The very last thing we should do now is allow another generation to go on to long term benefits – like the millions that did so following the recessions of the 1980s and early 1990s. This is the time to argue to close the disability pay gap, to enable more disabled people to get skills ranging from apprenticeships to university degrees. It is definitely not the time to be arguing to ‘go slow’ on expectations of employment. (This does not mean there aren’t problems with the way Welfare Reform is being planned and implemented – but that is a separate issue).
So far the figures from Job Centre Plus suggest people living with IID are not leaving the workforce through redundancy any faster than other groups – which is encouraging. But we need to watch whether those who do lose their jobs are staying out of work longer. That would be a danger sign of a new lost generation of people living long-term without employment, a role in life or a decent income.
Secondly, there are some current opportunities worth seizing. The Speakers’ Conference in the House of Commons is a rarely convened committee, famous for finally getting cross-party support for votes for women in 1917. It has just issued an interim report on enabling more women, disabled people and people from bme communities to enter Parliament. The report argues that the public has lost trust in Parliament and that if the political parties send back ‘more of the same’ at the forthcoming general election public trust will stay at rock bottom. Therefore, it argues, political parties should take strong action to ensure the next Parliament is much more diverse. So – this is a good time for budding MPs living with ill-health, injury or disability to consider taking the next step in your political career. There are even rumours that the requirement that MPs stand down if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act might be lifted. (After all, if an MP goes into hospital for heart surgery, politics goes on with cover arrangements or none and the MP returns once better. The same could apply).
If politics is not your ambition, bear in mind that Government has just set a new target for public appointments: 14% of people taking up these appointments should be disabled people by 2011. If met, this could create a critical mass of disabled people able to influence the cultures of public services and the priorities of major organisations from Primary Care Trusts to national organisations focused on education, sport and more.
I have been accused, if that is the right term, of being a ‘glass half full’ sort of person – and there are undoubtedly huge threats ahead. However, retreating into low expectations is not the approach that will win through in the longer term. We who are part of organisations led by disabled people should lead the debate on how we seize those opportunities that do exist – and how we prepare now so disabled people are positioned well for the upturn when it comes. This will not be easy, as our organisations are rocked by tough financial times. But a vision of what is possible for disabled people longer term, given the new context, is vital to get us through. RADAR is doing its bit to help that happen. We are running a leadership and empowerment programme, supporting around 100 people this year to develop their leadership journeys, as well as supporting local groups to engage successfully with local planning and development. Last year we supported 40 disabled leaders, half from black and minority ethnic communities; many have gone on to lead significant developments, from being a local Mayor to setting up the first BSL signed Islamic service in the London Mosque.