On 2nd April, 2020, the UK Government announced a National Strategy for Disabled People(1). For some reason I only discovered the fact after reading a post on Facebook that commented on a survey recently initiated in support of this new policy. A quick trawl of search results reveals that no major media outlet seems to have picked up on it either. The same can be said for the survey that was released on 15th January, 2021.
According to the government’s Disability Unit, the strategy is intended to ‘achieve practical changes that will remove barriers and increase participation’, to ‘put fairness at the heart of government work’ and to ‘level up opportunity so everyone can fully participate in the life of this country’.
I have to say that I both respect and support these aims, but, you knew that there would have to be a ‘but’, is this the government to do it? In 2016 the Conservative government was found guilty by the United Nations of ‘grave or systematic violations of the UN’s disability convention'(2). It would be reassuring to think that there had been some kind of sea-change in the ranks of the Tories with regards to disability issues, but there is little evidence of this. It was they who actively represented disabled people in receipt of benefits as scroungers and cheats through the media prior to introducing reforms to disability benefits. It was those sweeping changes that led to thousands of disabled people dying after being told that they were fit for work(3). The truth is that the Conservatives simply do not have a good, or even positive, track record on helping disabled people. In fact, the disabled appear to be nothing more than a political football to them.
Despite my reservations, I decided to look into this new strategy proposal. The accompanying survey was issued to meet one of the criterions of the strategy, which is ‘to build on evidence and data, and critically on insights from the lived experience of disabled people.’ Now this I like, at least in theory. The Facebook post I mentioned earlier related directly to this very survey. To verify the post, which objected to a question asked of participants, I completed the survey myself, and anyone else can as well (see reference 4 at the end of this article). Let us deal with the objection first; here is the question that is being contested:
The screenshot is from my laptop, you can see the time and date clearly in the lower righthand corner.
Even though I knew that this question was coming, I still hesitated to answer it. In fact, I chose not to answer it. My reticence has nothing to do with being oversensitive about intimacy. I am married with children. I have had many medical scientists examine my body due to the rarity of my condition. I have found my dignity compromised on more than one occasion as a result of medical treatments that I have undergone. Studying the question I realised that if you change the word ‘disabled’ for either ‘coloured’ or ‘gay’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘old’, you would end up with something that many other people would find objectionable; but it seems it is not objectionable if it is left as ‘disabled person’. Why is that?
I can appreciate the psychology of asking such a question, but I am not sure that this survey is either the correct environment or context in which to do so. I have met people who have a definite aversion to physically disabled people. They cannot stand to look at them or even be in their presence. They have included me in that respect. I am presuming that the question was included to try and measure the depth of aversion that some people might experience towards the disabled. Logically, I can understand that in light of the fact that disabled people are still being asked to leave public establishments, such as pubs and restaraunts, because their behaviour or appearance is upsetting other customers. The fact remains, however, that the question itself can easily be misconstrued and found objectionable as I have already shown.
Is the question an honest mistake or merely a misjudgement, or is it indicative of a latent cynicism that lies at the heart of all Conservative governments? Indeed, is it representative of all politicians in general? When I was 16 I wrote to the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal parties asking about their policies on disability issues, this was back in the days before the internet and writing a letter was the only way you could ask such questions. I received a single reply and that was to inform me that my query was being passed onto the the relevant person who would, they assured me, respond in due course. They never did. Currently, only 1% of sitting MP’s are disabled, which compares poorly to the government’s own figures of 19% of the working population being disabled. Incidentally, this figure is unofficial as there is no actual monitoring of disability amongst MP’s by the Houses of Parliament(5). Westminster does not feel very representative to me and never has, irrespective of which party is in power.
At heart I am an optimist. I have written previously on disability issues and there are many reasons to both lament the past and not feel too positive about the immediate future. Certainly, I do feel that the rise to prominence of the subject of racism in the social consciousness has left discrimination against disabled people behind. It remains, like disabled people, on the fringe of social concern. This is not a criticism of those who have fought to combat racism, just an observation that when the focus of society falls only on one particular issue of social injustice, it invariably ignores all others no matter how valid or deserving of consideration they too might be.
Now that I am aware of the National Strategy for Disabled People, I will be keeping myself up to date on developments. I remain sceptical, however. Currently, Diversity & Inclusion is the new big thing, certainly in the public sector. There is a drive to achieve a diverse workforce. Personally, I believe that diversity itself is a false objective. It seems logical to me that if we create a society that treats all people fairly, irrespective of any characteristic that they might have, and offers a genuine equality of opportunity to every single person, then workforces and representative bodies will become as diverse as necessary. Yeah, I am a dreamer, but maybe that is what has gotten me through life as a disabled person.