Disability History Month – Have things changed enough?

A man with short brown hair listens to music through a pair of large black headphones. A woman's arms are reaching in, dancing with him.

We are currently celebrating three anniversaries.  At the time of writing it’s UK Disability History Month, where we reflect upon access and the extent to which disabled people can get access to all aspects of life.  It’s 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their disability.  This year, it’s also 65 years since Sense began: a result of a conversation between two mums who had given birth to deafblind children. Fast forward to 2020 and we have come along way. However, still there is so much to do and Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality disabled people face.  Have things changed enough?

Catching up

Traditionally, disability rights have always lagged behind other rights. People viewed arguments about disability differently from those about sex and race, two areas in which discrimination was better understood. It was all about unfortunate disabled people who of course couldn’t work, didn’t have to use transport or needed to enjoy the same access to cultural venues in their local communities.  Disability rights legislation has made a real difference to people’s lives and gave many disabled people a greater sense of self-belief and equality.  But we still need to see more progress.

Tackling loneliness

Today, about half of disabled people in the UK are in employment, compared with about 80% of non-disabled people. 4 million disabled people live in poverty.  Too many disabled people remain on the fringes of society. Disabled people are less likely to participate in cultural activities because of negative attitudes and prejudice, inflexible ways of working and lack of transport. We share the National Heritage’s Fund ambition to address this as part of its Strategic Funding Framework.  Sense’s own research shows that 53% of disabled adults and 77% of disabled young people feel lonely every day, and nearly 1 in 3 non-disabled people avoided talking to a disabled person.  In terms of improving access, it appears that changing attitudes is the hardest battle of all. 

Image: a man taking part in an inclusive yoga class. His arms are outstretched as he smiles to the camera.
Image: a man taking part in a yoga class. His arms are outstretched as he smiles.

No one left out of life

Sense is a service provider that offers housing and community services across the country. We are committed to providing high-quality support. We want to go further and help people achieve their basic rights to friendships, accessing their community and to feel included.  Sense’s buddying programmes bring together disabled and non-disabled people based on mutual interests.  Benefits for disabled people and volunteers are reciprocal and equal: for example, a disabled person takes part in new activities and volunteers learn new skills (e.g. British Sign Language). Both parties benefit from new connections and reduced isolation.  Similarly, our inclusive art and cultural programmes draw on disabled people’s unique contributions and creativity, give them the chance to connect with professional artists and bring disabled people and non-disabled people together based on a shared love of culture

Forgotten people and families

Fast forward to the events of this year: we know that disabled people have fallen through the cracks in government during this pandemic. There is a real risk that attitudes towards disabled people and equal access to opportunities will be permanently set back.  We have learned a lot over the last period about how our society neglects disabled people and their families. There is a feeling of disbelief, dismay and growing anger that disabled people are at the bottom of the priority list and when the public hears about the growing number of deaths of disabled people due to Covid-19. 

Two women dancing back to back, holding hands. The woman on the left wears a Sense t-shirt while the one on the right has a long-sleeved green floral top.

Opportunity for change

More than ever, we need a much more comprehensive plan to support disabled people and their families, and the front-line staff supporting them.  In 2020, we have a unique and once in a generation opportunity to address this as the Cabinet Office is charged with delivering a National Strategy for Disabled People.  Tackling inequalities and access to the same opportunities, including heritage, with a true commitment to ‘levelling up’ people’s lives, must become the new reality after Covid-19. That would be something worth celebrating.

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Author: Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer is the Chief Executive Officer of Sense.

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