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Disabled people still need a better deal

February 20, 2007 8:12 AM
By Bert Massie in http://society.guardian.co.uk/socialcare/comment/0,,2012064,00.html

Britain has got better for many disabled people over the past decade and it is easy to forget that, until recently, there was no such thing as "disability rights". Yet we still need a new agenda because, in some cases, things have got worse. And without action now, the challenges of the coming years will create new patterns of inequality and disadvantage that Britain can ill afford.

The figures speak for themselves. There are more disabled adults of working age in relative poverty today than a decade ago; and only half of all disabled people are in employment, which drops to 20% for those with mental health problems.

A third of all people without formal qualifications are disabled, and while it's true that new rights have begun to create a more open road for disabled people, the public services, resources and support many require to take up these new opportunities have either not materialised or have gone into decline. The lack of services and support impacts on their families and places them at high risk of poverty. One in three children living in poverty has a disabled parent, while the children of disabled parents in Bangladeshi families face an 83% risk of growing up in poverty. There are 6 million unpaid carers, a figure set to rise to 9 million within the next 25 years. They are mostly women, often out of work, impoverished, in poor health and likely to experience poverty in retirement.

Many families of disabled children say they are at breaking point, with only one in 13 getting support from social services. The chances of working have retreated for many mothers of disabled children, who just can't afford to pay £10 an hour childcare.

Services are fragmented and undermine the families they are supposed to help. When a family with a disabled child is forced to attend almost 20 different assessments in the space of a fortnight, how are the parents ever supposed to hold down a job?

The new Disability Agenda offers a fresh approach to these existing and future challenges. It calls for family-centred policies that start from the point that disabled people and their families need real opportunities and access to services that support them to take risks, escape poverty, and become resilient to it.

It gives suggestions on how to improve the skills of disabled people; of how we can improve the housing conditions of households with disabled members, a quarter of whom are living in conditions that do not meet the Decent Homes Standard. It identifies how we can reform social care to give families the means to organise their lives, participate socially and economically, and get on. It identifies how health inequalities might be narrowed to stop disabled people needlessly dying earlier than their fellow citizens.

Our agenda is about all those who experience disadvantage because we fail to put in place the means by which disabled people can achieve equality. It reaches right across all the equality strands - age, gender, race, sexuality, religion and human rights - and develops a synergy between them.

Ultimately though, it is about the value we attach to disabled people's lives. And it is about ending the sort of complacency that allows a GP, attending to the sudden death of a girl with Down's syndrome, to remark to her mother: "Well, it's probably for the best isn't it?"

· Bert Massie is chairman of the Disability Rights Commission. The Disability Agenda is published today. Details at: disabilityagenda.org