Tuesday 13 May 2014

Disability Confident and the Elephant in the Corner

Blogging against Disablism Day (#BADD2014) was back on the 1st, so I'm more than a little late, but I struggled to settle on a theme until interactions on the #DisabilityConfident twitter hashtag focussed me back on to disablism in employment. And by the way, do follow the #BADD2014 link for one of the most important collections of disability essays you'll read all year.

For more background on Disability Confident, see my earlier blog So What's Wrong With Disability Confident.

When we come to disability employment, it's clear that the main issue limiting disabled people achieving equality in the workforce is open disablism (ableism for those in the States). Either we can't get through the recruitment process because our applications get inexplicably filed in the wastebasket when we mention our disabilities, or we don't mention them and they get inexplicably filed in the wastebasket when we turn up for interview with crutches, a wheelchair, a white cane, whatever. On the off-chance we get through recruitment, which for many of us only happens because we didn't happen to be disabled at the time, we then have to navigate the process of explaining to management that we now need reasonable adjustments, which can far too often trigger a full blown crusade to force us out of the company, and god forbid your disability changes and you need to change your adjustments - 'Please sir, I want some more.' Even if you get the adjustments in place, you may find yourself facing jealousy from your peers - 'why should she get out of stacking shelves just because she has a wheelchair', or transferred into a post where the new manager takes against you - 'I believe anyone who becomes disabled should be medically retired' to quote one of my annual appraisals. And when it comes to taking on even a small company to enforce your rights, the company usually has better resources, go up against a multinational and you can find yourself facing hot and cold running lawyers, and even if you win may find yourself subject to a gagging clause which means you can't discuss the censored .

So when it comes to staging a major two year campaign to challenge the lack of equality for disabled people in the workplace, you would have thought that challenging open disablism would have been at the forefront of the campaign. Unfortunately Disability Confident is a Department of Work And Pensions campaign, and DWP thinks disability is our fault for not trying hard enough (sadly I'm not joking), and god forbid they might even dare to contemplate enforcing the Equality Act ("I am not somebody who would want to tell somebody what they have to do. We have to work with business.” Esther McVey, then Minister for(?!) Disabled People). Instead Disability Confident has focussed on the low hanging fruit of companies who are willing to have disabled employees, but aren't very good at it. Unfortunately Disability Confident isn't very good at it either. Scope have basically done a better job in the first week of their 'End the Awkward' campaign, which isn't even an employment focussed campaign, than Disability Confident has managed in a year. Almost half-way through Disability Confident's two year campaign and we're still seeing the same 'how inspiring' tweets from the people attending their events.

One thing that disturbs me deeply about Disability Confident is the number of disability consultants willing to get up on stage and say how wonderful it is. Forget the campaign's figurehead, Simon Weston, he's there because he's a mate of Mike Penning, the current Minister for Disabled People, and doubtless picked as someone well known for being disabled who company directors would probably quite like to have their picture taken with (and even better, he's not a political crip). Focus rather on the disability consultants, the people who deal with the issues of employment and disability on a day by day basis. If they are disability consultants, then pretty much by definition they need to know about things like inspiration-porn, and the real nature of the employment market for disabled people, they can't do their job if they don't. All the time they're singing the praises of Iain Duncan Smith for his crusade against the inherent idleness of those damned, faking crips, they have to know just how bad Disability Confident is, and that the elephant in the corner is sitting there, staring at them, and wondering when they are going to get around to dealing with the real issue - employer disablism. And what goes for the elephant in the corner also goes for us out here, the actual disabled people, the ones who want jobs, or who have jobs and need adjustments, or who had jobs and lost them for no reason other than our disability and the disablism of our employers. Like it or not, the disability consultants taking part in Disability Confident are representing us, and they're doing a piss-poor job of it.

DWP don't want to challenge disablism, the disability consultants don't want to challenge DWP (that would be biting the hand that pays their contracting fees), and our voice, the voice that says 'I want the same chance to work as anyone else', goes unheard. For disabled people, Disability Confident is worse than a failure, worse than nothing, it's the disability equivalent of Uncle Tom's Cabin, actively designed to make employers feel good about themselves and think they need do nothing more to make us equal than hold up a handful of inspiring (sic) examples.

I'm never going to be a saintly Uncle Tom, held up as an example of how a good little crip should behave, I'm cut far more from Uppity Crip cloth, and when I see an elephant in the corner, I'm going to shout it to the hilltops, and get Jumbo to trumpet it alongside me. Disability Confident is not just bad, it's dangerous, it's explicitly designed to reinforce the status quo, rather than persuade employers to live up to their legal obligations to treat disabled people as equal to any other worker. Employers have had 70 years to do that, since the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, if they haven't done it yet, they aren't going to do it without being forced, no matter what Esther McVey or Mike Penning might bleat. And if a programme is designed to reinforce a disablist reality, then that programme is by definition itself disablist.

Either we challenge disablism in employment, or we're on its side. Disability Confident has picked its side, it is there to reinforce the status quo of disablist employers having nothing to fear. The elephant in the corner is sitting there at every Disability Confident event, forced into the corner as the interests of disabled people always are, and waiting for one of the invited disability consultants to finally find the guts to look it in the eye and say: 'Oh, sod this, let's talk about the real problem.'

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