It's five years since the introduction of the much-hailed 2010 Equality Act, which combined legislation around disability, race and gender equality. So has equality been achieved for disabled people? Short answer: No. Long answer: No. Why? Because so much more needs to be done to communicate the ideas behind the Act.
If you've never read the Equality Act, here's the highlights:
1. A business or organisation has to make "reasonable adjustments" to prevent a person with a disability being at a "substantial disadvantage" compared to a person without a disability.
2. Businesses and organisations are expected to make these arrangements without being asked.
3. If they refuse to make a "reasonable adjustment", they can be sued for a breach of the Equality Act by anyone who has experienced a "substantial disadvantage".
In 2010 the Act was hailed as the dawn of a barrier free world. Looking around, this brave new world looks a lot like the old one. There are still shops with steps to the only entrance. There are still epic battles being waged on public transport. There's still no action the lack of wheelchair accessible housing. There are still problems with access to university education, air travel, cinemas... The list goes on.
That's not to say progress hasn't been made in any of these areas of course. Some businesses are waking up to the lucrative purple pound, and individual campaigners across the country are making headway against the tide of same-old same-old.
But why hasn't the tide turned? Why didn't every business buy a folding ramp in 2010 and install a hearing loop? Why didn't the double glazing salesmen suddenly have a special offer on level threshold doorways with an extra discount for lightweight doors? Why didn't pasta sauce manufacturers demand that the designers of the labels for the jars use a bigger font that's actually readable? The simple answer is, no one told them to, and no one told them how.
It's not easy to find an "Accessibility for Dummies" book, even if you look for one. Generic "How to... business" books have very little, if any, information on accessibility. Even if they did, we run into the same questions: What is a "reasonable adjustment" anyway? And how much of a disadvantage does there have to be before it can be called "substantial"?
The best definition of "reasonable" I can come up with is "not unreasonable", which is only marginally better. "Not unreasonable" points out that unless there's a good reason you can't, you should. But we're still left with another question: What counts as a good reason? A small business owner has neither the time nor the inclination to explore disability theory. A large business has the time, and the resources, but rarely the expertise or the incentives to ensure they are meeting their obligations. Local departments and not-for-profit organisations, like schools and GP practices, are essentially in the same position as the small business: no time, no money and equipped with very little information.
"Something should be done about this!", the old battle cry echoes. Why isn't anyone stopping these places breaking the law? The responsibility for calling people to account seems to lie in the hands of those of us with disabilities. Yet how many of us would know where to start? I wouldn't. Isn't suing somebody expensive? Who has the time?
Suddenly we're also in the position of the small business owner: short on information, money, and time. There is Legal Aid available to help with the cost of taking a disability discrimination case to court, but we're still short on the information. Doug Paulley, of 'Busgate' fame, has written the fantastically named Disability Attitude Re-adjustment Tool. It's a set of helpful documents, letters and examples to help disabled people take legal action. For me, it should immediately be placed in a time capsule to tell future archaeologists everything they need to know about disability in the early 21st century. It's also a good read, though as Mr. Paulley states at the beginning, it's not legal advice.
The House of Lords is soon to debate the impact of the Equality Act 2010 so far. Muscular Dystrophy UK is collecting the views of disabled people with muscle-wasting conditions, to pass on to the committee reviewing the Act, ahead of the debate. I would tell Peers two things. Firstly, do not under any circumstances scrap the Equality Act or water it down. It's pretty vague, but it's the best we've ever had and will continue to be a tool for progress. Secondly, the first-step to equality is to make sure businesses, organisations, and people with disabilities have access to good quality, in depth, easy-to-find information.
When a small business owner looks at you from the top of two steps to a doorway with a confused expression and says "We've never had anyone in a wheelchair come in here and ask for a ramp before," and doesn't understand why that's funny, something needs to change.