Neglect of disabled people is shameful waste of talent and resources

Published by The Telegraph (2nd December, 2017)

Theresa May wants to get a million more people with disabilities into work over the next decade, pledging to tinker with statutory sick pay and work assessments to achieve her aim. This is a laudable goal. As the prime minister says, ambition should never be thwarted by birth, health or prejudice – although it is all too often.

This is one area where the government’s quiet determination has achieved results, with 600,000 disabled people reported to have found jobs in four years. Each one is a symbol of progress. Fewer than half of disabled people have jobs, compared with more than three-quarters of their fellow citizens. For those with learning difficulties, the employment rate is a shameful six per cent.

This matters greatly. Almost one in five working age adults have a disability. If they are not working, it is a scandalous waste of talent and resources. Unfortunately this employment gap reflects something stark: bigoted attitudes still prevalent in Britain and wider failures of integration for our most excluded minority.

This stigma stains our society, leaving many disabled people impoverished and stuck in the shadows while scarring our public services. It has been exacerbated by the government’s bungled benefits clampdown and overloading of austerity on local authorities, which corrodes our social care system at a time of surging demand.

Sometimes exclusion is due to ignorant fear, sometimes bigotry, sometimes arguments over cost to public purse. Callous attitudes are exposed at their worst in hate killings of people with learning disabilities, bullying by care staff and deaths through casual indifference in the NHS. But they can also be seen in stars using ‘retarded’ as a term of abuse and the BBC giving airtime to comedian Frankie Boyle despite cruel ‘jokes’ about disabled children.

The daily social interaction of a workplace can be a crucial motor of change by stripping away blinkered embarrassment, coldness or prejudice. It helps shift the political, personal and social climate in our country. One revelatory study by the charity Scope found almost half the public do not know anyone who is disabled – and more than two-thirds feel uncomfortable speaking to someone with disabilities.

I have seen these attitudes as a parent of a daughter with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Like many people, I barely thought about such issues until she entered my world in 1993. She changed my life as we fought for basic rights taken for granted by other children, teenagers and then adults – from major issues such as finding a school or home through to daily struggles such as tracking down a suitable toilet.

My daughter showed me the fight for dignity and equality of people with disabilities. Sadly, it still has far to travel.

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