It is clear that part of the legacy that Tony Blair would like to leave this country is the reduction of inequalities, and one of the mechanisms for doing this is a proposal to amalgamate the three commissions: disability rights, racial equality and equal opportunities.
The questions that this idea raises are both practical and political: will an Equalities Commission tackle inequalities for any of the groups any more effectively than the separate bodies? Is discrimination on the basis of disability equivalent to discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or gender?
Some physically disabled people in their internet blogs are clear that discrimination on the basis of disability is a perpetrator-less crime: they see all injustices as institutional, and any personal prejudice the result of ignorance. If this were so, disability discrimination would be significantly different from race and gender discrimination, which has its roots in the fear and suspicion of difference, and the distribution of economic, political and social power.
Growing up in the 1960s I remember that favourite terms of abuse were “spaz”, “psycho” and “mong”, which were even more common than terms of racial abuse. Words that were meant to hurt; words that were meant to exclude anyone who didn’t conform to the idea of what was physically and psychologically “normal”. They represented attitudes that led ordinary children to mock or even attack people in public.
Although these terms of abuse are no longer socially acceptable, there is still open fear, suspicion and hostility, particularly towards people with mental illness and learning difficulties. Any time someone with a mental illness is involved in a violent incident, the tabloids call for stricter control over everyone with a mental illness. I still hear people in the street mutter that “they” – people with learning difficulties – “shouldn’t be allowed out”. There is an undercurrent of feeling, if people were brave enough to admit it, that the physically disabled protest too much, and want more than their fair share – “uppity”, if you will. And what does that remind you of?