Imagine Equality

When the government was scrabbling around to force through as much
of its legislation as possible before the ending of the
parliamentary session, nobody took much notice of the fate of the
Disability Discrimination Bill. Instead, all eyes were fixed on
more high-profile and controversial legislation such as the
introduction of identity cards, and aspects of the Criminal Justice
Bill. Even so, there were genuine doubts among some whether the
Disability Discrimination Bill would make it. It was long and
complicated and every pressure group, it seemed, had its own
favourite amendment to push through, eagerly assisted by opposition
parties, keen to give the impression that they knew what it was all
about, and not too upset by the notion of giving the government a
few moments of anxiety about getting its legislation through.

I must admit that I never believed the bill would be lost. After
all, who wants to be seen as the blocker of disability legislation
with an election in the offing? But with such a frenetic
legislative race going on, there were always bound to be
casualties. In this case, the biggest one was the failure to have
depression included in the bill as a disability that needed
protection against discrimination. The government resisted this
stoutly, and with only hours left to turn the bill into an act,
campaigners yielded for fear of losing the whole thing; in other
words, in this round of the game of brinkmanship, it was the
government’s nerve that held.

In some ways, the bill’s passage through parliament reflected the
way it is likely to be administered: a lot of people, with only the
dimmest understanding of what’s involved in disability, all running
around like headless chickens, trying to look as if they are doing
“the right thing”, while not committing their organisations or
constituencies to anything too onerous. Admittedly, some aspects of
this latest instalment in the disability discrimination soap opera
are easy enough to understand: for example, finally putting an
obligation on transport companies to make their trains, buses, and
so on, accessible by a fixed date. The only thing which is
incomprehensible about this is why it has taken 10 years of
anti-discrimination legislation to come about. Why on earth wasn’t
it in the very forefront of the legislation when the act was first
passed in 1995?

But the aspect which one suspects will cause much bureaucratic
scratching of heads is the obligation on public bodies such as
local authorities, health authorities and government departments to
promote disability equality. What is this going to mean? What are
the implications for those who seek to be good employers?

Over the years people have been able to get round the idea of
discrimination in employment, in the provision of goods and
services, and in the need to remove physical barriers, by giving
people what they like: a set of rules, clearly stated, to which
they have to adhere. Tick the right boxes, and you stay within the

But this is different. Promoting equality of opportunity means
being able to spot when equality is absent. Until recently many
people even had a problem grasping the concept that life was
avoidably unequal for disabled people, as opposed to its being the
natural order of things, so we don’t have the ways of thinking
which can spot, and therefore put right, inequalities.

A few days ago the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner
returned to work after very serious injuries from an ambush by
terrorists while he was filming in Saudi Arabia. After eight months
of treatment, Frank is currently using a wheelchair, though he
hopes to be able to walk again eventually. He was, quite rightly,
welcomed back effusively. I interviewed him last week and he is a
brave, determined, wise and witty man. He will get all the help he
needs to adapt back to work, or there will be trouble if he doesn’t
– again, quite rightly.

The problem is that this is a highly visible form of disability, to
a prominent member of staff, which a big organisation can deal
with. Within the same organisation, and many other large public
bodies like it, people are struggling away, trying to cope, crying
out for support that the organisation can’t see is necessary. The
new duty to promote equality – be it in jobs, services, the
environment or the law – requires imagination. How many of those
people charged with promoting this duty will have that imagination?

Peter White is the BBC’s disability correspondent

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