Avoiding a hierarchy of equalities

There was a major general election announcement over the weekend that focused on mental health policy. Whilst this is great news in itself, I’ll bet someone, somewhere, has written that there should be an equivalent for people with learning disabilities, or for people with sensory impairments, or for carers, or for older people with x condition etc. etc.

This is not where we want to be.

As I’ve written before:

Whilst there are arguments which could be made for each [impairment group requiring something separate], to my mind there is no overarching framework within which all of them hang together. There is no agenda around which all people with a commitment to disability rights and equality for all disabled people can coalesce.

In the absence of an overarching disability rights and equality framework, what we end up with is a hierarchy. In such a hierarchy, mental health is currently doing (relatively) ok, but learning disability less so. And if learning disability ends up with a new cross-government strategy then what about… and so on. Goodness knows what happens if you’re a person who happens to tick more than one box.

The point can also be extended to other equality groups: there is common cause, for example, in closing the gender pay gap and the disability employment and pay gaps (as exemplified by the nonsense suggestion that people with learning disabilities should be paid below the national minimum wage).

Insteaf of separate policies we should be calling for a reignited overarching disability equality strategy, which builds on the heritage of the Life Chances report, the Independent Living Strategy and Fulfilling Potential. Underneath this could easily lie dedicated action plans and analysis that relate to particular impairment groups, and so still taking account of the specific barriers some groups face. Such a strategy would clearly link to a general equalities strategy, showing common cause across all protected characteristics. This should all be backed by a strong central government presence, including through a significantly rejuvenated Office for Disability Issues, through the Government Equalities Office or, perhaps, through proper resourcing and respect for the Equality & Human Rights Commission.

By avoiding a hierarchy of equalities, the common cause of everyone will be improved.

Are you feeling lucky?

Dirty Harry

We tend to remember the obstacles we have overcome more vividly than the advantages we have been given.

This quote comes from an article about what this tendency (or cognitive bias) to remember how we overcame adversity instead of remembering the easier times might imply for public policy to try and make things more equal for people.

I found myself agreeing with this on at least two fronts:

  1. “Hard” levers of change, such as legislation, regulations and targets, focus much more on addressing obstacles than they do on creating better opportunities to address equality issues
  2. I’ve often thought of my own luck at various points in my life (making a good friend, having a good teacher, having a godparent who was very interested in sharing books).

We can easily translate this into the “luck” of having a good social worker, doctor, employment adviser etc. and ensuring the opportunities and experiences that public services provide are equally available and good to everyone. I have always been motivated by ensuring that this luck (or “luck”) systematically comes the way of as many other people as possible.

On the Disability Rights Movement: how to paint the picture that needs to be painted?

Many, many posts over the last 5 years have highlighted the considerable debates going on regarding disability issues (welfare, employment, media portrayal etc.), as well as the place of disability itself within wider agendas (poverty, rights, legislation etc.)

And many various posts in the last few months have discussed both fundamental debates about the underpinnings of disability (‘sickness’ and ‘disability’, questions around the social model, the unity or separateness of different impairment groups etc.) and the current state of the Disability Rights Movement itself[1].

Pulling all of this together, we can see the Disability Rights Movement to have lost direction, become narrow and not at all cohesive compared to where it has previously been.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and what can be done about it. With so many fundamental questions, my feeling is it’s difficult to draw any kind of overall picture that might have an element of cohesion or consensus behind it. Without such cohesion or consensus, any attempts at future improvement are much less likely to be successful. Trying to draw such a picture is, I think, what the calls[2] for a Disability Rights Taskforce have been driving at: the establishment of a process that can explore a wide range of questions that are of different orders.

A Disability Rights Taskforce would therefore be how we can paint the picture that needs to be painted. To this end, we might think of the job of any Disability Rights Taskforce to be as follows:

Disability Rights Taskforce

By having such a process and being explicit about the different levels of issues to consider, I think we can give ourselves the best opportunity to create a cohesive Disability Rights Movement for the 21st century. If we move too quickly to the questions of strategy or tactics without considering the principles these need to be based on, we would run the risk of not creating a 21st century Disability Rights Movement that can build on and learn from the successes of the 20th century Disability Rights Movement.

Two questions flow from this:

  1. What do you think?
  2. Who do we need to persuade to make this happen?

Notes:

[1] – There have been many posts on these topics. The ones that have informed my own thoughts and feelings are this are Lorraine’s, Jenny’s, Neil’s, Rob’s, and Mark’s.

[2] – Neil first mentioned a Disability Rights Taskforce, building on a previous idea about a commission on the future of disability rights in Britain.

The disability rights agenda: too narrow, possibly lost, or both?

I fear we’re in danger of the disability rights agenda being too narrow, possibly lost, or even both.

I say this because of the following 8 impressions, which are by no means comprehensive:

  1. The emerging Green Paper from the Department of Health seems to be focused primarily on people with learning disabilities or autism [1]
  2. A related blogpost (which happens to be from my employer) calls for a progressive learning disability agenda across the sector and society that values “rights, independence, choice and inclusion for ALL people with learning disabilities” [my emphasis]
  3. Preserving the Independent Living Fund is presumed to be the same as preserving independent living, when I suspect in practice campaigning attempts will (if successful) preserve funding levels around individuals specifically related to care and support
  4. Welfare reforms and resulting campaigns have focused on specific issues like the Work Capability Assessment and who provides the assessment service, or the Bedroom Tax – both largely from a deficit-based, medical model perspective). There has been comparatively little focus on employment support for disabled people or what housing options are available
  5. There has been very little broad campaigning action beyond those interested in higher education on the proposed changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowance
  6. Lobbying and campaigning regarding the Children & Families Act has been largely confined to children’s charities and SEN-related organisations, and doesn’t seem to have reached the broader disabled people’s movement
  7. Disability hate crime appears to have dropped off the agenda
  8. Anything relating to “people with mental health problems” largely remains a separate consideration to issues regarding “disabled people”.

There are some brighter spots, of course: the Care Act (albeit “only” in the sphere of social care) and positive attempts to mobilise the “disability vote” are two.

But, whilst there are arguments which could be made for each of the things listed above being separately needed, to my mind there is no overarching framework within which all of them hang together. There is no agenda around which all people with a commitment to disability rights and equality for all disabled people can coalesce.

In this context, the apparent disappearance of the Office for Disability Issues, the most recent, relatively lacklustre attempt at any sort of disability policy agenda (Fulfilling Potential), and the loss of whatever momentum there was from the Paralympic Games, are all major causes for concern. Irrespective of how effective they were, they represented the last political, policy and institutional bases of the disability rights agenda.

What to do? Clearly, we need to wrestle back a disability rights agenda into the political sphere. There are at least two active suggestions as to how this can be done:

  1. Establish a Disability Rights Taskforce after the next general election
  2. We should consider disbanding the Department for Work & Pensions and shift to an approach that works on a themed basis that more specifically has responsibility for a wide-ranging disability rights agenda, e.g. a Department for Inclusion.

Notes:

[1] – I haven’t included any reference to the LB Bill because I believe its intention is for it to apply to all disabled people, not just to people with learning disabilities.

Why we need a new Disability Rights Taskforce

Neil has called for a new Disability Rights Taskforce after the next general election[1].

He is right to do so.

Neil’s and many other people’s reflections on the narrowness[2] of Labour’s thinking when it comes to “policy proposals” affecting disabled people’s lives shows a clear need for such a Taskforce in purely political terms.

But I think there are at least two other bases on which the need for a new Disability Rights Taskforce rest: from the point of view of policy and legislation, and from the perspective of institutions.

Policy and legislation

The last fundamental, overarching and meaningful piece of disability policy is made up of the Life Chances of Disabled People report, published in 2005, and from which there is a direct line to the Independent Living Strategy[3] in 2008.

Other elements of disability policy have of course been published since then – most notably Fulfilling Potential (a discussion paper was published in 2012, “next steps” in 2012 and “the discussions so far” in 2014), the Disability and Employment Strategy at the end of 2013, and the Special Education Needs and Disability parts of the Children & Families Act. There has also been broader policy that has disproportionately affected disabled people, namely welfare reform and reforms to the health and social care system. We have also seen the UK adopt (with some opt-outs) the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) [sic] in 2009.

But none of these have really and meaningfully either looked across all aspects of disabled people’s lives (with the exception of UNCRPD) or led to co-ordinated and concerted effort (at least, in a positive direction).

And, thanks to Jenny Morris, we have a good, independent picture[4]  of what progress has actually been made towards the vision set out in Life Chances and the Independent Living Strategy. You probably don’t need me to tell you how it’s gone, though “pretty crap” would cover it nicely.

Institutions

It’s more than “just” policy and legislation that’s the problem here, though: there are institutional factors that are having a significant impact on the drive to equal life chances for disabled people.

If it’s possible, let’s put to one side the financial crash of 2008 and the austerity that’s been justified because of it. Even without the money situation, there has been a significant shift in what people expect from public services and how those public services are delivered. The post-war settlement is very unsettled, and what this means for disabled people is as valid a question as it is for other groups.

And specific institutions that supported the disability equality agenda have disappeared or effectively become defunct: the Disability Rights Commission closed in 2007 and is one constituent part of the struggling Equality & Human Rights Commission. The Office for Disability Issues appears to exist only in name at the moment, and the role of Minister for Disabled People continues to be a junior ministerial role with other responsibilities (including child maintenance or health and safety) that is often a stepping stone to other things[5]. If any current institutions “own” the disability equality agenda, it’s two we probably wouldn’t want anywhere near it: the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health!

What next?

If the political, policy and legislative, and institutional bases of the disability equality agenda are all effectively missing, what do we do? To my mind, the suggestion of a new Disability Rights Taskforce in 2015 is a way to answer this question in the broadest possible sense.

Notes:

[1] – If you haven’t already it is well worth reading the final report of the 1999 Disability Rights Taskforce (pdf)

[2] – Call me old-fashioned, but the 12 pillars of Independent Living covered what disabled people want pretty well, didn’t it? For a more modern take, Neil Crowther’s “Refreshing the Disability Rights Agenda: a future imagined” is tremendous

[3] – It’s telling, to me at least, that it isn’t easily possible to find a copy of the Independent Living Strategy anywhere online

[4] – It’s also telling, to me at least, that this sort of progress review had to be done independently rather than, say, by government. There used to be an Independent Living Scrutiny Group, but that was, of course, disbanded in 2013

[5] – Since 2005 I reckon there have been 7 Ministers for Disabled People, including 4 since 2010.

When is a policy impact assessment not a policy impact assessment?

Here’s a good question: when is a policy impact assessment not a policy impact assessment?

Answer: when you’re the Prime Minister around 10 months out from a General Election and want something to say about helping families.

This morning, as part of a suite of announcements related to families, the Independent is reporting David Cameron wants:

all government departments will have to assess the impact of policy on “supporting family life”. The assessment will sit alongside similar current tests for cost-effectiveness, equality and the environment, and Mr Cameron stressed that if they failed, they would “not be allowed to proceed”.

All very laudable, of course. But here’s what David Cameron had to say about equality impact assessments in a speech to the Confederation for British Industry in November 2012 (as noted by Neil Crowther):

We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff… So I can tell you today we are calling time on equality impact assessments.

Today’s family impact assessment therefore begs at least 2 further questions to the title of this post:

  1. What’s the difference between families and equality?
  2. Are the people in Whitehall dealing with families stuff less smart than the people dealing with equalities stuff?

.@neilmcrowther on assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia

At this point in time – and by this I mean in terms of how society currently thinks of and treats disabled people – I have a very firm, personal objection to assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia.

Such an objection extends to thinking it is entirely the right approach to build alliances with other organisations, including faith-based ones, with whom I would ordinarily have no natural affiliation but who also oppose assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia.

The entry of some religious voices into the assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia debate, prompted by current attempts to move assisted dying onto the statute book, has led to much debate.

Generally speaking, I find coverage of policy and politics in the UK dispiriting, mainly because of how ill-informed and binary it is. This is true for pretty much all topics, but especially so when it comes to assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia.

Very rarely are points of view expressed at length from people who actually know their apples with regard to assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia and its policy, legal and moral context/implications given any space.

To this end, I have found Neil’s 3 posts (so far) on this topic truly terrific. They are a welcome, balanced, informed and thoughtful antidote to much else we’re currently subjected to on assisted dying / voluntary euthanasia.

His posts also express almost exactly my own views on the issue, and it is with this disclaimer I commend Neil’s posts to you:

  1. Why there should be no right to assisted dying without the right to assisted living
  2. Killing people with kindness: Why the passing of the Assisted Dying Bill will make disabled people unsafe in our society
  3. Signal failure: Law as social signals, deliberate or otherwise