UKDHM is an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history of our struggle for equality and human rights. This is our 4th year, following the success of last year’s event.
The theme for this year will be “Celebrating our Struggle for Independent Living: No Return to Institutions or Isolation”. This will give the chance to explore the history of attitudes and how disabled people’s lives have been marked by change.
“It is our turn to document this history and to become agents of change within our communities”
As a small contribution to UKDHM I’m posting occasional articles that I have written over the last twenty years. This one, written in 2000, was prompted by what I saw as our exclusion from regeneration policies and practices. In our current climate of austerity there is little construction, let alone regeneration, but ten and fifteen years ago it was the big thing in our large cities – and I saw it as a missed opportunity.
The afterthought at the back of the queue? (2000)
More disabled people live in poverty than any other group, and we often experience exclusion over and above that of all other members of society. Many of us have little choice or freedom over where and how we live: some cannot even choose such basics as when to get up or go to the toilet. At a neighbourhood level we often cannot even get into the shops or the community centre. Local initiatives do not take our needs into account.
Despite the fact that disability is now recognised, in law, as an issue of discrimination, and that it is widely accepted to be a human and civil rights issue, and that we live disproportionately in poverty; despite the fact that we are three times as likely as any other group to be unemployed, and that we remain unemployed, on average, twice as long, and that when we do have work it tends to be in low-paid jobs: despite all this being recognised – our very existence and our systematic exclusion from society was not addressed in the government’s recent proposed framework for the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal.
Disability has been traditionally seen as a welfare, medical, or charitable matter. Thanks mainly to disabled people’s own efforts a civil rights agenda is now in place and disability is seen more as segregation and exclusion – ironically, often delivered by those very agencies acting ostensibly “for our own good”. Disabled people have been relegated to institutional “homes”, to a lack of public transport, with little real access to education, training, and real jobs. The services which are meant to exist for our benefit fail us, and even abuse us. We are lucky when we can get out of our homes independently. This is real exclusion.
The proposed strategy says “The waste of potential holds back the country’s prosperity.” This is true also of disabled people. If we are, ironically, excluded from current and proposed social exclusion remedies this is a true waste. If neighbourhood renewal is to mean anything to the upwards of 10 million disabled people in this country then it must explicitly include disabled people, and address the causes of our exclusion.
The Disability Discrimination Act has been on the statute books for five years now, although some parts of it are still to be enacted, and additions have been called for by the Disability Rights Task Force. Independent living is becoming a reality for more people as the Direct Payments Act becomes more extensively implemented, albeit without co-ordination. The Building Regulations have been gradually improving physical access to buildings over recent years, and are due to be reviewed. The coming into force of the Human Rights Act is imminent.
However, despite a proliferation of agencies, there is no real evidence that any of the current employment or regeneration strategies and programmes have made a significant difference to the situation of disabled people in terms of their exclusion from society. What legislation there is necessarily devolves from a national centre and has little day to day impact on strategy and / or policy at a neighbourhood level.
Access to training and employment support programmes; capacity building; lifetime homes; accessible public transport; ability to take part in local democratic structures – rarely, if ever, are such initiatives designed to specifically include disabled people in neighbourhood renewal strategies.
So how could disability issues be addressed? Success will require the demonstrable inclusion of disabled peoples’ issues in regeneration initiatives, with a clear plan for monitoring and evaluating our real inclusion in initiatives and activities. Disabled people would gradually become more involved in local initiatives – they would cease to be “invisible”. Non-disabled people would become more aware of how to organise in an inclusive way and would no longer see provision for disabled peoples’ involvement as “special”. Ultimately, disabled people would be – and would be seen as – contributing citizens with a potential which is realised, rather than discounted and wasted.
Finally, a society which currently sees little or no injustice in excluding disabled people even from the social exclusion debate would begin to experience a more positive response to the existence of disabled people in our neighbourhoods. And the government would avoid potentially putting in place further exclusionary barriers which will remain for twenty years or more.