Yesterday afternoon the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a detailed report highlighting major equality gaps facing disabled people in Britain today. The report echoes and amplifies many of the issues raises in the ‘alternative reports’ recently sent by the Commission and civil society organisations to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Unsurprisingly, pinpointing as it does policy and institutional failure, it makes for depressing reading. As Baroness Jane Campbell recently opined in the Guardian, in too many areas progress has stalled or we are going backwards. The promise of freedom, independence and opportunity that motored a rapid period of change in disability policy, law and practice from the early 1990s feels to have hit a wall following the financial crash of 2008, the austerity measures and massive political upheavals that have followed.
Britain and the wider world today and in the years to come is a world away from that in which these major achievements took hold. The past will not return. We have no choice but to think differently. Yet in finding a way forward we need to learn from past mistakes without disinheriting those achievements. And in arguing the case for inclusion, we need to avoid the trap of communicating only the problems, absent of any account of the many major steps forward of the past few decades.
Many people classed as disabled under the Equality Act or UNCRPD – the majority even – are doing well and far better than their predecessors. They are living, learning and working alongside non-disabled people, are healthier and wealthier, leading lives they wish to lead, contributing socially and economically and so on: a result both of social progress generally and of specific measures regarding disability rights. In many areas things did improve and marked progress was made. This is not a story of abject failure, or people having dreamt impossible dreams.
Yes, ‘inspiration porn’ of the sort peddled by Disability Confident must be avoided, but equally corrosive is the ‘desperation porn’ that can make problems seem inevitable and insurmountable and which can leave people feeling hopeless and despondent. We have to tell a positive story of the world as it can be to convey the unfairness and waste of the world as it presently is for too many people. We must convey solutions and possibilities in line with the UNCRPD’s requirement to ‘promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.’ We should be concerned about the most disadvantaged but not in a way that excuses government from attending to the lives of disabled people in the round within a vision of equal, shared citizenship.
Only high expectations shine a light on injustice. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘it always seems impossible until its done.’