Do you ever go to a restaurant and eat the same food, just because you don’t know what else is there and you can’t be bothered to ask a waiter to read a menu to you? Do you have to stop several taxis before you find a driver who would let you in? Have you ever been lost because a bus driver forgot to tell you that it is your stop? Have you received an important letter in a format you can’t read? If you are a deafblind person, you probably would say yes to at least some of these.
Equality for disabled people is not only about treating them like anybody else, it is about treating disabled people differently and making adjustments for them.
Over the last few weeks I spoke to deafblind people about their experiences of disability discrimination to prepare Sense’s submission to the House of Lords Select Committee. It is surprising and disappointing to find out that in spite of the fact that the laws protecting disabled people from discrimination have been in place for years, deafblind people still experience discrimination every day. People lose their jobs because their sight or hearing deteriorates and some struggle to get adjustments at school or college or have problems accessing goods and services. Don’t get me wrong, there have undoubtedly been significant improvements. For example, everyone I spoke to told me they always get information from their bank in the format they need. Black Cabs in London are generally good with guide dog owners.
Large companies with money to invest in training generally are better at making adjustments for disabled people, but a lot of our day-to-day life is about dealing with small businesses. Some Guide Dog owners told me they don’t go to Indian restaurants, because they don’t want to be kicked out. Some people feel very uncomfortable about visiting services they don’t know without support from carers or friends. This means choices are limited and on some occasions it can be very isolating. So what are the reasons for this?
Cost? I am not so sure. It costs very little to print something in large print or tell person that it is their stop or turn music down, so people can hear.
I think the biggest weakness of the Equality legislation is that it is up to disabled people to enforce it. If you feel a service provider has discriminated against you, you have to ultimately take them to the County Court. There are many more discrimination cases in the employment tribunal than county court and it is understandable. Taking action requires time and money, so the matter has to be serious enough. It is much easier to walk away and find a service somewhere else. As one person told me: “we don’t want a compensation or long lawsuits, we just want to access services like everybody else”. Would you, for example take a restaurant to court because they don’t have a menu in large print? Even if you would, you might get an apology and possibly a small compensation, but there is no guarantee you’ll be able to have a nice evening out in the future.
Some deafblind people told me about situations where they were shouted at and felt intimidated. It is almost impossible in these situations to establish that you haven’t done anything wrong and are actually discriminated against. Add to this the fact that many deafblind people will need support with communication. This is why people just walk away.
Court proceedings do not always help disabled people to enforce their rights. People don’t want to fight, they just want support to put their point of view across to a service provider – they want an easy, accessible mechanism, which would be aimed at reconciliation and awareness raising, rather than adjudicating.
All the deafblind people I spoke to say that the main problem is the lack of awareness. Some of them are quite good at telling service providers, colleges or potential employees what kind of adjustments need to be made for them and can make a case why it would be reasonable to make these adjustments. Others are not as able and need support in doing this. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a lot of information and resources on its website, but the problem is that a corner shop owner, a small restaurant, an ice cream lady don’t read those and let’s face it even bigger companies largely don’t. On many occasions it is not so much about reading the guidance, but about thinking what each of us can do to enable disabled people to have a better access to our service.
The government should lead by example and ensure its’ services or services it commissions are accessible. I could not find a deafblind person who consistently receives information from government departments or local authorities in a format they need. Moreover, it looks like some officials see the Equality legislation as red tape.
Do you feel hopeful or pessimistic about the Equality Act 2010? What do you think could be done to make sure deafblind people face less discrimination?