Where are disability rights in the political agenda?

Where are disability rights in the political agenda?

As the dust settles from the party conferences a few weeks ago, writer Sam Heaton examines what was said, or more notably what wasn’t said, about disability rights and barriers still facing us today.

Whether you care for politics or not, it was impossible to escape the copious press coverage that followed the party conference circuit a few weeks ago. And whilst it was the chanting of Corbyn’s supporters, May’s ‘throat-gate’ and fake P45 that grabbed the most headlines, the messages put forward by the leader’s speeches were far more revealing.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May’s speeches

Party conference leader’s speeches allow the leader to lay out their stall – to make boasts about what has been done and promises of they will still to do. With speech lengths averaging an hour, you’d expect them to be all-encompassing. They can’t, of course, be exhaustive, by any means. But you would expect a fair representation of society as a whole.

Jeremy Corbyn’s oration began with great fanfare, quite literally. He talked of housing plans, rent controls, more powers to evoke workplace democracy, reuniting the nation post Brexit, boosting wages, ending austerity, nationalising utilities, all with continued emphasis on giving people ‘a voice’.

Theresa May’s address focused on mental health provision, racial inequalities, Brexit, house building and social housing, rolling out a cap on energy bills, and a review of University funding and student fees, all the while returning to the theme of creating ‘the dream’.

However, what could be argued to be this century’s greatest social challenge – inclusion and opportunity for disabled people – barely got a mention. Corbyn made a passing reference to the UN report that detailed the human rights violations of many disabled UK citizens, whilst May focused deeper, but only covered Tory Mental health reform. There was no mention of people living with other disabilities. One could not insinuate that the snub, by both leaders, was intentional. But a snub was indeed evident.

Disabled people’s voices are getting lost

It is true that no one is ‘just’ a disabled person. Everyone’s identity is multi-faceted. Disabled people are workers, parents, consumers, residents… the list is endless. But one issue that links all disabled people is ‘personal challenge’. But no matter how well one copes or adapts to life with a disability or impairment, there will always be struggles that affect a person’s ability to have a ‘voice’ or live the ‘dream’, and these must be addressed.

The 2017 general election provided a key example of how disabled people were not able to have a ‘voice’ – both through the barriers to voting and lack of representation in parliament.

The RNIB launched a campaign to make voting more accessible to visually impaired people, citing that 75% could not cast their ballot unaided. Many personal stories featured across social media highlighting physically inaccessible polling stations.

In the aftermath of the event, just five of the 650 MPs elected are defined as having a disability. To be fair this was double the 2015 figure, but shockingly below a figure of 130 that would equate to a fair population representation.

And as for living the ‘dream’, to many, a dream is what it will remain. A recent study by the charity Scope pointed to a decrease in the number of people with disabilities being in employment. The study, released in September 2017, highlighted the Office of National Statistics [ONS] figures showing that for every 100 disabled people entering the workplace, 114 are leaving. Conversely, amongst the non-disabled population, the statistics indicate that as 100 move into work only 97 leave.

The research also cited that people with disabilities have to apply for 60% more jobs than non-disabled people – a concerning figure when we’re in an economic backdrop of extreme austerity. As it’s so often bandied around by politicians that work is the key to financial independence and social mobility, this study does little to inspire hopes of living the ‘dream’.

More than 13 million disabled people in the UK

Anyone who cites the disabled ‘minority’ as a reason for political emittance really should consult the history books.

It’s now 184 years since the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act was passed giving those who went through the horrors of servitude a chance to create a life more of their own choosing. Today, in the UK, people with disabilities are still campaigning for the rights to be respected as people, to live in a dignified manner and be able to self-determine their own future.

Comparably, more than a century ago Emmeline Pankhurst and her peers were battling for women’s enfranchisement with the Suffrage movement, representing the ‘voices’ and ‘dreams’ of approximately 19 million British females. Yet as aforementioned today in 21st century UK, the political voice of many is still being held back by physical and societal barriers to disability.

Statistically, it is certain that many groups of society, whether they are defined by gender, ethnicity, religion or other protected characteristic, continue to address the needed rebalance of societal representation. But at 13.3 million strong the UK’s disabled and impaired population is a substantially large ‘minority’ group. Is it not time to genuinely recognise the disability issues that need addressing? Party leaders may want to think twice before ignoring such a sizeable portion of the nation in their public addresses if they truly want to be the voice of the people.

By Sam Heaton

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