Why the Disability Equality Duty matters. By Denise Platt

By next week all public bodies will be expected to have a disability equality scheme in place. Denise Platt sees it as an excellent  opportunity for a culture change in the social care sector

The Disability Equality Duty offers a real chance to change the culture in public bodies, including local councils, and to ensure  equal treatment for everyone who comes into contact with them. It comes into effect on 4 December, by which time all publicly-funded organisations will be expected to have in place a disability equality scheme.

Anyone who is tempted to see this as an unnecessary burden should think again. Disabled people routinely encounter discrimination in their dealings with public bodies, and the new duty will require organisations to show that they are taking practical steps to promote real equality for disabled people.

This is not simply about installing handrails and ramps. It is not about the availability and quality of services for disabled people, but about how all services are managed and provided, and about the culture and attitudes that prevail in organisations. The duty requires public organisations to have due regard for the need to promote equality of opportunity, eliminate discrimination, prevent harassment, promote positive attitudes towards disabled people, encourage participation by disabled people in public life and take steps to ensure that their needs are met.

The Disability Equality Duty will have a significant impact on local councils and the organisations they contract with to deliver social care services for both adults and children. Many people who use social care services are disabled or care for others with disabilities. Social care services are a key part of their daily lives. At its best, social care can transform these lives. Good social care services can enable disabled people to live independently, making the choices and taking the risks they wish. It is up to commissioners and providers to consider how services should be developed to enable people to play a full part in their communities, through work, leisure or educational and cultural facilities.

There are many things that commissioners and providers can do to turn the duty into a tangible reality for disabled people. They could work with NHS trusts to improve accessible transport links to local hospitals and health facilities; develop Sure Start services to improve access to the scheme by disabled children; provide advocates for people with learning difficulties; or develop extra care housing as an alternative to residential care.

If it is used creatively, the duty could also help commissioners and providers of social care services to meet key targets. For example, councils have a target to increase the number of older people who are supported to live in their own homes. If councils were to promote direct payment schemes to disabled older people, they would increase the chances of reaching their target, while at the same time promoting equality of opportunity.

A welcome aspect of the duty is its emphasis on the social model of disability – the barriers and structures in society that disadvantage or discriminate against disabled people. Too often, organisations focus on helping disabled people overcome the obvious physical barriers to inclusion, while neglecting the less obvious attitudinal barriers. Even in care settings, which should know better, disabled people are often treated as  dependent and vulnerable, when in fact it is the situations and circumstances in which they find themselves that make them vulnerable.

The Commission for Social Care Inspection is actively working to change attitudes, to challenge a model that sees disabled people as people with impairments that prevent them taking an equal part in society and to support disabled people to take control of their own lives. We know that high-performing organisations are those that integrate equality and diversity into their business culture and processes. And we recognise that equality of opportunity cannot be achieved simply by treating disabled and non-disabled people alike.

CSCI is taking several specific approaches to ensure that we include disabled people as fully as possible in our work. Our own draft disability equality scheme has been guided by the commission’s Experts by Experience, a group of people who use services or who are part of user-led organisations.

Since the commission was established in 2004, we have involved disabled people in our work. They have joined our inspection teams for regulated services and inspections of councils and they have helped design new methodologies for inspection and performance assessment. We have also invited disabled people to contribute to the development of methods and tools for communicating with people who use social care services. They have participated in tender panels, in audits, and as members of advisory groups, such as our service improvement boards.

Disabled people have also been involved in training CSCI staff, facilitating workshops and speaking at conferences.

There is always a risk with this type of initiative that a lot is promised, but little changes in practice. At CSCI we have been clear that we do not want a disability equality scheme that promises much but sits on a shelf. Our draft scheme is ambitious, but we have tried to be realistic about what we can achieve and by when. The scheme tells the public, people who use social care services, commissioners, providers, government and our partners what we are planning to do and how that affects them. We want it to influence the way local councils work, the way they commission services and the way they approach their own disability equality schemes.

Equally, we want to encourage action by providers and to reduce the barriers faced by disabled people in achieving equality.

Above all, we want to see a culture change across the entire social care sector. While there is much good practice, there is still a long way to go before social care promotes genuine equality. Many disabled people still have to live in residential settings, even though they want to live independently in the community. The number of disabled people accessing direct payments remains depressingly low. And too often people have to accept services that are designed around the needs of providers rather than the client.

The onus is now on all public bodies to embed the Disability Equality Duty within their organisations – to implement disability equality schemes, train staff and make a difference to the lives of the people they serve.

DAME DENISE PLATT is chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Before this, she was chief inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate and director for children, older people and social care services at the Department of Health. She has held various posts nationally and locally in local government and social care.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at the implications of the Disability Equality Duty for commissioners and providers of social care services. It considers the impact of the new duty on disabled people and the opportunities it offers councils to improve their services. It also describes how the Commission for Social Care Inspection involves disabled people in its own work and calls for a change in culture in the social care sector.

Commission for Social Care Inspection
Disability Rights Commission

This article appeared in the 30 November issue under the headline “More than handrails”



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