The UK was a pioneer in anti-disability discrimination legislation. The 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act recognised the needs and rights of disabled people. It was the idea of Alf Morris MP (later Lord Morris), who drove it through Parliament despite a degree of official indifference. It’s worth reading up about if you have time – it demonstrates how concepts we take for granted today (like disabled parking and special education) are relatively new concepts. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 took the matter of individual rights a step further, before its provisions were incorporated into the Equalities Act of 2010.
Legislation was welcome, but it needed activism to ensure law turned to action. Ken Livingstone’s Administration in the Greater London Council encouraged disabled people to write their own agenda – as it did with other groups facing discrimination – and soon every event or meeting would advertise its access details. However, there was always a tendency for owners of buildings not to live up to their promises. Toilets would be converted to allow wheelchair access – but they wouldn’t have enough room to be turned round in, or would be situated in corridors which could only be reached by climbing stairs.
Over the years our sensitivity to disabled issues seems to have faded a little. East London News receives several requests to publicise events, and access details are seldom included in the material sent to us. We often have to look up venues on their websites – but often we can’t find the information there either, and we have to ask the organisers. This week, for the first time, our request for access details received the reply: “What are access details?”
It all goes to show that disabled people still have a mountain to climb – without a ramp. Fortunately, the House of Lords has been trying to help. Some of its members have been assessing how effective the Equality Act 2010 has been in preventing discrimination. They asked more than 200 witnesses, including disability charities, disabled people and businesses to explain how well the laws worked. One of the groups which helped the investigation is Real, a charity commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to support disabled residents in the borough.
The Lords found that people faced discrimination in access to employment, despite having good qualifications and a strong desire to work. A lack of adjustments, particularly steps and a lack of ramps, were considered a particular problem at restaurants and high street stores. People also faced negative comments or attitudes when buying goods or services.
Baroness Deech, who chaired the committee doing the investigation, said: “We have been struck by how disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life.”
Mike Smith, Chief Executive of Real, said: “Real, as a user-led organisation of disabled people, is all about getting the collective voice of disabled people heard and making change happen to ensure disabled people have equal opportunities, choices and chances in life. We are grateful to have been given the opportunity to help the Committee understand the reality of life for many disabled people.”
•Tower Hamlets Council commissions Real to develop and manage “Local Voices”, a project to tackle disability related issues in the borough. Residents can get involved with the network over the phone, by email or by attending meetings. For more information or to join the network, call Rob Johnson on 020-7001 2176, email [email protected] or go to: www.real.org.uk