I was watching Eric Pickles speak to the Conservative party conference this week when he said something very interesting: ‘It’s not where you have come from that’s important it’s where you’re going that matters’. I want to look at what this means for disability, and how Labour can help disabled get to where they want to go.
Successive governments have given disabled people rights to integrate them in society, culminating in the Equality Act of 2010. Through legislation disabled people have taken some steps to integrate in this way but the time has come to help them take the next step and help disabled people use the rights that they have properly.
Unemployment is a huge issue across the whole of society, but for disabled people like me it’s an even bigger problem. Yes, legislation means we can’t be denied a job by an employer because of our disability, when in reality it is our disability that is denying people like me employment.
When looking for a job, given my disability I face a huge barrier: housing. As a social tenant, my flat is adapted to my needs and that’s not something to be given up lightly. I cannot just move at the drop of a hat. I have had to turn down work because of a lack of accessible housing and I know I am not the only person who has done this. This is a problem which has to be addressed.
And these complex problems are faced by thousands of us – thousands who the coalition government says should simply be ‘less lazy’ or ‘prepared to travel’. We want work, we will make big sacrifices to secure and keep work, but we cannot be expected to ‘achieve the impossible.’
The government should invest money in a scheme to help disabled people like me for whom factory work is not suitable and instead pay firms to encourage them to take on disabled graduates, to give them that equality of opportunity with others. Remploy is great but it’s not suitable for all. There is still a ‘glass ceiling’ that needs shattering for disabled people in the workplace, and part of breaking it is about positive action to increase representation in workplaces which still too often are unfamiliar with having disabled employees.
Launching such a scheme would help challenge the media view of disabled people as benefit scroungers. It will show employers and society what we can do instead of what we can’t. Through a scheme run by a charity, in 2008 I secured a placement in a bank, though I didn’t quite get the chance to show what I could do – other than perhaps cause a bank collapse around me as soon as I entered the building – because it was Lehman Brothers and I started on the day it went bust!
Apart from sporting success the main hope for the Paralympics was that it would change perceptions about disability in the UK and show that disability affects every aspect of a person’s life from finding a job to success in a sports competition.
We, as a Labour party, must act now to show we understand this and to present simple, practical solutions. We can do this now by agreeing to publish a manifesto for disabilities at the next general election. This will ensure that we are leading the debate on disability. It is a golden chance to put the words about the hopes for the Paralympics into action and help disabled people to go where they want to go in their lives.
Mark Cooper is Young Labour disability officer, was Labour PPC for Orkney and Shetland in 2010, and tweets @markc1984
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