Mind the Gap: A post-script to the 2012 Olympic Games

We think it has been a roller-coaster year for disability and equalities awareness.But has it all been a summer of disability content? Who would doubt that for many it has? The press, radio and television have, through their coverage of the Games, helped to transform the public image of those with physical and learning disabilities. “People GB” have much to be proud of and rightly so. Prime Minister David Cameron captured these sentiments at the opening ceremony noting the promise, for “Eyes are being opened, attitudes hopefully shifted”.

Many have written to the letters columns in all the main newspapers proclaiming the improvements in social, economic and physical infrastructure as a result of the long build-up [to the 2012 Olympics]. Thus, as a result of this investment, Lianna Etkind of Transport for All, rightly claims that disabled people have enjoyed the best ever access to the London Underground. (The Times, 8 Sept and The Guardian 11 Sept). Others have pointed to the enormous task, both in the UK and globally, that remains to be done before cycles of poverty and inequality can be broken. The protests against Paralympics sponsorship by Atos is a prime example.

It has taken a long time to realise the truism that people with a disability hold enormous potential for our country’s economy. One in five of us has a disability.  Failure to make reasonable adjustments has costly outcomes for us all. For example, will more employers or service providers be inspired to both anticipate, and make proper provision for, employees and customers with disabilities- and not just the overt, obvious ones such as access for wheelchair users? Many have done this, but thousands still lag behind, not having considered the needs of those employees with chronic postural problems, dyslexia, mental health issues such as depression, partial sightedness or hearing impairment. Likewise for raising awareness on the wider equalities front of issues for gay or transgender employees, or the need to take measures to counter workplace bullying.

Two years ago the UK government issued a Legacy Promise for Disabled People. One aspect of this Legacy Promise is a commitment to improve accessibility of public transport. On August 20th, The Guardian printed an excellent article by David Brindle (Behind the Paralympics, the reality for disabled people in Britain 2012). In the article he quoted Frances Hasler, a leading figure in the social care sector who has worked closely with the disability movement, and for whom, like Lianna Etkind, the acid test is public transport. "Every time I see a wheelchair user waiting at a bus stop [in London], that gives me pleasure," she said. "You can't turn that kind of thing back. You can't stick the genie back in the bottle. There is a lot of doom and gloom at the moment, but overall there has been a massive move forward…..". We would add that whilst most buses are now wheelchair accessible, yet we also know there's much still to be done to make access a reality - that often physically disabled people won't be able to get on the bus because someone else is in that space and won't move, or the bus driver won't wait. The same is true of some taxi drivers. We can change the technology but changing the attitudes is far harder.

For those who allege that discrimination has occurred, access to justice has recently been reduced despite the Legacy, real or perceived, of the games. That justice is both about individual redress but also about wider justice.

How many readers will have noted earlier this year the loss of Government funding to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for the Equalities Mediation Service (EMS) which is already making access to justice that much more remote? In reforming the EHRC, the Government may have thrown out the baby (the EMS) with the bathwater. The EHRC was formed as a result of merging the various equalities commissions and the EMS evolved from the Disability Conciliation Service, established in 2002 by the Disability Rights Commission, to reflect this. Its ethos was the recognition that society as a whole suffers from inequality, not just individuals.  By offering a ‘Rights based’ approach to discrimination, outcomes to mediated cases often became embedded in corporate and social practices. Hundreds of cases have been resolved throughout the UK.

Individuals bringing a case for mediation will now not have access to a dedicated team of caseworkers and mediators who have built up a unique level of expertise; rather will they have to access a national database of solicitors and mediators who are not necessarily experts on equalities issues. The service will no longer be free to the user, who will, instead, have to pay fees while hoping that their chosen mediator will have made the necessary ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their client. This is sending a strong and unwelcome message – that it isn’t society’s responsibility to promote inclusion.

Campaigners such as the late Jack Ashley, Lord Ashley of Stoke, and Alf Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, who spent tireless and frustrating decades working for the betterment of life for people with disabilities must be turning in their graves at the thought of these backward steps, the impact of some of the new Coalition’s Welfare Reforms, especially during a period of recession when disabled people are struggling to retain or gain paid work, and the dismemberment of Remploy, for example.

The Olympics may be over but the Legacy remains a challenge. Will the rhetoric be matched by the reality? Mind the gap.

David Hilton
Out of Conflict Mediation

Margaret Doyle
Domar Mediation