Funding for an inclusive transport network is good news, but long overdue | Liam O’Dell

A £30 million boost to public transport – combined with continuous improvements in technology – means we’re one step closer to a fully accessible and inclusive network for disabled people.

Public transport already comes with an air of traditional British awkwardness. Eye contact with fellow train passengers is heavily discouraged, conversations with your taxi driver never extend beyond small talk and if you play hardcore dubstep too loud through your headphones you’ll be met with 22 death stares from commuters on the Circle Line.

Now imagine this experience as a disabled person. For many autistic people, the loud noises of the London Underground can be nothing more than overwhelming. For wheelchair users, some train stations come without step-free access. Then, for a deaf young person like me, all it takes is an announcement over a tannoy on a train and I start to feel lost and confused.

Photo: Department for Transport.

I turn to the commuter next to me.

“What did they say?” I ask.

Except I don’t.

For one thing, I’ve come to assume that the train coming to a halt and the garbling voice of the driver in an announcement means that the journey is most likely delayed. A quick look at Trainline on my phone confirms it, and saves me from breaking the eerie silence that returns once the driver has finished talking.

While technology has helped to improve accessibility on public transport for me and other disabled people, the inclusivity of a bus journey or taxi ride is significantly enhanced when tech combines with physical improvements – which is why I welcome the Department for Transport’s announcement this week that up to £300 million is to be invested in making transport networks in the UK more inclusive.

In their Inclusive Transport Strategy, the Government commits to legislation to ensure that “on-board audible and visible upcoming stop and route information is installed on local bus services across Great Britain” – a reassuring move indeed.

From a deaf person’s perspective, the strategy could also go further, and address tannoy systems on trains and taxis. Granted, the option of taking the front passenger seat in taxis is an option for me when I need to hear the driver, but there’s always been that expectation that you’ll struggle to open the back door, not sit at the front. The end result is having to try and make out the driver’s voice in amongst the hum of the traffic which seeps through the doors.

The strategy also talks about how 75% of rail journeys are now through stations with step-free access, but it could also commit to 100% within a certain timeframe. Similarly, the Government plans to launch a public awareness campaign in 2019 around positively interacting with disabled people “to ensure a supportive travelling experience”. This needs to start now.

Only last week did we hear of a disabled comedian who was “humiliated” for using a disabled space on a train for her mobility scooter when another passenger wanted to use it for a pram. It’s an ongoing issue around priority seats which also highlighted in a campaign by comedian Corry Shaw, who called for Transport to London (TfL) to introduce messages asking people to ‘look up’ and see if someone needs your seat.

As more funding is announced for disabled facilities on public transport, we also need to ensure that such support is not exploited and that non-disabled people are aware of its intended purpose just as much as disabled people.

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The Global Disability Summit 2018: Disabled people must be at the heart of change | Liam O’Dell

As the first ever Global Disability Summit – organised by the Department for International Development – gets underway, we must remember that disabled people have to be at the heart of all positive change.

The sheer hypocrisy of having the UK Government host an event on disability following last year’s “human catastrophe” verdict by the UN is more significant than you may think.

With delegates discussing topics such as “tackling stigma and discrimination, inclusive education, technology and innovation” and looking to ways of implementing change, it’s important to consider the actions and attitudes which both underpin and hinder social progress.

Photo: Department for International Development (DfID).

At the centre of all this is media and political representation. Disabled people long for accurate portrayals in film and television of those with similar impairments to their own, devoid of the ‘inspiration porn’ and warped fascination that surrounds disability. In politics, decisions on benefits and support for disabled people stir up negative stereotypes, and in some cases, they aren’t even consulted on government changes.

Both of these issues combine to dramatically limit the power and voice of disabled people in society. Charities launch campaigns aimed at ‘ending the awkward’ around disability because the actions of politicians – supported by the press – create an atmosphere where the only understanding people have of impairments, conditions and disabled people is through government policy and the limited media representation – that is unless they visit charity websites or know someone who is disabled, of course.

However, there’s a possibility that this awkwardness and issue has transferred into education and other areas of society. While my experience at school regarding additional support was absolutely incredible, not everyone has the same opportunities during their time in the education system. For some, if measures are put in place to help them, it’s with little involvement from the disabled person themselves.

So now, as organisations look to implement the Charter for Change, it’s reassuring that one of the ten clauses within it is to:

“promote the leadership and diverse representation of all persons with disabilities to be front and centre of change; as leaders, partners and advocates. This includes the active involvement and close consultation of persons with disabilities of all ages.”

Summits are a great opportunity for discussion and debate – to talk, and to listen. If there’s a global effort to enforce the above pledge, then we can elevate the platforms of disabled people around the world, informing policy and breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions in our society that have existed for far too long.

Are you disabled and between 11 and 30 years old? If so, the Global Disability Summit is inviting you to share your thoughts on some of the issues disabled people face around the world. The survey is online now. I’ve completed it, and I hope you do too.

Introducing ‘The Impaired Judgement Podcast’

There’s hosting a radio show, then there’s creating a podcast. The former, I have done now, on-and-off, for around two years. When it comes to the latter, despite my presenting experience, was all very new to me – that is, until today.


At 5pm, the very first episode of Impaired Judgement – my podcast which sees me and other disabled people cast a critical eye over the latest disability news – went live on YouTube (and soon, it will be available on iTunes). Despite being in front of a microphone many times before, I still struggled to find the right place to start – although I did have a detailed plan of things to discuss.

Thankfully, I had my good friend Connor to discuss things with, as he was my first guest on the podcast. Reaching the 30-40 minute target was easy. However, coming up with the name was particularly tricky (an earlier idea was Sign of the Times, before I realised that Harry Styles may have a few words). The great thing was that this new name contained a similar level of wordplay – ‘impaired judgement’ being a common phrase, but it also nicely sums up a podcast which sees disabled people discuss the latest news.

Looking ahead, the aim is to build up my ability to improvise when thinking (I often rely on scripts when on radio), and hopefully have at least one guest on per episode. How frequent the podcasts will be is something I still need to figure out, but I hope to keep a regular flow going for as long as possible.

Nevertheless, if you’re interested in hearing myself and Connor discuss noisy restaurants, the latest MMR vaccine statistics and schizophrenia, then you can give the first episode of the podcast a listen on YouTube.

UN’s ‘human catastrophe’ verdict is the latest dent to the Tories’ disability rights record | The Friday Article

How a Conservative government can even begin to dispute the damning report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) this week beats me. After numerous disability organisations complained to the UN about the Tories’ treatment of disabled people, the Chair of the UNCRPD, Theresia Degener described it as a ‘human catastrophe’.

Photo: Pixabay.

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” said Degener, as quoted in an article by the Mirror.

Yet, when one looks at the government’s response to the comments, a spokeswoman said it ‘fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives’, before going on to mention statistics such as them spending ‘over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions’, that they’re a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, and that ‘almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years’.

It is a response which can be picked apart in a rather hilarious fashion, even when the data appears positive. With regards to the 600,000 disabled people in work since 2013, they fail to mention the recent news that the disability employment gap has remained stagnant at over 30% since 1998, despite launching a commitment to halve the gap in ten years.

As for being a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, one does not need to showcase the biggest disability news stories of the past decade to show that this is completely laughable. A UN inquiry last November had some harsh words for the Conservatives, a disabled student took the government to court in 2015 due to it failing to consult with disabled people over changes to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), and without a doubt one of the most appalling statistics which seems to suggest otherwise is that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 because they were declared ‘fit for work’ after claiming for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Tories ignoring yet another damning report on their disability rights record would not only show a disregard for any public scrutiny, but it would only prove the lack of consideration for one of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It’s why, as always, we must support charities in holding the government to account and demanding change. Granted, saying that we need to continue campaigning is a typical call-to-action when it comes to these sort of social issues, but applying pressure on MPs around disability issues has worked wonders before. Aside from the DSA example mentioned above, the British Deaf Association (BDA) has pushed tirelessly for British Sign Language to be given legal status, and after the UN’s latest verdict, it seems as though that is getting closer to becoming a reality.

“We were impressed with the openness of the committee to listen to our evidence and apply their significant legal experience,” said Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chairman of the BDA. “Therefore we are glad to see that the committee has expressly recommended that the UK government finally legislate to protect language rights of deaf people, and that so many of the committee’s remarks related to this. Deaf people have been passed over too long; there can now be no doubt that the government has been taken to task. Without language rights, we have no human rights.”

There are 13.3 million people in the UK. Whether or not the Government will choose to listen to such a large group of people is another matter for debate (this article suggests that for many years, they haven’t), but now more than ever we must support the charities that are giving a voice to a community which is being unfairly targeted – especially when they claim they are being ‘gagged’ by the Lobbying Act 2014.

The incredible young voter turnout in the recent snap election has shown the Conservative government what can happen when they continue to target a specific group of people in our society. Now, they’ve tried desperately to win back students from Corbynism with a right-wing ‘ideas festival’ and most recently, a grassroots movement called Activate which some people have called ‘the Tory Momentum’.

It’s time for disabled people to do the same, and shock the Conservative Party into making long overdue changes to improve our lives for the better.

Enough is enough – the Tories must wake up and tackle the disability employment gap | The Friday Article

“We must close the disability employment gap.” It was a simple enough statement made by the Minister for Disabled People Penny Mordaunt on her website last year. A consultation on ‘work, health and disability’ and a commitment to halving said employment gap in 10 years was announced by the government a short while later. From a party that has passed ruthless reforms to disability benefits, it’s likely that it had a few disabled people scratching their heads. Have the Conservatives finally started to care about a group in society which they have cruelly targeted for years?

Disabled person in powered wheelchair driving down the street
The disability employment gap remains stagnant at 31.3%. Photo: Pixabay.

One only has to look at what was announced on Wednesday this week for the answer. The disability employment gap the Tories planned to work on cutting down has stayed at 31.3%, lingering above the 30% mark for a decade. If they really wanted to tackle the issue, then the changes would be visible – be it in the statistics or in public announcements. James Taylor, Head of Policy at the disability charity Scope, said ‘these figures should be a wake-up call to the Government’ and he is absolutely right. The latest data shows the Conservatives’ current approach is indolent, lazy and slothful.

Granted, it can be argued that ministers have 10 years to get somewhere close to closing the gap, but the fact that there have not been any significant updates since the consultation closed in February is a cause for concern. The Brexit argument is likely to be an excuse given by some for this work taking a back seat during the middle of the year (following the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March), but it’s always worth mentioning that there are other burning issues and injustices that need to be addressed whilst also focussing on those all-important negotiations in Brussels. A crumbling NHS, the housing crisis and many other social issues can’t be brushed under the carpet because of our vote to leave the European Union. Ministers are yet to provide an explanation as to why the disability employment gap remains at the current level, but no excuse is valid.

So what could possibly cause a lack of disabled people in employment? As much as it comes down to the current benefits system, a more ideological issue is the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability that have been generated from years of Conservative policies. Confusing and complex regulations and assessments have degraded disabled people – presenting them as inconveniences or numbers to meet a particular quota.

Whilst assuming all employers see a disabled candidate or employee as a pain in the backside in terms of paperwork and workplace support is a completely inaccurate and flawed judgement, it’s likely that some employers are unaware of how they can support disabled people in their company. The communication between the government, firms and workers about such things is inefficient if not non-existent. It’s part of the reason why I’ve always been reluctant to tick the ‘are you disabled’ question on an application form. Aside from the fact that I don’t really consider myself disabled (except under ‘the social model’), the possible discussion about workplace support if I did mention it always felt daunting – where would I start?

Although the ‘work, health and disability’ consultation intends to look at how health and work interconnect, more needs to be done to address attitudes and improve communication. The communities of disabled people in society must continue to call for better support when it comes to employment – only then will we have the chance to wake Conservatives up from their slumber when it comes to addressing the needs of the community of disabled people.

Now, one can hope that a stat-obsessed government which always likes to shout about increased employment or a stronger economy will notice one of the more concerning pieces of data that has come from the Office for National Statistics’ latest release. If the state of the disability employment gap led to a planned reform of the Work Capability Assessment, then here’s hoping that the gap remaining static will finally prompt the Department for Work and Pensions to take action. Enough is enough.

 

Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ reopens the disability representation debate | The Friday Article

The debate around the representation of disabilities in the media has been re-energised this week, following the release of promotional material for the upcoming Netflix drama, Atypical. Making its way onto the streaming site on August 11, it centres on an 18-year-old with autism and his search for romance. If the cringeworthy ‘boy tries to find his one true love’ plot doesn’t raise your eyebrows, then the fact it’s been branded as a ‘dark comedy’ in news reports should have you worried. Failing that, then the trailer, released last week, gives us a glimpse as to what we can expect…

It’s The A Word meets The Inbetweeners. In the two minutes, we see family disputes akin to the former, and the awkward sexual humour of the latter. Whilst there’s no denying that mothers, fathers and sisters have their own reactions to a relative’s autism diagnosis (something The A Word explores rather well), the ‘sometimes I wish I was normal’ self-pity and the awkward dinner table discussions only creates this harmful idea that audience members can poke fun at the condition. If this show wants to be a comedy, then there’s other ways to go about it.

There’s also the risk of generalisation that comes with any show that tries to represent disabilities through one sole character, which is especially important to note when it comes to autism – a condition unique to everyone with it. Add that to the fact that British actor Keir Gilchrist – who plays the main character – isn’t autistic, then those on the spectrum have every right to be concerned that the portrayal may not be 100 percent accurate.

Thus, the question of whether the teenager – named Sam – could have been played by an autistic individual has been raised by people online, and it’s a valid question to ask.

Only on a couple of occasions has a valid reason been given for a neurotypical portraying a character with autism – one of them being the role of Christopher in the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned in the book that the 15-year-old has Asperger’s Syndrome, many people have made the connection. However, with the show involving flashing lights, strobe effects, loud music and a lengthy monologue at the end, it’s understandable that neurotypicals play the demanding role.

However, with regards to the aforementioned The A Word, the reasons its creator gave to The Mirror were that it was “too big an ask for a six-year-old on the autistic spectrum to imitate a whole range of emotions in keeping with the piece. By definition they have difficulty processing and imitating.”

Whilst that is true, one has to ask at what point does such a role become improbable to someone with autism? To dismiss an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because autistic people struggle to understand emotions is unfair to those with the condition who are trying to pursue a career in acting – most of whom, one imagines, have probably developed their own thought processes to help them understand the emotions they need to replicate for their performance.

Nevertheless, in terms of Atypical, the demands of the role are yet to be revealed to the audience, and we can still question the casting team’s decisions. Though more importantly, there is another argument to be had here, in terms of representation off-camera.

It’s an issue raised by the actor Lenny Henry in relation to the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority-Ethnic) communities. The comedian is quoted in an ITV News article, saying “if the pickers and deciders remain the same then nothing changes, because only what gets measured gets done.”

So, using that idea and applying it to the world of disability, just as much as it’s important that the actors are autistic, we must also campaign for those with ASDs to be part of the creative process – whether it be helping with the casting, advising the creators or even producing the show themselves. With the team behind Atypical giving the role to a neurotypical actor, one can only hope that autism charities in America and those with the condition were able to advise important members of the crew throughout the writing and production stages.

Although it may be unfair to judge a whole series from a two-minute trailer, the short insight we’re given is enough for audiences to discuss whether the show will do a good job of representing such a misunderstood condition.

Now we wait until August 11…

 

Cuts to DSAs: ‘The Tennis Effect’ and An Unnecessary Factor 

The government announced yesterday that it is to make further cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs), which students with disabilities vitally need to get the right support in further and higher education.

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Higher Education, was the one who made the announcement, which sees more responsibility being placed on universities to provide disability support.

Whilst this doesn’t mean that the DSAs won’t fund any support, it ends up creating what I call ‘the tennis effect’.

This is where students will go to the government for the support, only to be told that the university should provide it. But then, when they approach the university, they are told to go back to the government.

All in all, it will only create more confusion. The phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ has been thrown about recently, but for most students it’s a term they don’t understand. It’s another example of where doubt and uncertainty is felt by disabled students applying to university.

It is because of the lack of distinction that students are confused. It still seems to be unclear as to who provides what support.

On top of that, for disabled students visiting universities in open days, they now have to consider another, unnecessary factor – what support they will get.

In turn, this could lead to a student choosing a degree based on the support, not the course. Everybody should have the right to study the course they want to study, and questions about support should not influence this.

I’m extremely disappointed by the government’s decision, but what do you think about the announced cuts? Comment below!

Liam