Idayah is a bright child. One of a spurned minority

Published in the London Evening Standard (December 2nd, 2010)

Idayah Miller shares the ambitions of any other 11-year-old girl. A bright and lively child, she hopes to be a fashion designer or a film star when she is older. And who knows what she could achieve, for she has a streak of stubborn determination that has already served her well.

Idayah has cerebral palsy but refuses to let it hold her back. She was frustrated at primary school until an educational psychologist picked up on her intelligence. Against the odds, she taught herself to walk, albeit only for short distances, and is now climbing stairs. Her steely progress has surprised doctors and delighted her parents.

But now her dreams have been dashed by the very person who should have been nurturing them — the headteacher of one of the leading schools in Britain, who rejected her application on the despicable grounds that she “takes up too much space” in her wheelchair.

Her case shows in harsh light the daily struggles, bigotry and blinkered attitudes that exclude so many people with disabilities from society.As the festive season approaches, it is a reminder that it is easy to buy Christmas cards that benefit the disabled but much harder to tackle deep-rooted discrimination and bring them in from the cold.

Idayah had set her heart on attending the Harris City Academy Crystal Palace. A beacon of excellence, it is the first secondary school judged “outstanding” in every category under a tough new Ofsted regime, helped by the inclusive policies and excellent facilities for students in wheelchairs it brags about on its website.

The school motto is “All Can Achieve” — unless, apparently, you are disabled. Steve Kenning, the principal, rejected Idayah’s application because she would “restrict the movement of other children” in corridors.

He said she was a fire risk, which would appear to be in breach of equality legislation, and asked her parents if they really wanted Idayah to be a safety risk to others — in effect, blaming her for her own disability.

The school has since apologised for the tone of the rejection, and Idayah’s parents are fighting a maze of appeals and bureaucracy to win their case. But only the crass words were unusual, not the exclusion from a leading school. Indeed, it could be worse. Last month the parents of an autistic boy in Scotland were dismayed to find a cage had been built for him at his school.

But the real lesson of the story, which explains the lack of outrage or national media coverage, is that it is just one more depressing reminder of how people with disabilities are a forgotten minority in Britain. Imagine if Idayah’s colour was used to bar her progress. Or her gender.

There would, rightly, be howls of anger across the nation.

Her case is a stark example of the prejudice and lack of opportunities that lie behind so many disabled children ending up as adults without qualifications, destined for a life of poverty.

By the age of 16, children such as Idayah are twice as likely to be outside education or training as their schoolfriends without disabilities. By the age of 26, they are four times as likely to be jobless.

The result is that people with disabilities end up in the shadows of society. We are locked in a vicious circle, with a fear of people who are different driving exclusion, and exclusion increasing the fear. If you don’t believe me, when did you last enjoy a night out with a disabled person?

A survey by charity Scope found 90 per cent of people have never had someone with a disability in their house for a social occasion. But then this is unsurprising when only one in five people has worked with a disabled colleague.

The story of Richard Shakespeare, who has cerebral palsy, is typical. He lost his job at a bank a year ago and has since applied for 1,923 jobs without success. “I would arrive for an interview, and you could almost see a look of panic in the face of the receptionist.”

And even when people with disabilities do find jobs, they are paid less and bullied more.

At a recent meeting to discuss hate crimes in Enfield a young man told of what happened when he found work with a major retailer. He was taunted endlessly about his disability, but when he complained to his manager, nothing was done despite CCTV evidence and police requests for intervention. Eventually he was forced to take time off for stress, then quit his job. One more young person sent back into the shadows.

It is 40 years since a heroic young Labour MP, Alf Morris, steered the first disability legislation onto the statute book and disabled groups began fighting for the right to live alongside their fellow citizens.

Undoubtedly, things have improved since the dark days when people such as my own profoundly disabled daughter would have been dumped in gloomy institutions.

But there is a long way to go before there is anything approaching real acceptance — and, worryingly, there are increasing signs of a backlash.

Some signs are small, such as the prominent businessman moaning to me about the cost of adapting his gyms and restaurants for disabled access. Or the alleged comic Frankie Boyle being rewarded with his own television series, despite relentlessly poking fun at people with disabilities.

Others are more worrying, such as the rise in hate crimes against the disabled, the most extreme articulation of this fear of difference.

Or the results of a BBC survey this week that found half of young Britons and those on low incomes believe people with disabilities are scroungers, turning down jobs to stay on benefits. It is hard to think of anything further from the truth.

Such poisonous ideas spread easily when disabled people are not visible. This is why ministers must rescind plans to end mobility allowance for those in residential care, a regressive proposal that flies in the face of inclusion. And this is why, ultimately, it is cheaper to pay for ramps and lifts and specialist toilets so disabled people can participate in society rather than spend their lives hidden away on benefits.

All can achieve, as the school motto so rightly says. But first we need to give them the chance to do so.

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