Five big challenges for British disability rights in 2017


Norman Kirk, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1972-74 famously said “people don’t want much: just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

Millions of disabled people in Britain lead lives in which the reasonable, ordinary expectations Kirk spoke of are a part.  Many are beneficiaries of battles fought by disability rights campaigners over the past half century or more – campaigns which led to advances in accessibility, public service reform, anti-discrimination law and tackling poverty for example.  Progress does continue to be made everyday.

But many millions also continue to lead lives in which the ordinary is made extraordinary by prejudice, discrimination, under-investment and more recently rapid disinvestment.

I spent late last year helping draft ‘shadow reports’ – that is, independent accounts – concerning Britain’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights if Persons with Disabilities, supporting and working with Disability Rights UK, Disability Wales and Inclusion Scotland.   The reports, to be formally submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and published at the end of January,  span huge ground and go into considerable detail.   But what emerges are a number of common themes, which I believe together present five major strategic challenges for British disability rights activism to navigate in 2017 and beyond.

Policy, practice and legislation in England and Wales is not consistently grounded in the principles and paradigm shift heralded by the UNCRPD. For example, access to social security benefits for disabled people is defined by highly medicalised or functional criteria, while welfare to work policy and practice takes little or no account of external barriers hindering participation. There is increasing evidence of coercion across a range of policy areas, including welfare to work and the treatment of people with learning disabilities, mental health problems & dementia, contrary to the CRPD’s emphasis on dignity, autonomy and independence.  Public attitudes to disabled people are grounded in low expectations and this translates into public policy and spending decisions.

There has been stalling progress and in some cases reversal of past successes. For example, there are more disabled children being educated in special schools than a decade ago, poverty among disabled adults is rising and the number of public appointees who are disabled is half what it was in 2010.  There are as many adults with learning disabilities in Assessment and Treatment Units as at the time of the Winterbourne View scandal and there has been a large increase in the number of adults detained under the Mental Health Act.

There has been a general disinvestment in the rights and opportunities of disabled people. Significant reductions in public spending under the rubric of austerity have had a disproportionate impact on the rights and opportunities of disabled people.  The impact is felt not only in the overall quantum of financial and practical support available but also in the way financial controls are heralding more restrictive practices such as in relation to the freedom of people to choose how to spend personal budgets.  Centrally important measures to protect and advance the rights of disabled people such as the Equality Act 2010 have been characterised by the UK government as burdens on business and public bodies. Looking ahead, Brexit will remove a ‘double lock’ on existing rights while depriving disabled people in the UK of progressive EU measures in areas such as accessibility and independent living. In a festive announcement, Theresa May has reaffirmed her conviction that the UK should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s response to the recent UNCRPD Committee inquiry into the impact of austerity measures was dismissive of the Committee’s jurisdiction.

There is a lack of strategy, oversight, coordination and involvement – the UK government’s strategy on the rights of disabled people ‘Fulfilling potential’ does not include concrete, targeted and measurable actions. The status and role of the Office for Disability Issues as a ‘focal point’ and ‘coordinating mechanism’ for disability rights in Britain is unclear. There do not appear to be meaningful and consistent modes of involvement of disabled people in policy making nationally or locally. National commitments and plans concerning disabled people’s rights in England and Wales have not translated into consistent local action. The promise of local accountability resulting from local government and NHS reforms has not materialised and has been undermined further still by a loss of funding for local DPOs.

Promotion, enforcement and redress have become weaker. Rights without redress are no rights at all. It has become far more difficult for disabled people to access remedy for rights violations through the courts and tribunals. Since the Disability Rights Commission closed its doors in 2007 there have been major cuts in the resources devoted to the promotion and enforcement of the rights of disabled people. Far reaching reforms, distributing accountability away from central government to local government and the NHS have made it far harder to hold the State as a whole to account.

Over the coming months I’ll write more about each of these challenges and share my thoughts and ideas about how a new disability rights agenda can rise to them.   I welcome all opportunities to discuss this with others (including of course whether I have identified the correct issues) on and offline (ideally off as I’d like to get out and meet more people this year).   You may of course not consider that they even are the major challenges, in which case please say so!

In the meantime, let’s remember the progress that has and continues to made and by doing so try to ‘make hope possible rather than despair convincing’.

A Happy New Year to all



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