Photo credit: Matt Artz (@mattartz) and UnSplash.

SOMETIMES EVENTS COINCIDE in a way that speaks volumes. On 28 July, the UK Government published its National Disability Strategy, complete with a characteristically grandiloquent foreword by the prime minister.

Mr Johnson wrote, “if there is one thing more than any other that drives this government, it’s our determination to level up the country so that whoever and wherever you are, the spark of your talent and potential can be connected with the kindling of opportunity.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?

On the very same day, a judge ruled that the Government had breached the Equality Act 2010 by failing to provide a BSL interpreter during scientific press briefings on the pandemic, even though the devolved governments, and almost every other government in the world, provides one as a matter of course. But even when this failure was pointed out, the UK government did not hastily apologise and remedy the situation – it resisted to the extent that the case had to go to court.

The government’s barrister argued that the complainant’s evidence in relation to her ability to understand written English was “incomplete” and “exaggerated”. So – the UK Government failed in its duty to provide an interpreter, dismissed requests to remedy the situation, and then when all else failed, tried to discredit the evidence of the person with a disability.

With this gulf between the government’s rhetoric and its actual behaviour, it is hardly surprising that the long-awaited National Disability Strategy turned out to be such a damp squib. Indeed, Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People actually shut down his own advisory forum of disabled people, and Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) whilst the Strategy was being written – that too is now the subject of legal proceedings.

This lack of input from disabled people probably meant that a failure to engage with many of their real concerns was inevitable. As the Disabled Children’s Partnership said: “the strategy doesn’t reflect the full lives of disabled children or their families”

Disabled People Against Cuts said: “We have been waiting for 10 long years for a strategy that will tackle the growing poverty, exclusion and discrimination we face and set out a transformative plan for social justice, equality and inclusion. This so-called strategy does neither of these things.”

In reality, the document could be seen as a record of failure, with so many issues that should and could have been addressed by now, given the political will. The Prime Minister’s foreword mentions the “obvious injustices” facing disabled people – but does not seem to realise how badly this reflects on a party that has been in power for 11 years. Perhaps what was lacking from the Prime Minister’s foreword was a humble apology.

And in a move which gained less attention, the UK Government also published Shaping future support, a health and disability green paper, which ‘considers the options for addressing some of the short- to medium-term issues in health and disability benefits.’

In an excellent analysis for Disability News Service, John Pring points out that only in the final chapter, and not even mentioned in the accompanying press release, so largely ignored by the media, the Green Paper expresses the desire to “explore making bigger changes to the benefits system” that will mean the system is “more affordable in the future”. Ah yes – having been hardest hit and impoverished during a decade of austerity, this is very familiar ground for disabled people.

The National Survivor User Network, a network of people and groups with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress and trauma said that this was yet another example of the government’s obsession with work as the solution to every problem, whilst failing to provide the support that people need. They said: “This is an employment and disability green paper, fixated on avoiding ‘health related inactivity’, that links worsening health outcomes for disabled people with unemployment, instead of recognising the impact of poverty.”

This is characteristic of the government’s approach over the last decade – it has been only too willing to put pressure on disabled people to find work in a hostile labour market, but unwilling to put any meaningful pressure on employers to make that labour market more accessible.  As the TUC’s Frances O’Grady said of the Disability Strategy: “Everyone should have an equal chance to earn a living and pursue a career. But disabled people still face huge barriers at work. And the government has once again missed the chance to act.”

As with the its approach to poverty, all too often the government pressures people to address the problem at the level of the individual, rather than taking the more politically difficult approach of addressing the systemic injustice.

Perhaps what was most significant about these documents was what was left out. There is no acknowledgement of what the policies of austerity and welfare reform have done to disabled people over the last 11 years, despite the fact that this attracted condemnation from the United Nations. There is a deafening silence on the calls for a public inquiry into deaths linked to the benefits system, no mention of reports like the recent one from Rethink Mental Illness: Tip of the Iceberg? Deaths and Serious Harm in the Benefits System.

To write two documents making proposals for disabled people’s lives, without really listening to disabled people or their organisations, and without acknowledging the real and significant harm that has been done, is to present a politically convenient version of reality. But then, as we have seen on an almost daily basis, that is a talent this government has in abundance.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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