Britain is embracing diversity. So why are people with disabilities still excluded?

Published by The Guardian (30th October, 2015)

Rejoice, rejoice. Britain’s biggest companies hit a target of ensuring half the population have one quarter to seats in their boardrooms. Sarcasm aside, this is cause for a degree of celebration, since the proportion of women at this top level of business governance has doubled in four years. Most are non-executives, not involved in daily operations, but it remains a step in the right direction.

This small advance shows how far there is to go before we see genuine equality for women from the workplace to Westminster. Yet no sooner had Lord Davies revealed the end to all-male boardrooms among Britain’s biggest companies, then Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna raised questions over ethnic diversity. They have a point: representation is too low, while the number of all-white boards is increasing. But for all the backslapping talk of tolerance in Britain, attitudes are shifting fast when it comes to gender, race and sexuality.

Yet one minority is all too often left out of the equality equation. It is a minority that can be counted in millions yet remains trapped on the margins of society. It is one routinely bullied and beaten, barred from buildings, excluded from the workplace, shunned by society, unable to access public transport, stuck in the worst poverty and even in the most extreme cases killed by repeated but avoidable failings of state services. Yet when it comes to people with disabilities and learning difficulties, how much do we hear beyond patronising platitudes about equal life chances?

This was brought home to me again when invited to join a panel on diversity at a political conference. The other speakers included a fair representation of modern Britain, while the discussion was interesting, informed and wide-ranging from representation of women through to the rights of gay parents. Yet there was not one word about people with disabilities – one-sixth of the population on government figures if including limiting long-term illness – until, having left it to the end, I pointed out this damning omission.

Both left and right should hang heads in shame at the failure to fight properly for this sizeable minority. This is not to ignore strides made on the legislative side; indeed, this year is the 20th anniversary of a landmark act that outlawed discrimination against disabled people. But despite this, there remains a 31% difference in employment rates between working-age people with and without disabilities. Figures for those with learning difficulties are even more depressing.

Ministers deserve credit for pushing employment for disabled people, which is rising, yet at the same time cackhanded cuts and benefit reforms  make it harder to hold down jobs and live ordinary lives. But for all the fury over reforms, they are just one aspect of exclusion. The corrosion starts with hurtful language used on streets and in schoolyards, highlighting wider attitudes and acceptance of bigotry, yet the insensitivity runs so deep that even this paper takes columns from a comedian guilty of making vile jokes about disabled children.

Now we see more plans, more talk, more good intentions to get 2,600 people with learning difficulties out of hospitals and back into their own communities following the Winterbourne View abuse scandal. We have heard it all before, many times. Fine ideals will dissipate in a morass of bureaucracy and departmental wrangling, while frontline cuts to respite care and short breaks fuel pressures on individuals and families. Yet every day, hundreds of thousands more people struggle with life among the most disempowered and disdained group in Britain.

Equality is often defined in terms of freedom from discrimination and income equality. ‘But it goes much deeper for disabled people,’  says Simon Duffy, director of the Centre for Welfare Reform and doughty campaigner for people with learning difficulties. ‘It is about giving them the chance simply to be citizens in society. There are such low expectations for disabled people that no one even expects them to enjoy full participation.’

Duffy is right. I rang the government to discover the statistics on disabled board directors, only to be told: ‘That’s not information anyone collates.’ The Confederation of British Industry said the same. Nor is there any mention of disability in a widely quoted ‘root and branch’ study of diversity among Britain’s 10,000 most senior employees. But then a recent survey by the charity Scope found more than one-third of Britons believe disabled people to be less productive than others, while, incredibly, two-thirds admit to feeling uncomfortable just talking to a person with disabilities. It seems a long time since the London Paralympics and all those promises of changed perceptions.

This exclusion goes beyond befuddled British embarrassment. It is the dismal legacy of a lack of workplace interaction, of limited social engagement and little cultural involvement. It is what happens when a minority is ostracised from the mainstream, when scientists propose eliminating people who do not fit their idealised view of humanity, when “retard” is a term of abuse. Yet only one in six people with disabilities are born with them. So from the boardroom down, it makes sense on many levels to stop shutting millions of people out of society.

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