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Time To Get Equal: one year on

by Geoff Adams-Spink

27th May 2005

To mark the first anniversary of its Time to Get Equal campaign, Scope commissioned the pointy-headed folk at Demos to write a report on how to achieve independent living. Geoff Adams-Spink, Disability Affairs Correspondent for the BBC News website, went to the launch.
Last year, I shared with Ouch readers a rather surreal journalistic experience, which involved attending the extraordinary launch of the Time to Get Equal campaign. This year, I reckoned, it would all be different: It would be just like watching the sequel of a familiar movie, with the odd new twist and turn to the plot or some new characters thrown in to keep viewers interested.
Anne McGuire
And it almost was like that - almost. The thing that really was like the joker in the pack was an appearance from our new Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire, handing out an accolade right from the start to your own, favourite disability website.

She told us that her private office had mentioned Ouch as being part of the new minister's required reading for her new job. It is a "fascinating read", and she was very taken with its "fairly informal tone". And she said she had noticed how this "valuable resource" had demonstrated to her that her predecessor, Maria Eagle, had built up enormous credibility among disabled people, according to her reading of the site's messageboards.

So praise indeed, Ouch. Or is it? I'll leave you to decide; just remember that your messageboard contributions are being read in high places, so please mind your manners.
Anyway, back to the event itself. Our genial host this year had metamorphosed from Julie Fernandez to Mat Fraser. Call me old-fashioned, or even sexist, but I think Jules brings a sparkle to proceedings that few can emulate. On the other hand, Mat - fresh from his tour with comedian Laurence Clark - kept things moving along nicely by using Laurence's gags. (I speak as a friend of both, so I hope this article won't result in my being dropped from their respective dinner party lists.)

The Demos report is nicely timed to make a significant contribution to the incapacity benefit debate. Tony Manwaring, Scope's Chief Executive, said it was an opportunity to re-engineer the support given to disabled people so that it's more people focussed. For this, read: making the system adapt to the needs of individuals rather than the other way around.

The report - Independent Living: The Right to be Equal Citizens - suggests that the people best placed to determine the needs of disabled people are actually disabled people themselves.

When Scope originally launched its Time To Get Equal campaign it proposed the idea of Trading Zones - a sort of multi-layered place where ideas and resources are exchanged on an equal basis in order to solve a problem. At the time, Scope was honest in admitting that it wasn't sure whether Trading Zones would work.
Jim Elder-Woodward
A year later, we heard from Jim Elder-Woodward, who runs a trading zone on independent living.

"I remember being in residential care; being in a queue to go to the toilet; being forced to eat something I hated; being told to go to bed at ten, when aged eighteen; being given help by someone I disliked intensely," recalled Jim.

Direct payments alone would never be the complete answer to achieving independent living, according to Mr Elder-Woodward. The social services' 'duty of care' must be replaced by a 'duty of equality', so that disabled people can change from being vulnerable dependents to active citizens.

"But if - and only if - the government takes the opportunity to reform the system in terms of the principles and objectives of independent living, then some of the major barriers to our full and equal participation in society will finally fall," he said.

Reform, warned Mr Elder-Woodward, should not be a smoke-screen for cutbacks.

And he had a tough message for politicians:

"Having your backside wiped isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. To be charged for having it wiped at home, but not in hospital, isn't just daft - it's disablist."
Rachel Hurst
When it comes to value for money, you can't get much better than Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action. For those who don't know her, Rachel sounds like one of those formidable ladies with cut-glass accents who organise fetes and garden parties to pay the campaign expenses of would-be Tory MPs. But what you get from her is a carefully thought out and unashamedly radical agenda for advancing civil rights.

She told us about her first visit to Berkeley in California, the birth of the independent living movement. There, she met people whose lifestyle was markedly different from her own.

"Many of them were facilitated by personal assistants who did not patronise them, did what they were asked to do but would never have dreamt of interfering," she said.

"If someone wanted to go to bed with someone else, they facilitated that and then left them to it - no moral judgements were made, no barriers put up."

And Rachel warned against using the term 'independent living' too freely: there were numerous examples of charities and voluntary organisations who had adopted the term to describe their services.

"A shop in my nearest small town, which sells mobility aids, says on the window that it provides 'independent living for that very special person'!"

"They have very little concept of what they are doing and what they are saying," she said.

She maintains that IL is not just for disabled people, it's what everyone aspires to "at every age and stage of their lives". And she reminded us that just as women can't gain equality if men don't share power with them, and just as ethnic minorities can't overcome racism without the commitment of white people, so disabled people "need the commitment and allegiance of non-disabled people in our struggle for freedom, dignity and equality".

According to Rachel Hurst, Scope wanted to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And Tony Manwaring certainly caught me off guard with his frank admission of his organisation's past mistakes.

"We recognise that we have contributed to the institutionalisation of disabled people."

And as well as trying to curry favour with Ouch, the Minister said she hoped to be able to support some, if not all, of the aspirations of Scope.

So it didn't quite match last year for surrealism, but it certainly had its moments.

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