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The Guardian View On Disability Rights: A Deficit Of Attention

December 22, 2020

There should have been a feature film, or a primetime TV series. Maybe one day there will be. But this year, the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act – a landmark piece of legislation outlawing discrimination by service providers and mandating “reasonable adjustments” by employers – passed quietly. The BBC screened The Disability Paradox, a thoughtful and introspective documentary by the Northern Irish film-maker Chris Lynch. On Netflix, Crip Camp documented the disability rights movement in the US. But the high drama of the parallel struggle in Britain, which saw hundreds of activists chaining themselves to buses and blocking streets, is still waiting for such high-profile treatment.

Instead, at the end of an extraordinarily difficult year, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit. Ministers have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to review figures showing that people with learning difficulties are dying from Covid-19 at six times the rate of the general population. The Care Quality Commission is investigating why do-not-resuscitate orders were allocated to some care home residents without consultation, causing potentially avoidable deaths.

At the same time, in common with other minority groups whose members are disproportionately poor, disabled people have suffered acute economic hardships. Flaws in the design of benefits and years of cuts to local services were among the causes of rising extreme poverty before this year. With 2 million families predicted to have problems feeding themselves or keeping clean and warm as the recession deepens, that picture is expected to darken.Advertisement

Disability covers a vast range of experiences and conditions, some of which are lifelong but many of which are temporary or linked to old age. Research has found that many of the nearly 14 million disabled people in the UK think the equalities framework does not serve their needs well, and that things were better when they had their own watchdog, the Disability Rights Commission.

In a speech last week, the women and equalities minister, Liz Truss, said the government’s new approach to equalities would emphasise practical issues such as “getting to work” – often a problem for disabled people who find themselves trapped at home because of inaccessible transport. Her emphasis on the enforcement of fair treatment should be welcomed; legislation outlawing discrimination is no use without it. But without new resources, such commitments are meaningless. Cuts to social security, local government and legal aid budgets are a key reason why, despite positive developments such as increased awareness of neurodiversity, progress towards equality for disabled people has, broadly speaking, gone into reverse.

Until the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the prospects for improvement, with low levels of representation of disabled people in public life another persistent problem. Priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine would signal that the government is serious about removing obstacles to participation – as would restoration of funds for the “access to work” scheme that used to help with transport costs. As the country starts to recover from this year of illness, policymakers must be pressed to ensure that their ambitions for levelling up do not overlook people with disabilities. Instead, addressing their needs should form part of the social infrastructure transformation that is long overdue – with an accompanying recognition that care, interdependency and difference are facts of human life. Twenty-five years after discrimination against disabled people was outlawed, the ongoing failures are as striking as the progress.

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