It’ll be all rights

How far have councils gone in meeting the forthcoming duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, asks Simeon Brody

In December, all public bodies, including councils, will be given a duty to actively promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.

The Disability Equality Duty, introduced under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, will require all public bodies to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment of disabled people, promote positive attitudes towards them and encourage their participation in public life.

Organisations must also produce a disability equality scheme, which will define how they will meet these general aims. In drawing up the scheme, agencies must involve disabled people, identify how they will track progress, assess the impact of policies and produce a three-year action plan.

A report from the Department for Work and Pensions published in April found public bodies, and particularly councils, had made much progress in preparing for the new duty but suggested more needed to be done.(1)

Two-thirds of the organisations polled already had a disability equality scheme in place but less than half had actually involved disabled employees in drafting it. Even fewer had involved disabled service users.

Similarly, 72 per cent of organisations believed they were meeting the needs of disabled employees but only 61 per cent felt they were meeting the needs of disabled service users.

Marie Pye, head of disability equality duty at the Disability Rights Commission, says DRC research suggests councils believe they are making good progress but the quality of much of it is questionable.

“When we go out there looking for examples of good practice we find them very hard to come across,” she says. “There are some good authorities doing some solid work but others are sticking their heads in the sand. Others are a bit like Dad’s Army, they are all running around panicking.”

Pye emphasises that authorities are not expected to have perfect schemes in place by December, but there are several things they can do to improve quality.

The first priority would be to involve disabled people in drawing up the scheme and action plan, which is not as easy as it sounds, Pye says.

This means involving disabled people from the first blank sheet of paper, discussing their experiences and what they can offer.

Authorities will also need to spend between now and December drawing up their action plan for the next three years and they should have evidence to back up their plans. Pye suggests councils find out how many disabled people use particular services and if there are areas of concern they should set out how they will be tackled over the next three years.

Crucial to the action plans are performance indicators, she adds. If a council found that few disabled parents were using Sure Start services, for example, then a simple target would be increasing that number.

“It’s often in mainstream services that disabled people don’t feature so the services are never tailored to meet their requirements and surprise, disabled people don’t use them,” Pye says.
But she cites Bristol Council as being particularly successful in its approach to the disability equality duty.

Following a series of public meetings, 500 one-to-one interviews and a questionnaire to members of the council’s citizens’ panel to compare satisfaction rates between disabled and non-disabled members, a disability equality action plan was drafted in March. It contained seven corporate performance indicators and 35 actions for each department.

The council’s disability equalities officer Anne James believes the issues raised in the consultation were known to the council but the process clarified exactly what needed to be changed and helped form clear, measurable targets.

She is confident the council will meet the December 2006 deadline but accepts it has a long way to go. Information gathering has to be completed, structures have to be created to allow ongoing participation for disabled people and training sessions must be organised for staff.

(1) The Public Sector and the Disability Discrimination Act, Department for Works and Pensions, 2006

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