Disability Inequality: The Elephant in the Room

Imagine being subjected to verbal abuse and targeted abuse by complete strangers because they can see you are different to them. 

Imagine being subjected to unfair employment, where some employers feel it is acceptable to restrict your employment opportunities to lower paid jobs and deny equal access to training and development and rarely offer and even deny promotion opportunities. Imagine being charged a higher price for goods and services that are essential to your health or independent living.   Imagine if most governmental economic, health and social policy adversely affects your life and your rights, yet you are virtually unrepresented in local and national politics and so become the last politically disenfranchised group in British society today.

These are not isolated, rare incidents, but are just a few examples of the types of discrimination, inequality and abuse that people with disabilities face on a daily basis. Yet these issues are virtually unchallenged and largely unaddressed by political parties and those championing equalities. Disability Inequality has become the political elephant in the room. Everyone can see it exists, everyone can see it is rarely discussed and even more rarely addressed.

So why are people with a disability so far behind when it comes to having the inequalities they face addressed in the same way as gender inequalities, racial inequalities or LGBT inequalities? I believe there are several reasons for this and these need to be addressed if those inequalities are to be resolved and thus people with a disability treated more fairly by society.

It is very noticeable that at present Gender Equality has become the main focus of debate on equality, almost to the exclusion of other inequalities. That is not to say or suggest there is any less need to fight for gender equality, but people with disabilities must ensure their voices are heard. I believe people with disabilities have much to learn from activists in the gender equality, racial and LGBT equality movements.

The reasons for the relative success of the Gender Equality movement lies very much in their history. The modern Gender Equality campaigns can trace their history back to the early twentieth century and the Suffragette Movement. Those early pioneers of the Gender Equality movement took a bold and inspired tactical decision that I believe laid a firm foundation for the Gender Equality movement that was to follow and has been the key to success of that movement. They realised unless they had the franchise and with it the representation and voice at the very heart of the seat of power in Britain they could not achieve their goals. Without that key element, that basic building block, none of what was to follow would have been achievable. Today thanks to those brave women and those who followed in their footsteps, who carried on the fight after gaining votes for women, we now have a stronger voice for women and great strides have been made towards a more gender equal society, but they still have goals they want to address and need to achieve and are campaigning on. For example, the work being done on women’s pension inequality, which is being heavily supported politically by MPs, and without that support their fight would be more difficult. 

In comparison, the Disability Equality movement is a relatively new phenomenon and is growing rapidly. It is great to see so many people with disabilities beginning to be more politically confident and active. One of the reasons for the growth in the Disability Equality movement is the growing anger at the outright politically motivated attacks on the rights, services and welfare benefits of people with disabilities by successive Governments. So in many ways the Disability Equality movement has by necessity been very much focussed on protesting against Government Policies and fighting to protect the few existing rights we do have and our existing welfare benefits. It is from this that many people with disabilities have been inspired to campaign on other equality issues that the disabled community face. So already the movement is beginning to evolve from a protest movement into a true equality campaign movement.

Mojo Mathers, the first deaf MP to be elected to the New Zealand Parliament, once said: “Disabled people must become a part of the political process, if they are to make a difference.” I believe she is right; it is important that people with disabilities do get involved with both the local and national political processes and that the number of elected representatives at local and national level with a disability is increased as it has been for women, the LGBT community and ethnic minority communities. It could be argued that without their increased representation some of their major victories such as gay marriage and hate crime legislation would not have been possible. 

So what is stopping us from achieving a greater number of elected representatives in local and national politics? The biggest obstacles we face are those placed in our way by the political parties themselves who, while they have successfully increased the number of women in local and national politics, have put additional obstacles in the way for people with disabilities to even reach a selection process, let alone be selected as a candidate. In my opinion, that must change.

Political parties must look at ways in which they can encourage more people with a wide range of disabilities to confidently feel welcome and feel they can take full participation in the political process, can access the selection process if they wish, and can stand for election both at a local and national level to have our voices heard in the corridors of power. People with disabilities must no longer be the last elephant in the room politically. People with disabilities and their equality issues must no longer be ignored.  

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