On Thursday 18 July I attended the Disability Employment Conference that was held at the Queen Elizabeth 2nd Conference centre in the heart of sun soaked London. The tag line of the conference was "Disability Confident" and a key goal was to assist employers to become more confident when considering employing a disabled person. If I'm honest I was a little concerned when my invitation popped into my in-tray, as I am not the biggest supporter of the current government and have been fairly vocal about my concerns around many of their policies that impact on disabled people, but whatever my political leanings I am whole heatedly in support of getting more disabled people into the work place. So off I trotted bright and early, and even used a bus to get to the event; something I have only been able to do in later life as the bus system has only recently become vaguely accessible to wheelchair users. Things did not bode well when I arrived at the conference centre as the approach to the entire building is paved with cobbles... an arch nemesis of anyone like myself who gets around on wheels. But I kept telling myself that I must try to keep an open mind because encouraging employers to hire disabled people is a noble cause.
As the morning rolled on I did find some of the language a little offensive, especially the ridiculous over use of the word "inspiring" every time a disabled person either spoke or was mentioned, and of course I found myself fighting against the urge to heckle when David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith gave speeches. What shocked me to the core was the attitudes of many of the disabled people attending the event, especially those who were speaking. It began when one of the delegates expressed his view to me that those people "suffering" with Diabetes should not really be entitled to any state assistance if they were out of work due to their impairment as he worked and he had Cerebral Palsy which was a real disability. Rather than question the idea that there was a Top Trumps of disability and that only certain conditions should be eligible for help, I made an excuse and avoided any further discussion. I have always found that nothing makes you less popular at this kind of event than having a "heated argument" in a packed room during the coffee break.
But this was not an aberration. Just before lunch the stage was filled with five disabled people who in turn told the audience the "inspiring story of their disability". Each person regaled the room with details of how their impairment impacted on their day to day life and then how they had been driven to get out into the world of work. Now while I might not agree with some of the sentiments aired I understood the reasoning behind each speakers decision to take part and why they felt they should be so open about their experiences to the conference. But as each speaker passed a negative judgement on any disabled person who was not in work, even if it was to varying degrees, I found myself overcome with sadness. Several of the speakers also compared their impairment with others, repeating the idea that there is a top of the pops of disabled people and that they were way up in the top ten. At one point some one in the audience joined in by passing the comment that it was alright for wheelchair users as all they needed where ramps and big toilets, but blind people like him had it really tough. As we broke for lunch I escaped the conference early and drowned my sorrows over a coffee in the crypt of St Martin's in the Fields, which I felt was a suitable place for my darkened mood.
But why, I hear you ask, does any of this matter? Surely some disabled people are more unable to work than others and some impairments do have a greater detrimental effect on the lives of the people who live with them than others with different impairments? Well yes, you'd be right up to a point but it is truly damaging to all disabled people if we fall into the trap of playing disability one up man ship. Most disabled people consider disability using the social model, which explains that people are disabled not by their medical issues or impairments but by the barriers that society puts in their way. For those of you that don't know what that means it can easily be understood by considering that once I'm scooting about in my wheelchair it's the lack of ramps, lifts and accessible toilets plus stuff like cobbles, uneven pavements and the wider issue of social attitudes that causes me to be disabled. My legs not working is part of my impairment, but their lack of function doesn't stop me from doing things... well other than walking and I think that's over rated. The social model stops this type of disability rivalry and allows us to understand each disabled person on their own individual abilities.
In the Scarlet household I grew up with an obvious and visible disability. I was the kid who limped and wore a calliper. Then at the age of 15 I became the weird looking teenager who used a wheelchair. My younger brother had an invisible impairment, dyslexia. He was only diagnosed at the age of 30, after which he immediately went to University, the first in our family to do so. But until then he was just the thick kid, the think teenager and the thick young adult, and I saw how this impacted on his confidence and his opportunities. Occasionally we discuss "who has it worse" but instead of taking the "I have" "No, I have" approach which prevailed at the Disability Employment Conference, we always end up arguing "You have", "No, You have". He feels that my physical issues trump his learning disability, but I feel that in our reading based culture, society impacts on him to a greater degree. In the end we agree to help each other, and in the past Steve pushed me all over our home town (in various states of inebriation) and I helped him study for some of his more complex essays while at Uni.
The point is that we are both disabled, both face barriers thrown up by society and we work together to ensure our world us more accessible. All disabled people should be taking this direction. We must not start fighting amongst ourselves over who deserves more, even if what is offered to us all is getting less and less. To ensure that we do achieve equality of opportunity and experience all disabled people, whatever their impairment, must stand or sit side by side and work together towards creating a fairer society for all of us. Of course some have a harder struggle in front of them than others, but we should support those people as a larger group and not splinter off into individual special interest groups. Solidarity has got the disabled community a long way, and I really hope that I have not witnessed the beginning of the end of that approach. No matter what our political views might be, we must work together to ensure that all disabled people get a fairer deal and can look forward to a better future, whether their impairment impacts on their lives in such a way that they can work or not.