4 Things to Take Away from a Decade of Disability Inequality

On Tuesday 3 December, it was the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, and suitably perhaps, the UK news recently has been flooded with stories relating to disability, some positive and some startlingly negative. With the end of the decade coming up, it got me thinking, where exactly are we with attitudes towards disability in the UK in 2019? In a society which is apparently bursting at the seams with woke young liberals, why, according to research from disability charity Scope, do 1 in 3 disabled people (myself included) feel that there is still a lot of disability prejudice in Britain today? In their annual Disability Perception Gap report, published in 2019, it is indicated that the public is still stereotyping disabled people in all aspects of their daily lives, including how much care disabled people need and how productive they are. With that in mind, let’s look at 4 things that we need to work on regarding disability as we approach the end of 2019 – and indeed – the end of a highly tumultuous decade.

 

  1. Young people are still uncomfortable with disability

 

It was revealed in the news last week that popular video app TikTok has actually been hiding content created by disabled users and purposely preventing them from going viral. Their explanation for this? To prevent cyberbullying against disabled users on the app, which has seen a rise recently. Firstly, omg this totally explains why my sick content is never trending! (full disclosure, as a 24 year old man, I am barely aware of what TikTok even is – it’s basically Vine right?). Secondly, and on a more serious note, this is absolutely disgraceful on the part of TikTok. It doesn’t really need saying, but hiding, marginalising and punishing young disabled people on the platform for the crime of looking different and triggering cyber trolls is NOT the way to improve attitudes towards disability. It is reactions like this – to shy away from what we find uncomfortable – that push disabled people further into the margins of society. Is it surprising then, that according to a 2014 Scope survey on public attitudes to disability:

  • 43% of people said they do not personally know anyone disabled.
  • Two thirds of people said they felt awkward or uncomfortable talking to disabled people for fear of saying something offensive.
  • One fifth of 18-34 year olds admitted to having avoided talking to a disabled person because they did not know how to communicate with them.

 

This is unacceptable, and the only thing which is going to change these perceptions of awkwardness is more exposure to disabled people in everyday life, which leads me nicely onto…

 

  1. Disabled people need a more realistic portrayal in the media

 

The BBC has promised a more “authentic and distinctive” representation of disabled people on screen. They have announced a string of new shows and said there will be an enhanced portrayal of disability in existing programmes. This is very encouraging to hear from the BBC, although not too dissimilar from pledges they have made in the past. What I’m hoping for specifically is first, across the board coverage of a range of disabilities (i.e. – physical impairments having an equal share as mental health conditions), and secondly a careful balance of how prominently and intricately disabilities are displayed or discussed. A common pitfall I find with the current on-screen portrayal of disability is that it is only used to act as the main focus of a narrative: to further a storyline, to act as an obstacle to overcome, to provide comedic effect. What we see very little of is characters or on-screen personalities living with a disability in a normal setting, performing everyday tasks and taking part in stories that do not revolve around their disabilities. I have repeated this point so many times internally, but while my disability is a big part of my life and has helped shape me as a person, it is certainly not the most interesting thing about me, and simply existing as a person whose eyes don’t work very well does not make me inspirational. Let’s have this message spread more widely in mainstream media. At the start of the decade, Paralympians were referred to as “superheroes”. In 2019, they are athletes like their able-bodied counterparts. We have already come a long way, let’s continue on that path.

 

  1. There is still a great deal of inequality in the workplace

 

There is a whole range of problems still faced by disabled people everyday in the workplace, and indeed, before they even get there. According to the Labour Force Survey January – March 2018, there are more than 3.7 million disabled people in work, however disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.

For those with disabilities in work, the ONS revealed last week the extent of the ‘disability pay gap, the data suggesting that disabled employees are paid 12.2% less than their non-disabled peers, with London having the widest gap at 15.3%.

These findings are made all the more worrying when you consider that, according to Scope’s ‘Disability Price Tag 2019’, life costs you on average £583 more a month if you’re disabled, and on average, a disabled person’s extra costs are equivalent to almost half of their income.

 

So how to close this disability pay gap? For me, a lot lies with social attitudes and perceptions. Disabled people still face a lot of daily discrimination in the workplace, whether as a result of access requirements not being met or people underestimating their capabilities. The misconception that disabled people offer less to companies and do not deserve to be paid as much is an outdated notion which still survives to this day. Just last Friday,

Conservative candidate Sally-Ann Hart said that disabled people and those with learning difficulties should be paid less because some “don’t understand money”. In addition, Scope found that 1 in 3 people see disabled people as being less productive than their able-bodied counterparts, which I find an incredibly frustrating, yet unsurprising statistic.

In recent jobs, I have personally experienced on a daily basis; people avoiding giving me responsibility for tasks, assuming that I won’t be capable, avoiding talking to me and instead communicating instructions through colleagues, people frequently forgetting to make documents and materials accessible to me, and perhaps most damning of all, a former manager telling me that it would be difficult for me going forward as my extra support essentially equates to hiring two people, the implication being that I am not cost effective to the company. I know that many other visually impaired and disabled people have to put up with regular discrimination such as this also, and while it is true that you can make a lot of difference yourself by being as communicative, organised and authoritative as possible, it is extremely frustrating to feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall of ignorance everyday.

 

  1. Disabled issues have been ignored by the government for too long

 

And this is where I get political…

 

The Conservatives, in their nine years of power across the decade, have ruthlessly and systematically slashed disability benefits and special education funding, purposefully slowed down and complicated systems like PIP and Access to Work – essential for supporting disabled people in everyday life, brought in humiliating and degrading assessments encouraged to make people downplay the severity of their conditions, not to mention staggering cuts to the NHS, as well as community and support services, all of which instrumental to quality of life across the board for disabled people and the general public as a whole. All of this has been done with a distinct lack of understanding or care for the needs of disabled Britons. When government services like Access to Work and PIP, created to provide crucial financial support to people with disabilities, are so fundamentally slowed and stripped to the bone, it effectively removes the ability of millions of people to get to work, travel outside their home, or even function day to day. It has pushed millions of disabled people into poverty, with a 2016 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report suggesting half of those living in poverty in the UK are either disabled or living with someone who is.

The solution to this is not simple, but the prerogative lies with the government. We need to reduce the disability pay gap thus boosting disabled incomes, deliver an effective benefit system that does not punish the most vulnerable in society, and provide more funding for special education and for organisations which help disabled people from education into the workplace. I personally do not trust the Conservatives at all to reverse the damage they have already done to the lives of disabled people this decade, hence why I’m voting Labour tomorrow, a party which has pledged substantially more for the disabled community and demonstrated that they view this as an important issue given the attention to detail in their manifesto. The BBC have compiled a very good article summarising the different election pledges from each party regarding this topic here.

 

The need for disabled people in the UK to make their voices heard has never been more important than now. As we approach the dawn of a new decade, I am optimistic that in the next ten years, we can improve societal awareness of and attitudes towards disability, reduce the disability pay gap, improve the portrayal of disabled people on screen, and most importantly, make people’s day-to-day lives significantly easier, happier, and more fulfilled.

 

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