Last week the Labour Party had one of its most successful national conferences. Large numbers of delegates came from all over the UK to share ideas and take part in debates. Many fringe events were over subscribed. The World Transformed ran a parallel event. A festival of politics, art, music and culture, it attracted many who were new to politics. All their events were sold out and many had long queues to gain entry. The young labour people I spoke with were enthused to become more involved.
For the first time in a several years there was a separate one day Women's Conference. I was very fortunate to be delegated by my constituency to attend. I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to over 2000 women delegates. Speaking of my 8 year wait to find a suitably adapted flat, I told of the difficulties I experienced getting my care package transferred from one London borough to another, less than 5 miles away. I pointed out the failures of the 2014 Care Act and the need for services for disabled people to be fully integrated.
But despite all the good things, one practical issue dominated conference. Access for disabled delegates and visitors. There were enablers on hand at the main venues , but they were not always fully trained. The Women's Conference was at the Metropole Hotel on Brighton seafront. The main hall was great once I got inside but the route to get there was tortuous! The access for able bodied people was up a sweeping staircase. The disability access was via a very small lift accommodating a wheelchair & one other person only. Then it was a shlep through back corridors, with narrow corners and fire doors to negotiate. For anyone who could not manage stairs, but could walk with assistance of aids, the walk would have been almost impossible. Whilst there were mobility scooters available to borrow, none would have managed that route.
There must have been a level access from another part of the hotel, or from a side road, but no information about this was given to disabled delegates. This may have been for security reasons. But my guess is that arrangements were made without input from someone with a physical disability.
Often it was minor stuff that was a problem, the ramp into the Metropole ended in a door which opened into the hotel, with a press button opener. Getting out again was impossible without assistance as there was no button on the inside!
I was told that the disabled toilets didn't allow for sufficient space to manoeuvre a wheelchair, a common problem. I will never leave my chair outside a loo unless I have someone guarding it. All of these things reduce one's independence.
There were difficulties for delegates who needed passes for their own helpers. If there were last minute changes to personnel, that meant lengthy queues to get passes sorted. My own delegate pass was not cleared when I arrived and even after it had been sorted when I got into Conference I was told that I only had visitor rights! There was a flurry of phone calls to enable me to be called to speak.
Brighton is not the easiest of places for wheelchair users. Cobbled streets and narrow pavements require careful navigation. But all of the entrances for the Conference venue itself involved passing through safety gates, some of which were both narrow and steep. Others were on the edge of pavements covering dipped curbs, making crossing the road hazardous.
Several of the venues for fringe meetings were not accessible at all. One that I attended had no signage and involved a temporary ramp. My helper had to go inside the hotel to find out how I could reach the venue room, then alert me as to where to wait for the ramp. Again, this precludes independence.
One group of disabled people banded together to give out 5000 leaflets raising issues about access and involvement within local Labour Party organisations. Party Participation and Disabled People have been raising concerns throughout the Party. A letter to the General Secretary elicited a reply quoting legislation (The Disability Discrimination Act) that has been superseded. A lamentable level of ignorance. The group is seeking formal recognition of Disability Officers at all levels of the party with elected officers on the NEC and Conference Arrangement Committees.
A second group of disabled people lead by Jonathan Fletcher an activist from Ashton Under Lyne, have come together to form Project 125. At least 20% of people in the UK have a disability. The Labour Party has all women short lists for council and parliamentary elections. There are requirements for constituencies and committees to have BAEM (Black and Ethic Minority) places. No such arrangements are in place for disabled candidates. The group is seeking to ensure at least 125 people with disabilities have the opportunity to stand as parliamentary candidates. With 650 seats in parliament, 125 represents the 20% of disabled people.
Both groups are getting backing from MPs. The issue of participation will be raised within the upcoming review of democracy within the party, which will be lead by Katy Clarke, who is currently Jeremy Corbyn's political secretary.
Disabled people are making sure their voices and viewpoints are heard. There is no excuse for lack of accessibility and a failure to consult. Disabled people must advise on conference planning. I am involved in both groups, we are working together. Our activism and solidarity will enable us to succeed.