As gay people celebrate, another minority remains stuck in the shadows

Published by The Independent (31st March, 2014)

They were clearing up the confetti, nursing hangovers and disappearing on honeymoons yesterday after the first batch of gay marriages in Britain. It was a remarkable moment as  the contented couples celebrated their unions with the traditional kiss. Within my lifetime, homosexuality has been first legalised, then embraced into everyday normality. Even bishops have begun to welcome the reform.

The ceremonies mark a milestone in the bumpy march towards tolerance and equality. We should rejoice at the speed with which people who were once jailed, mocked and used as a political football have taken their correct place at the heart of society. Politicians of all hues deserve praise for displaying courage in confronting the misanthropes who sought to stop lesbian and gay people from enjoying rights that the rest take for granted.

Problems remain with homophobic bullying in schools and bigotry abroad. But the reform shows how quickly attitudes can change. It is less than three decades since two-thirds of people thought any same-sex relationship was wrong; now, the same proportion support gay marriage – the numbers rising fastest among young respondents. There are 24 openly gay MPs (and more on Tory benches than those of other parties combined).

We have seen a similar rapid shift in attitudes on gender and race, for all the hurdles that still exist for both women and ethnic minorities. Yet, amid all the discussion of diversity and self-congratulatory talk of tolerance, one minority remains stuck in the shadows of society. Indeed, many members would argue that their life is getting worse, with hostility growing.

These are people with disabilities, a group growing fast in our ageing society. A new study by the charity Scope reflects the changing attitudes over the 20 years since it changed its name from the Spastics Society and shows the scale of the problem. In 1994, just over a third of disabled people said they experienced verbal abuse, with a similar number refused a service in a public place. Today, half of disabled people report discrimination in shops and almost a third when using leisure facilities.

It gets worse. Not only are people with disabilities far less likely to be in work despite being the most loyal employees, but almost two-thirds of those who develop a disability have lost their job within two years. Jean’s story is typical: after working for more than a decade, she was ignored by job agencies and had interview offers withdrawn when she started using a wheelchair. After finally getting an interview, it had to be held in a café because the work-place was inaccessible.

Reported hate crime is rising, with stories of awful abuse commonplace, while other studies have found that almost half of disabled people say attitudes against them are hardening. You can multiply all these damning statistics, the terrible stories of routine harassment, for people with learning difficulties. Just imagine the rightful outcry if this was happening to people because of their gender, sexuality or skin colour.

So why do we see this in the wake of the Paralympics, with all that optimistic talk of transforming attitudes? After all, there is anecdotal evidence that the event helped spark more sympathetic attitudes, while some businesses woke up to a market numbering millions of people. Yet Jean has been pulled from her wheelchair, sees buses refuse to stop for her and has even been accused of pretending to be disabled.

One reason is the lack of social and workplace interaction, such a crucial motor in changing attitudes. So instead of invitations to drinks after work and weekend dinner parties, there is befuddled British embarrassment at best, coldness at worst, towards people with disabilities. As a consequence comes a failure to understand their hopes, fears and desires.

Then there is the lack of political power – one more legacy of the poverty and woeful support endured by many disabled people. Digital technology has helped, but the idea of seeking a seat in Parliament is a joke for people who struggle to obtain a seat on the bus. At the last general election, more than two-thirds of polling stations had significant barriers to accessibility.

It also comes down to money. It is expensive to be disabled: on average, it costs £550 extra per month. It is costly to convert buildings, build specialist centres and ensure support for disabled children to get a decent education. As with gay rights, both main parties have passed landmark legislation but, more recently, both undermined their own steps forward. Disabled people have been victims of scrounger rhetoric and botched cuts, whether foolish measures such as the bedroom tax or badly implemented attempts to ensure that the right people claim benefits.

It is great to see Britain become more tolerant. But, with more spending cuts looming, are we content to leave one minority locked out of society as second-class citizens? Just as with gay and lesbian people, disabled people want only the same rights as everyone else. And remember that only one in six people with disabilities was born with them; one day this minority might include you, whatever your colour, gender or sexuality.

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