The voice speaks out

Alun Davies is to co-chair the advisory group of disabled people. He tells Natalie Valios his views on improving services

“Iam proud to be a disabled person – I’m proud of every bit of me, including the fact that my eyes don’t work. That’s as much a part of my being as that I’m rotund, 42 and going grey.”

This attitude perhaps explains in part why Alun Davies was picked to co-chair an advisory group of disabled people with Bruce Calderwood, director of the Office for Disability Issues. It has the task of looking at the who, what and how of setting up a national forum to represent the interests of disabled people. It has until September to report back, and the aim is to have the forum established by the end of the year.

The starting point for this work came 18 months ago in the government’s disability strategy Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People. The proposal to set up a forum to improve the involvement of and engagement with disabled people and government was a key recommendation in the Life Chances report.

Davies says: “So far we have looked at whether it is going to be a representative body – there is always tension about who should represent disabled people, should it just be them or should carers and professionals also be consulted – the experience and skills members might need and its structure.”

As for its name, “that in itself will take some hours to debate”. Whatever its name, Davies is clear that the forum must not be just another talking shop. “I am committed to making sure that the advisory group I’m part of sets out ideas for the forum to develop a new relationship between government and disabled people. The basis of this relationship would in my mind be a genuine two-way conversation based on the belief that disabled people are in a better position than anyone else to discuss with government how it can deliver on its commitment of equality within a generation.”

Exactly how this will be achieved is still to be worked out, but Davies is also clear that for him the forum, however it is structured, must look to involve the widest range of disabled people. It will have some of the “usual suspects”, but must in his mind be as broad as possible. The recruitment process for the forum is likely to begin in the summer, and Davies is keen for as many disabled people as possible to apply.

Davies himself doesn’t have a problem getting his views heard. A long-time “voice on disability”, he has been a disability activist for almost 20 years, interrupted by two years working as a social worker for disabled children. He is currently planning manager, adult social services and housing for North Somerset Council.

“I was the archetypal political activist, doing committee work, lobbying, trying to get the government to change policies.”

Davies lost his sight when he was 14. He was moved from a mainstream school to a segregated special school for children with a visual impairment, but he feels that this harmed him rather than helped.

“In one, the worst remark was to call someone blind – even though it was a school for blind boys. The boys tried to be ‘normal’ so would go into town without their white canes because they didn’t want to be seen as a negative stereotype.”

The school environment made Davies think of himself as a sighted person who couldn’t see. But he had to reassess his status when he re-entered the real world at university and had to start thinking of himself as a blind person.

“I have an issue with segregation – whether in schools, residential homes or day services. If stopped in the street, most people would say that disabled people are equal. But if you told them that a hostel to help people with mental health problems in the transition from hospital to the community was going to be put next to their house, they would say no.

“There are fears about them, which is why we end up with disabled people who are segregated because there is this ideology of special needs.”

Moving on to current disability issues, he is worried by Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill – blocked for six months by the House of Lords last month. An all embracing law would move the goalposts and then set them up again to be widened further, he says. Other concerns include the fact that some women with learning difficulties are still sterilised and thousands of disabled people have no choice but to live in residential homes.

Sounds like the voice on disability still has plenty to talk about.

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