Catering for everyone, by Vivienne Russell

15 Feb 07
Despite the best efforts of the Disability Discrimination Act, too many disabled people are still treated as second-class citizens. The new equality duty on public sector organisations is intended to tackle this for once and for all. Vivienne Russell checks on its progress in practice

16 February 2007

Despite the best efforts of the Disability Discrimination Act, too many disabled people are still treated as second-class citizens. The new equality duty on public sector organisations is intended to tackle this for once and for all. Vivienne Russell checks on its progress in practice

Imagine your institution – a university, say, or a hospital or local authority – wants to fill a key new post. Adverts go out, applications are received and sifted and interviews conducted. The perfect candidate emerges: they're bright, dedicated, experienced, enthusiastic and blind. There's no reason why they shouldn't take up the post.

But then a conversation with the IT department throws up an unanticipated problem: thousands of pounds have just been spent on a new computer system, the IT manager tells you, shaking his head. And it is not compatible with the access software the new employee would need to do their job. Either a new, stand-alone system would have to be implemented solely for the new worker, or the decision taken not to employ them.

This example highlights just why the new public sector Disability Equality Duty is needed. The passage of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 was a watershed in equality law and extended rights to more than 10 million Britons. But although the spirit might be willing, organisations were often weak. Too many were, and often still are, not geared to the needs of disabled people. It was with this in mind that the government sought to strengthen the 1995 Act to change fundamentally the way disabled people are consulted, integrated, employed and treated by government organisations.

According to Marie Pye, head of public sector duty at the Disability Rights Commission, the 1995 Act was very good, but too reactive, based as it was on individuals. 'That kind of drip-drip approach was having an impact, but it was quite slow. There was a realisation that sometimes you need to have an organisational approach,' she says.

Dan Scorer, parliamentary officer at the Royal National Institute of the Blind, adds that the law had allowed public bodies to trail behind their private sector counterparts in terms of how they were expected to serve disabled people. Confusion reigned over what the public sector was expected to provide.

'If a visually impaired person wanted their council tax statement in an accessible format, then the local authority wouldn't necessarily have to provide it,' he says. 'There were whole areas where there was ambiguity about whether the public sector was even under a duty to provide things people needed.'

Campaigners realised that the light shone on institutional racism by the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry report on Stephen Lawrence's murder could be extended to disability. 'When it comes to disability, it's often not the individual who needs to change, it's the whole way the organisation operates,' Pye says.

The Disability Equality Duty came into force on December 4 last year for England, Scotland and Wales (a similar duty has applied in Northern Ireland for some years now). It requires public sector organisations actively to promote disability equality, eliminate discrimination and harassment and integrate the needs of disabled people into mainstream policymaking. In addition, certain authorities, including councils, NHS trusts and fire authorities, are required to involve disabled people in the drafting of their disability equality schemes, as well as setting out how they plan to assess the impact of their policies and what steps they intend to take to improve outcomes.

In Public Finance late last year, disability minister Anne McGuire explained that the duty was part of the government's push to extend civil rights. 'We know that ending discrimination means more than just making services accessible by putting in ramps to buildings or producing information documents in alternative formats,' she wrote. 'It is about weaving equality into the way we think and considering disabled people from the outset.'

Things are beginning to move and there are already many examples of innovative practice. Last October, London Underground, together with the RNIB, produced tactile maps of three busy Tube stations. Developed with the help of 15 blind and partially sighted underground users, the maps are made up of raised lines to guide people to ticket offices, escalators, help points and exits. Blind commuters, who often find travelling alone daunting, have welcomed the introduction of the tactile maps, saying they help them feel happier, more confident and in control. One traveller, Birmingham-based Dave Taylor, says: 'It can be unsettling using the Underground. When I'm unfamiliar with a station I normally ask for help from station staff to get around. That can be invaluable, but what I would really love is to be able to travel independently if I chose to and not have to rely on other people.'

Alan Reid, who lives on the Fylde coast in Lancashire, suffered third-degree burns in an accident some years ago and has had to adjust to life as a disabled person. He was moved to found the Wyre Disability Partnership along with an officer of Wyre Borough Council, because, he says, he was fed up with being treated like a second-class citizen.

'I did an article for the Disability Rights Commission and it was headlined “Alan Reid from Planet Disabled”, because that's how disabled people feel. We are normal, but we're treated as if we're from a different planet,' Reid says.

'The common thing we in the partnership are always told is that when you become disabled you don't know what's out there. Nobody tells you anything.'

The Wyre Disability Partnership, which Reid chairs, acts as an information, advice and support resource for disabled people and brings together local statutory and voluntary agencies. It also played an active part in helping Wyre council draft its disability equality scheme. The borough council teamed up with Lancashire County Council, fire and police authorities, the Pension Service, Wyre Housing Association and local further education colleges to host a 'disability day' in Fleetwood's Marine Hall. Disabled people were invited to give their views on what could be done to improve services.

The event received positive feedback and a plan was drawn up. Better access – to both facilities and information – emerged as the major priority.

Charlotte Delaney, equality and diversity officer at Wyre council, says: 'Obviously, a disability equality scheme can mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people, but having that focused day meant that we could drill down to what the main priorities were and what that meant for our services.'

Among the concrete actions included in the plan are: the provision of individual keys from the Radar disability network, which allow disabled people access to locked public toilets; induction loops in every Tourist Information Centre to help the hearing impaired; and an assisted collection scheme to help disabled people use recycling services. Visually impaired people will be given different coloured bags and the council is considering labelling recycling bins in Braille.

A series of staff awareness and training courses will also be run. Delaney says attitudes from council colleagues have been positive and the scheme has been well received internally. The council decided to build the scheme into its performance management system to ensure it runs through all aspects of its work.

While Wyre might have grasped the nettle with gusto, there is evidence to suggest that elsewhere in local government the picture is less encouraging.

Able authorities?, a report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government and published last year, found a very inconsistent picture of progress. While councils took disability equality seriously, some very negative attitudes towards disabled people and disability issues were uncovered.

'These included: negative attitudes of staff which undermined the investment in accessible buildings; viewing team members who were disabled as a “burden”, “expensive” (because of reasonable adjustments) and not really a full member of the team,' the report stated. The researchers' conclusions backed up Reid's experiences. 'In general, disabled people were not viewed as equal citizens; rather they were viewed as citizens with special needs.'

The report concluded that the Disability Equality Duty gave authorities an opportunity to review how well they were using their powers to serve the needs of disabled people. But some commentators are warning that the legislation itself will not be sufficient.

Amelia Cookson, a policy analyst at the Local Government Information Unit, says that while the commitment is there and many councils are doing excellent work in relation to disability, the agenda is a tough one.

'Legislation serves a purpose, but let's not imagine that just by putting something into law, that it will automatically become universal practice, especially when some of the changes that need to happen are expensive, time-consuming, and need complex solutions. Councils will do their best, but there is no magic bullet for creating social and organisational change.'

Pye is adamant, however, that the duty has the potential to bring about a transformation in public services. 'But it means embracing it, and embracing it with some enthusiasm,' she says.

Enthusiasm is the watchword at a further education college just down the road from Wyre. Blackpool and the Fylde College, which serves more than 25,000 full- and part-time students of all ages and abilities, demonstrates a positive and enterprising attitude to disability.

Striving for inclusivity for disabled students was a hallmark of the college's ethos long before the duty was enshrined in law. An equality committee, chaired by the principal, sends a strong message to all staff and students that equality and diversity are matters to be taken seriously. The sub-committee on disability has been in existence for eight years and is chaired by Tim Marsh, the college's deputy director of human resources.

Its current focus is on access and many of the campuses' outmoded buildings are being updated to meet the needs of disabled learners. Consideration for disabled access is built in at the earliest stages of the planning and design process, Marsh says. Everyone involved – from the board of governors who approve the plans, to architects and estate managers – keeps the needs of disabled people in the forefront of their mind.

The college's School of Access, which serves some of its most challenging students, such as young people with behavioural needs and adults with learning difficulties, was modernised last summer. There are supportive programmes for people with mental health problems, who might find conventional courses too pressurised. And there is a range of catering, art, IT and drama courses for people with very complex needs, who might never be able to work in a full-time job but whose confidence and communication skills are boosted by attending the college.

A brief tour round the school demonstrates how well the needs of disabled people have been taken into consideration and integrated into the modernisation process. Doors are wide and open automatically to allow wheelchair entry. All toilets are wheelchair accessible and there are walk-in showers. There is a small private room where a nurse can attend students, should they have, for example, a catheter that needs cleaning. The drama classroom has a sprung floor to allow for music and movement classes. Tables in the art room can be adjusted for disabled students. Nor is the college shy about celebrating success: corridors are adorned with artwork produced by some of the most disabled learners.

Given such care and attention to detail, the new duty held little terror for the college. 'All the things were in place,' says Sarah Riding, the college's equality and diversity co-ordinator, who was responsible for writing Blackpool and the Fylde's scheme.

'So for us, in many ways, the duty was kind of a checklist… It was good for us to reflect on how well we're doing.'

The college's approach is pragmatic – it sees serving the needs of disabled people as not political correctness but sound business sense. A quarter of Blackpool's population has a disability, Riding points out. 'In some areas, it's hard to recruit staff, so if you make your college a good place to work in, the idea is hopefully you'll get the calibre of staff you want. And if they have a disability, well, this is a good environment to work in.'

Marsh concurs. 'Grumbling about [legislation] or saying, “Oh, it's something else we've got to do,” doesn't make it go away,' he says.

'The attempt is there to make it something that's usable for the college. It makes sound business sense. The School of Access and the work they do – it would be very strange if we just said that belongs to them. The benefits are for everyone, not only for disabled people.'

While disability campaigners all back the duty as a good and much-needed change to the Disability Discrimination Act, the jury is still out on what effect it will have in practice.

Reid of the Wyre Disability Partnership is hedging his bets. 'I think it is a good thing but I think the problem is that unless you kick butt, so to speak, you get nothing done. Slowly and surely the DDA is getting more teeth but it depends who's taking the lead on it: in some places it may just be a tick-box exercise.'

The RNIB's Scorer is more optimistic. He says that in the main, public sector bodies have adopted a positive attitude and are engaging constructively with the process. 'The organisations that we've been dealing with have taken the duty very seriously and put in a lot of time and a lot of resources into making sure that they involve disabled people in the process, and making sure that they produce thorough, well-thought-through documents that set out ambitious but realistic goals,' he says.

But there is still no clear picture of how the UK as a whole is progressing. The government's Office for Disability Issues has commissioned Ipsos Mori to carry out a 'compliance audit' of disability equality schemes to check that they are both in place and that disabled people were consulted as they were drawn up. The results are expected at the end of February. In the meantime, the ODI maintains that it is still too early to assess the effects of the duty.

There will undoubtedly be some pockets of bad practice, as the Able authorities? report suggests. There were red faces all round at the Audit Commission recently after it emerged that the local government watchdog itself had failed to complete its scheme on time.

Pye will not be drawn when asked to predict how well the duty has been embraced by public sector bodies – but she warns that the Disability Rights Commission will not hesitate to show its teeth. While awareness of the duty is very good, she says the proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. 'It's the extent to which they've really embraced this, not seen it as a tick list and are actually going at it with the enthusiasm it needs,' she says.

The commission has vowed to play its part, using its enforcement powers to punish non-compliant bodies.

'We're certainly not shy about coming forward,' Pye warns. 'At the moment we hope that will be quiet, discreet, behind the scenes… We don't plan on having huge headlines every week because that isn't necessarily the way to bring people on board, but where necessary we will name and shame.' l


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