FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – WHAT MAKES US EQUAL?
In January of this year, the Scottish Government invited me to write a Provocation piece for their First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG), as part of the #GenerationEqual movement which champions equality for all – women, girls, men and boys of every age, gender, race, religion or belief.
Since the onset of Coronavirus, many UK organisations of Disabled People, have expressed concern about how Disabled People will be, and have been treated during the current crisis.
Government information generally about Covid19 deaths in the community has, to say the least, been a little sketchy; and so now, more than ever, I think it is important to remember the value and worth of Disabled People and that we too contribute to society.
For that reason, there is no harm in again asking the question “What makes us Equal?” It is as relevant today, as it was before the Coronavirus crisis started affecting our lives in such drastic ways.
WHAT MAKES US EQUAL?
When we are born, that moment when we enter the world, we are all equal. We have no prejudice. Sadly however, that utopia does not last for long. As soon as children understand the meaning of “difference” that is when inequality becomes a reality. It can frame your life and, at that point, barriers to equality start to erode who you want to be.
As a child growing up the 1960’s, prejudice was something I had to tolerate. You learned to live with ignorant people staring at you because you looked “different”. You learned to tolerate negative attitudes and slowly began to appreciate all around there were barriers preventing equality – attitudinal, structural, behavioural and environmental.
Despite all those barriers, I was fortunate to have been born to parents who were broad-minded, never fazed, and were certainly not going to let my “differences” be a reason for not having a full and active life. Despite my parents’ best efforts and positive approach, barriers to equality did impact on my childhood. As an example, mainstream education was not an option for me. Schools and the built environment of the sixties were not designed for disabled people, especially wheelchair users. Shops were not always accessible, but moreover, the attitude of those who worked in so many areas of everyday life, was very much the problem.
Disability equality has always been the “Cinderella” equality issue, having to follow the Equal Pay, Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Equality legislation of the 1970’s. In fact, disability discrimination legislation followed over 20 years after the push for 1970’s equality with the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. But legislation is only part of the story, and in the early 1990’s, a body of disabled people came together, from all walks of life, to take direct action in a push for disability equality.
From that desire for disability quality came two distinct schools of thought. Firstly, the Direct Action Network organised and galvanised support for (mostly) passive action in main cities across the UK. Secondly, there developed a process of education which became known as Disability Equality Training, designed to educate non-disabled people about the barriers arising in a disabled world, and also to empower disabled people to appreciate that the Social Model of Disability could be the key to breaking down those barriers to equality.
I did my fair share of direct action. I marched with pride down Whitehall in London, where I and my fellow marchers stopped buses with wheelchairs, crutches and anything else that could cause a passive nuisance. I supported disability rallies – where non-disabled people spoke alongside disabled activists; and I learned much about disability equality from Vic Finkelstein, Colin Barnes, and (now) Baroness Jane Campbell who, like me – and many others, have carried a passionate banner for disability equality.
So what is the Social Model of Disability? In short, the Social Model acknowledges that it is the barriers which society creates that makes a person disabled. It is not, as many think, the impairment or medical condition that is the issue. So, the very fact that I was born with short arms and legs as a result of the drug Thalidomide (my impairment), is really of little or no relevance. What is important, is that despite my impairment, I should be able to access all available goods and services, in exactly the same way as a non-disabled person.
As an example, if I wish to go the theatre, and the show I choose to see is in an old Victorian building, then so long as adjustments are made (perhaps by the provision of ramps or lifts) to avoid the stairs, I will be able to enjoy the show to the same level as any other person in the auditorium. The fact that I am a full-time wheelchair user is not the problem. The issue is (in this example) the built environment which, if changed, will remove the barrier.
In contrast, the long-held Medical Model view, sees the disabled person as the problem, who should accept the fact that there are things in life that are beyond attainment. Those who believe in the Medical Model, are unable to see that their cursory nods towards equality and inclusion, are just that, without acknowledging the need for real change.
As a campaigner for disability equality, I have addressed thousands of people about the need for change, by adopting the Social Model of Disability.
Environmental barriers speak for themselves. Planners, and those responsible for long-term planning on housing, transport and infrastructure generally, need to be aware of the contribution that disabled people can make to society. With one in five of the UK population being classed as disabled people, the purple pound (the spending power of disabled people) is worth vast sums of money, and could ultimately help boost a nation’s economy. In the same way, disabled employees are as reliable, if not more so, than their non-disabled colleagues. We have a point to prove, and so our productivity and commitment to the workplace should never be underestimated. By adopting the Social Model and making changes, not only to the built environment, but addressing Structural barriers (such as inflexible work timetables or working hours) and educating the workforce as to the positivity of changing attitudes, these archaic barriers can be removed far more easily than many consider achievable.
We have a duty to encourage all disabled people to take up the mantle of continuing to press for change, and to appreciate that this change is within our grasp. Sadly however, for all the good work that has been done on disability equality, there is still so much more to do.
The harsh reality is that service providers have a difficult job of “balancing the books” when it comes to budgeting issues. But what many service providers fail to grasp, is that positive efforts to move away from the Medical Model, will not only encourage greater independence. In time, it will also lead to a reduced reliance on support services, which we have to accept are already stretched to breaking point. If that proposition were to be embraced, it would ultimately free up much needed resources to support more vulnerable members of society who, for whatever reason, cannot be as vocal and forthright as I and other disability advocates have been.
The implementation of the Equality Act 2010, inadvertently saw disability slide down the equalities agenda. It is absolutely right that all aspects of equality have to be protected, but because of its infancy on the equality spectrum, the disability profile has been much reduced since 2010. This is rather ironic as disability, has been the subject of extensive historical record, from ancient Egyptian times, and used regularly by the Old Masters in their biblical masterpieces.
We should not be afraid to embrace disability. We have many iconic disabled athletes to whom we can look for inspiration. We have well-respected disability advocates in local and national politics. Now, at long last, we even have disabled presenters and celebrities who work in television, bringing disability into the homes of thousands of people on a weekly basis.
It is however, the grassroots work which continues on a daily basis that will ultimately ensure disability equality once again, becomes a focus of national attention. It is often said that change must permeate from the top down. That is true, but the groundswell of support for the Social Model of disability, did and must continue to come from ordinary people, who appreciate that life can offer so much more if we are all treated with fairness and respect.
As a disabled woman, in ostensibly, a non-disabled world, the challenges to breaking through the gender and disability equality “glass ceiling” are huge. No matter how we try to dress it up, there is a marginalisation of all equality issues, whether in the public or private sector, in businesses large and small.
I had to face the barriers I have already mentioned, with tenacity, humour and good grace and, sometimes it took more than one attempt to make the impact I wanted. Indeed, even after many years in the equality spotlight, I still encounter negativity, which saddens me enormously.
I am fortunate that being articulate and forthright (some might say bloody-minded), I am able to challenge stereotypical views with considerable success. I therefore believe it is my duty, as a woman, and moreover, as a disabled woman; to highlight the need for continual recognition of the unique issues evident in the ongoing quest for equality.
However, with inspiration, determination and perseverance; along with the support of like-minded people from all sides of the equality agenda, I firmly believe that the journey to remove the barriers (attitudinal, structural, behavioural and environmental) and discrimination towards disabled people, irrespective of gender, will be successful.
When we arrive at that destination, we will no longer have to ask “What makes us equal?” A level playing field will await us. A playing field of true equality.