I lost my sight at the age of fourteen. Ironically, one of the most challenging aspects was the fact that people immediately stopped seeing me. The attitudes of those around me became everything. Practical challenges can be solved with practical solutions but access to practical solutions and the willingness of people to consider, or provide, these solutions can be the difference between access, inclusion and opportunity or an insurmountable barrier.
Attitudes and culture remain one of the major challenges faced by disabled people in modern Britain. Humans are social animals and we are predisposed towards ‘people like ourselves’. It feels safer and it is natural but expanding our definition of who is included is an essential part of creating a civilised society. Qualitative research we conducted in advance of the 2012 Paralympics found 0% of people would be likely to buy tickets for the Paralympics. Respondents were quoted as saying “why would I spend money, when I spend my life trying to avoid people like that.” Thinking about disability can make people without disabilities or without direct experience of disability feel awkward and frightened. Disability when viewed as weakness or a personal tragedy is something that sets an individual apart from the “ordinary” and outside social norms.
One of the most successful ways we challenged these attitudes and stereotypes was with the Channel 4 Meet the Superhumans campaign. Part of the campaign was a ninety second ad, soundtrack by Public Enemy, introducing Paralympic athletes. Simultaneously showing people with disabilities whilst inverting presumptions of weakness. The ad also showed short, shocking glimpses of a car crash, an IED, a neo-natal scan; in so doing connecting us all to the experience and challenging assumptions of difference. Disability is not ‘other’, it happens to you, it happens to me. People in the end did buy tickets, did come and watch the Paralympics, did enjoy an incredible world class summer of sport. After the games many people reported feeling for the first time that their disability was not perceived as a negative thing. Attitudes can change, and we can all be part of effecting that change.
Further challenges exist around equality of opportunity in terms of education and employment. In 1995 a Conservative government passed the Disability Discrimination Act, which subsequently became part of the Equality Act 2010. The act enshrines the principles of equal access to education and employment but despite this, currently, we are not where we must be. The head of Ofsted has recently described the lack of support for children with diagnosed special educational needs as a “national scandal”. Twenty seven percent of children on the autism spectrum have been excluded from school. A BBC investigation in 2017 found that over the previous five years numbers of children with special educational needs being home schooled had grown by fifty-seven percent. We must not allow the clock to be turned back to a time when the visually impaired were offered careers as piano tuners or basket weavers. This is a “national scandal” that harms us all. Failing to ensure equal access to high quality education misses out on a pool of talent that will be a devastating waste, not just to the individuals but to all of us.
The consequences of failing with education inevitably impact on employment. Just over fifty-one percent of people with disabilities are in employment, significantly below the employment rate for people without disabilities which sits at just over eighty-one percent. Forty per-cent of young people with visual impairments do not reach employment and are instead condemned to a life of state benefits. Again, the core principles are individual opportunity and enabling talent; talent in its broadest most brilliant form, not just that of a tiny elite. Creating opportunities for disabled talent is not looking to give anyone an unfair advantage. An equitable, inclusive, fully accessible jobs market puts everyone on the same start line. It allows everyone to run whatever race they choose with fairness, dignity and respect.
One of the areas that does give me hope is the potential for technology to furnish us with incredible, enabling solutions. The mainstreaming of assistive technology demonstrates just what a difference the new tools we have will make to all our lives. Disability research is often the ground-breaking, boundary-pushing work that leads to technology we all become familiar with such as text-to-speech software and predictive text. Artificial intelligence, nano-technology, 3D printing, genetic sequencing (to name but a few) are turbo-charging this process. Correctly deployed, the 4IR, will enable, include and transform our world. As ever, though, we must root it all in ethics and principles and a ruthless focus on the society we want to create and the lives we want to live. No-one must be left behind, no talent wasted, no individuals excluded.
I have been working recently on two specific issues of access and inclusion; access to the public realm and representation in public appointments. In the public realm, a street design approach, known as shared space, has been transforming our high streets. Pedestrian crossings and pavements are removed to create a space that is ‘shared’ by vehicles and pedestrians. However, without a clear demarcation between safe space and road space visually impaired pedestrians lose the ability to navigate independently. Many others suffer too, children armed with the green cross code cannot stop look and listen when there is no obvious place to stop. I commissioned my own research into the problem and have been working for years to raise awareness of the issues and help direct government policy to ensure our high streets and safe and accessible for all.
Public appointments have an equally significant impact on all our lives. Public bodies (and the appointees that constitute them) are responsible for the distribution of £200 billion of public funds across, but not limited to, healthcare, education, the criminal justice system, energy, security and defence. Currently, shockingly, just 3% of public appointees declare a disability. I was invited to conduct an independent review for the government in to why this figure is so low and make recommendations to ensure that public appointees better represent the society they serve. My recommendations call for a more innovative and flexible approach at all stages of the recruitment process. There are also important recommendations around improving data collection and transparency, including setting a target of 11.3%. I look forward to the government response to the review.
Access is not just physical, it’s emotional and attitudinal. We must address all elements in all areas of life. If you believe in individual rights, freedom and opportunities and desire a world in which all people can contribute their talents and all society benefit then there is work to be done. Currently, talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. There is much that we can all do to change this and the rewards, should we succeed, will be great indeed.