On 8 November the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was 25 years old. But has anything changed for disabled people? I remember vividly the beginning of the campaign that led to this act being passed. There were wheelchair users who were survivors of polio and the thalidomide scandal living in Camden, where I worked at the Law Centre. I knew Keith Armstrong, a Camden resident who became disabled after contracting polio. He initiated the protests out of frustration with the discrimination faced by disabled people. He sat in front of buses on major roads and was soon joined by other disabled activists who disrupted public transport by chaining themselves to buses or blocking roads.
Looking back into the history of disabilities and how people were treated, I think about the debilitating effects of leprosy, and how those who contracted this disease were institutionalised. Polio was another life-changing disease. A common thread among sufferers of these diseases is the discrimination they faced when banished from society with little help.
Mental health is another example, as sufferers were detained in inhumane conditions, often for life, in so-called asylums.
Other disabilities such as blindness, deafness, speech impediment and loss of limbs placed sufferers at a huge disadvantage in society. They often lacked the empathy, understanding, services and facilities needed to lead a normal life.
The two world wars caused significant mental and physical disabilities among veterans. The best treatments were made available but there were limitations that prevented many from leading a normal life.
Progress has been made but we are still a long way from making life seamless for people with disabilities
Alongside these physical and mental impairments is special educational needs (SEN), with limited provision made for children with SEN. Some special schools were opened but difficulties were often encountered in getting assessments done. Integration into mainstream schools with additional support proved elusive.
It has not been an easy journey for people with disabilities and their families. The campaign for disability rights from the mid-1980s gained traction. As campaigners felt their voices were not being heard, they resorted to protests on the streets.
They eventually got the attention needed and were successful in effecting lasting change. Their actions influenced the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.
The act made it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person. It required reasonable adjustments to be made for people with disabilities. Failure to do so was discriminatory. It applied to people with a physical or mental impairment which has substantial and long-term adverse effects on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It made it discriminatory to treat a disabled person less favourably than others without justification.
It is regrettable that parts of the act came into force piecemeal, such as the need to make reasonable adjustments (2004).
In 2010 the Equality Act was passed, subsuming the 1995 act and making the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people a protected characteristic.
The 2010 act says: ‘If you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities, you have a protected characteristic.’ ‘Substantial’ means it takes long to perform an act. ‘Long-term’ means you suffer the disability for 12 months or more.
The act also applies to disabled people’s right to work, education, public services, buy/rent property, or be a consumer and club/association member.
But is there really cause for celebration 25 years on? Certainly, progress has been made but we are still a long way from fully embracing diversity and inclusion, and making life seamless for people with disabilities.
For so many people, the first signs of progress came with the 2012 Paralympic Games and then the Invictus Games for veterans. People saw for the first time on the world stage remarkably talented, elite disabled athletes do incredible things in sport. I had the pleasure of seeing live, at the Aquatic Centre, paralympians swim at the 2012 games. My family and I marvelled at their performance. Their skills at the field and track events were mesmerising.
In fact, as early as 1988 when I started working with a talented solicitor who was profoundly deaf, I realised that given the opportunity, people with disabilities can lead a normal life. My colleague was provided with support from a signer at meetings. He also became president of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division.
In recent years, with the support of high-profile people, mental health has become a topical issue and our awareness has risen about its impact on people’s lives. This is timely and long overdue.
I was, however, astounded to read a most informative Gazette article on SEN provision (see tinyurl.com/y48hsxbk). It said that local councils spent a significant amount of money to win just 8% of SEN and disability cases in tribunals. It begs the question: would that money not have been better spent to educate and support children with special needs? Why do parents and schools have to struggle for the required resources?
A friend set up a much-needed club called Brightstars for youths with autism, as there appeared to be little provision for over 18-year-olds. I am pleased to be one of their fervent supporters.
As a society, we can do so much more for people with disabilities. The Equality Act is still work in progress.
Gifty Edila is a retired solicitor and corporate director of law, and an author