th June 2009

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