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Less talk, more action: what’s really needed to transform disabled people’s everyday lives

Wheelchair, disabled sign isolated on UK flag background. 3d illustration

The pandemic has been called a great leveller as it has supposedly affected everyone equally. But that just isn’t the case.

Research highlights that during the pandemic:

These inequalities come as no surprise. Despite the 2005 Disability Discrimination Act, only 53.6% of disabled people are in work, compared to 81.7% of those who are not disabled and only one in five railway stations in the UK have an accessible ticket office or accessible toilets.

Downing Street, Westminster. Street sign for the official London address of the UK Prime Minister..

That’s why the recent publication of the National Disability Strategy was so disappointing. Heralded as ‘a cross-government effort to transform disabled people’s everyday lives’ and supposed to build on the Disability Discrimination Act, it’s woefully inadequate.

HM Government logo on the front cover of the document Our Plan To Rebuild - the UK Governments COVID-19 recovery strategy. London, UK – May 11th 2020:

When is a strategy not a strategy?

A strategy is ‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim’ so logically it should have objectives, immediate goals, medium-term actions and timescales. By and large these are all absent from the National Disability Strategy.

Take their ‘plans’ for improving accessibility to public transport. They talk about seeking ‘innovative ideas’ that would allow disabled passengers to contact train staff from their seats, and commissioning research into designing accessible bus stops and bus stations. All great initiatives, and yes commissioning research and collating ideas is important, but what’s going to happen once the research is complete? When will the changes be implemented and how will they be paid for?

Then there are the plans for making the environment more accessible to ‘create more consumer choice and convenience’. The Disability Unit blog rightly points out that it’s a ‘social injustice’ that 31% of disabled people find using public spaces difficult to navigate.

But all that’s planned is to strengthen the guidance the Department for Transport issues to local authorities.  Again, when and how is this going to deliver tangible results?

But then should we be surprised? I was a member of the advisory group Equality 2025 which was supposed to guide the government on how equality for disabled people would be achieved by 2025. It was shut down in 2013, because, ironically, it was not strategic enough.

Radical new approaches are needed

One of the more worrying aspects of the strategy is that it claims the government has successfully slashed the disability employment gap over the last seven years. Sounds impressive, until you read the Select Committee’s report.

Not only does it refute the government’s claims it has cut the disability employment gap, it also calls the gap unacceptable and puts the blame firmly at the door of the inadequate support systems put in place to help disabled people find and stay in work.

While the report welcomes the DWP’s plans to review the Disability Confident Scheme and make changes to Access to Work to make it less time-consuming and bureaucratic, as Stephen Timms MP says – “too often, decisions affecting disabled people are made without them being meaningfully consulted or listened to.”

Stephen Timms, MP

If they want these support systems to really be fit for purpose, let’s hope they include disabled people in the reviews.

Making the impossible possible

Of course, some of the barriers which contribute to the disability employment gap are down to employers, so recommending that they should be required to publish data on the proportion of workers who are disabled is a step in the right direction.

It will also hopefully make those employers who are unaware of their legal obligations or simply don’t know how to make reasonable adjustments sit up and take notice.

After all, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that anything can be achieved. For years disabled people have been asking for the flexibility to work from home and were told it wasn’t possible. Yet during the pandemic, working from home has become the norm, improving accessibility for many disabled people and proving it is possible. There is no reason why this shouldn’t continue.

Obviously, there will be situations where people will have to work from an office, but making reasonable adjustments to the workplace doesn’t have to be a major headache, especially if companies use access consultants, such as Proudlock Associates. Access consultants will look at accessibility through the eyes of a disabled person, which means any audits or plans will ensure the build environment works for the person in question. Making reasonable adjustments should never just be a box-ticking exercise.

The real way forward

While it’s positive there is increased awareness that change needs to happen and barriers removed, it’s frustrating that the National Disability Strategy simply doesn’t go far enough.

The fact that on the day it was published a deaf woman won a claim against the government for not providing sign language at two Covid briefings (there are another 260 cases pending!) reflects exactly why the strategy fails – there’s simply not enough action,  and that’s exactly what is needed if disabled people’s everyday lives are to be transformed for the better.