Put diversity on the stage

For me, the National Social Services Conference was a pain in the
neck. Ouch. I’ll explain why later but first, as I sat in the main
arena and glanced back at the sea of white faces and two other
evidently disabled people I contemplated its theme, “Success
through Diversity”. Were the organisers being ironic?

Diversity, it seems, only got as far as fringe meetings. Rhetoric
may put service users “centre stage”, but they were missing from
the conference stage.

OK, so service users were absent but how did our advocates do?
Again my heart sank as leaders of our new social care bodies
confused and excluded 70 per cent of the audience with acronyms and

Back at the main conference, colleagues and I played a game,
counting how often the phrase “the vulnerable” was used. Yes,
people are vulnerable at times, but it is a transitional state, not
an absolute one. If you stay out all night in sub-zero
temperatures, you are vulnerable to hypothermia. If a loved one
dies you are vulnerable to deep sadness. This does not define you
as a chilly or a sad person! Yet someone needing help to get out of
bed or fetch a meal is categorised, defined even, as vulnerable and
we will inevitably treat recipients as passive and perpetuate
dependency. Users do not want to be typecast as “vulnerable” to get
daily help. We want services relevant to our needs.

Alan Milburn said: “If social services are going to genuinely put
users first then those users have got to have more power. And that
means more choice.”

He’s dead right. In recent years, service users have developed all
sorts of ideas relevant to supportive communities. We have designed
new methods of providing services, enabling people with significant
care requirements to work and live independently. Yet the social
care “industry” – another programme quote – remains stuck in
labelling mode, administering and separating us, keeping us
dependent and “vulnerable”.

Resources are not the only key. A massive change of mindset is also
required if “Success through Diversity” is to have real meaning.
Sitting down to speak to a wheelchair user costs nothing. If you
were one of the many who responded to my request to take a seat
with “No, I’m OK standing” you now know why I needed to visit the
chiropractor after three days in Cardiff. Yes, the conference was
indeed a pain in my neck!

So what is to be done? Engage. Engage. Engage. So together we can
get it right next year.

Jane Campbell is a disability rights commissioner.

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