In recent weeks two events have highlighted the intuitive sense of deep injustice people on all sides of the political spectrum feel when presented with stories of segregation related to race or gender. The first of course was the death of Nelson Mandela, who spent much of his life fighting the evil of apartheid before going on to father a new nation founded on the recognition of common humanity and committed to inclusion. The second was the policy advice of Universities UK to permit gender segregation on religious grounds during lectures and tutorials, which was met with howls of disgust and derision.
Yet the routine and in some cases growing segregation of disabled children and adults from their wider community in congregated living arrangements or treatment centres, educational and training establishments, workplaces, and places of leisure appears to pass largely unremarked, save those instances where such facilities are under threat of closure.
Almost half of all children with statements of special education needs (SEN) continue to be educated in segregated special schools. On ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, the last government insisted upon an ‘interpretative declaration’ in relation to Article 24 – Education to the effect that special schools be considered ‘part of the general education system’ and that there were sound reasons for some children to be educated in residential special schools away from the communities in which their families lived. The Conservative Party promised in its manifesto to ‘remove the bias towards inclusive education’ and just last week the government rejected a proposed amendment by Lord Low to the Children and Families Bill to include a principle regarding “the need to continue to develop an inclusive system where parents of disabled children have increasing access to mainstream schools and staff and which have the capacity to meet the needs of disabled children.” While the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against disabled children in the admissions policies and practices of schools, there is no statutory commitment to promote inclusion, which appears to have been trumped by the religion of parental choice, now finding expression in so called ‘free schools’ including the opening of new special schools.
Many were horrified by the torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of people with learning disabilities exposed by the BBC’s Panaroma programme at the private hospital Winterbourne View. ‘Never again’ said Ministers and committed to ending inappropriate placements by 2014. Yet recent figures show that while there was a decline in learning disabled inpatient numbers from 4435 in 2006 to 3376 in 2010 the figure has remained more or less static since (the programme was televised in 2011). Local council cuts in spending on social care are already enormous, yet only reflect the tip of the iceberg. Existing figures show that cuts are falling hardest on support for disabled people to live in the community. While the numbers of people receiving community-based social care services fell by 10 per cent between 2011/12 and 2012/13, the reduction in those receiving residential care was only 2 per cent, with a less than a 1 per cent change in the numbers receiving nursing care. Stories are emerging of disabled people living in the community being required to undergo reassessment by their councils and being advised that this will include an assessment ‘for residential care.’ People living in the community also report being allowed less autonomy regarding the organisation of the support they receive or how they are able to spend a direct payment. While the UNCRPD is providing a spur for de-institutionalisation across the world, is England now seeing the beginnings of a trend towards ‘re-institutionalisation’?
The previous Labour government oversaw an extensive closure programme of Remploy’s sheltered factories, starting the process that this government has continued. Such transition is always painful, but it is not wrong. The Remploy factories were never originally intended to provide jobs for life, but to be part of a national system of rehabilitation from which people would renter open labour market. Stories of people having been employed in the factories for 30 years or more are testimony to the approach simply having not worked. Not only did it fail to equip people with marketable knowledge and skills, just like special schools and congregated living arrangements, it segregated them from the wider community. And yet parts of the disability community ostensibly committed to disability rights have opposed the factory closures.
By this point I am quite sure a number of readers will have various ‘yes, buts…’ Yes, but mainstream schools can’t fully cater for all disabled children. Yes but, challenging behaviours mean adults with learning disabilities sometimes need to be placed under restrictive supervision in hospitals. Yes but some disabled people can’t compete in the open labour market.
Yes but…. until 1970 it was lawful to deem disabled children who today are passing their GCSE’s ‘ineducable’, to classify them as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ and refuse them an education. Yes but, until 1996 it was perfectly lawful for an employer to turn down an applicant because they were disabled, or a restaurant to ask a family with a disabled child to leave if the proprietor felt they were upsetting other diners. Yes but, until 2000 people detained under mental health laws could not vote in elections. Yes but, before each of these things changed people argued to maintain the status quo, or said change was impossible. But as Nelson Mandela himself once said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’
We delude ourselves if we believe we are making progress on disability rights if we cease to make progress on reducing segregation of all kinds. There is no hope of building an inclusive society where disabled and non-disabled children and adults are not fellow pupils, neighbours, colleagues, or do not enjoy the same leisure and cultural experiences. Congregated, segregating provision of all kinds – however justified – robs disabled people of the opportunity to enter into the reciprocal relations of citizenship, diminishes individual identity and underpins prejudice, and denies the interaction between disabled and non-disabled people that is not just the end-game for disability rights, but the means to that end.
So why are people so fired up about racial and gender segregation yet able to rationalise the segregation of disabled people? The human rights academic Luke Clements has suggested that ‘disabled people are not yet considered ‘ripe for freedom’ in the same way that women, serfs and southern blacks once weren’t.’
Attitudes change. Progress is made. Justice is finally done. But the struggle is never fully over. We are in serious danger of backsliding towards the practice and acceptance of segregation when we should be unremitting in our efforts to open up schools, workplaces and communities and to brigade the resources and support for disabled people to thrive in them.
In 2014 we must renew our commitment to disabled people’s right to be in the world and once again campaign – however progressively – to bring segregation in all of its forms to an end.