Peter White is not convinced that disabled
people are their own best advocates, and would prefer someone who
knows the opposition and how to represent disabled people against
The trend toward advocacy for vulnerable
people is a good one. Trying to represent your views to an
entrenched bureaucracy, with its own well-honed techniques of
obfuscation and self-preservation, is no joke at the best of times,
and doomed to disaster when you feel worried or threatened. But
there are important issues about who your best advocate might be,
which do not always fit neatly into ideas of political correctness
or current wisdom.
One such idea worth careful examination is
that disabled people are their own best advocates and, failing
this, the next best thing is another disabled person. I’m not
Some years ago The National Federation of the
Blind came up with the idea of pairing newly blind people in the
area with one of their members. It grew out of the usual
dissatisfaction that people losing their sight were not receiving
support early enough from social services departments.
Initially I was captivated by the idea. In my
fantasy, I saw myself striding confidently into some newly blind
person’s kitchen, white cane swinging confidently, to tell them
that far from being the end of the world as they had so far
thought, blindness might turn out to be the best thing that had
happened to them so far. Soon they would leave that armchair where
they had been wallowing in self-pity, start making tea again, then
the odd light meal, then venturing out to the shops and, before
they knew where they were, they would be scaling Mont Blanc and
sailing round Cape Horn like the rest of us liberated blindies.
Then reality took hold and I got another
vision; a frightened, disoriented person, needing quiet and gradual
support, being harangued by a self-confident being from another
planet whose experience, if truth be told, was about as far away
from a newly blind person’s as it could possibly be.
Both are caricatures, of course, but you get
the idea. One of the techniques for dealing with disability, or
indeed any new set of circumstances, is to try to minimise the
problems they create. The trouble is that in doing that you often
forget just how traumatic it all was to begin with – indeed you
have to, in order to go on doing it day after day.
If I needed confirmation of this belief it
came from the chairman of a benefits appeals tribunal of my
acquaintance. He assured me that when dealing with the case of a
disabled person appealing against the withdrawal of disability
living allowance or some other benefit, it was other disabled
members of the tribunal who were usually by far the most sceptical
and the hardest to convince of its justification.
“Ah, that’s because they know the tricks you
all get up to,” I can hear the hardened cynics among you murmuring.
Not so – I suspect competitiveness and self-satisfaction are no
less prevalent among disabled people than in other sections of the
community. What is far more likely is that they are saying to
themselves: “Well, I deal with this kind of thing quite
satisfactorily – why don’t they?” One drawback with that argument
is that the kind of disabled people who find themselves on appeals
tribunals are almost certainly self-selecting, experienced copers,
and not typical.
So who do I want fighting my corner when I try
to secure the enforcement of my assessment by the social services,
or get my disabled daughter accepted at the local mainstream
school, or secure a facilities grant to make my flat accessible?
Well, I think my first requirement is a gamekeeper turned poacher.
Who better to counteract the pleas of poverty from the social
services department than a former social worker or adviser?
One of the reasons for the success of Ipsea
(independent panel of special education advisers) is that their
members are often teachers or former education officers; and the
same principle applies to almost any conflict you can imagine
yourself becoming embroiled in. It is true that the person best
able to assess disability is a disabled person him or herself – but
only that person. It is not a blanket ability, transferable to
everyone. In a conflict situation, what you need on your side is
someone who sympathises with the opposition, knows their
susceptibilities and how to represent you against those prejudices.
Never forget that the object of having an advocate is to carry the
day. The only good cast of characters is the cast that ensures you
Peter White is the BBC’s disability