What needs to be done to end disability discrimination?

Image caption The original Act provided no right to disability benefit

A week of BBC features looking at the issues facing people with disabilities - Access All Areas - is getting under way.

Disability affairs correspondent Peter White looks at how much more needs to be done to end discrimination, 40 years after the first Disability Act.

In the late 1960s you would have needed to scan Britain's law books with a very strong magnifying glass to find any reference to disability.

Except for a few mentions of compensation for wounded ex-servicemen and those suffering from industrial injuries, politicians seemed to think that disability was everyone's problem but theirs.

Then along came a young Lancashire MP who won the parliamentary equivalent of the lottery, the right to choose a bill to steer into law.

The choice he made, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, put disability on the political map for the first time.

Alf Morris, now Lord Morris of Manchester, was originally inspired by personal reasons.

His father had suffered terrible injuries in World War I; as well as his physical injuries, he had lifelong respiratory problems; he rarely went out.

But what young Alf thought so unfair was that, apart from a small pension, there was almost nothing in the way of services that took his father's disability into account.

"He couldn't work; he barely had enough money to keep warm," he said.

And what Alf Morris discovered when he began to frame his bill, exactly 40 years ago, was that it was hardly surprising that local councils were not offering their disabled population any services, because they did not know who they were, where they were, or how many of them there were.

"We were legislating in the dark," Lord Morris now says.

Nonetheless, and despite quite a lot of ministerial indifference, the act was passed in May 1970, and for the first time encapsulated ideas such as help at home, the right to proper assessment of your needs, and - crucially - the idea that making the environment accessible to disabled people was the responsibility of local councils.

'Intractable problem'

Lord Morris freely admits there was much it did not do.

The Act provided no right to disability benefit - that came later - and it was now that disabled people themselves, already forming into a movement demanding Rights, not Charity, took up the cudgels.

Crucially, their major campaign at the beginning was getting disabled people out of institutions, where many of them were expected to spend their lives, and pioneering independent living.

Forty years on, it is undeniable that there have been huge improvements: medical, technological, and in the existence of anti-discrimination legislation.

But a new BBC Survey does raise the question: is the job completely done, or, in a very tough economic climate, could we be facing something of a backlash?

The survey reveals, for instance, that though 90% of those polled believed the government should provide the necessary funds to make the workplace accessible for disabled people, and that almost as many believed that resources should be available to allow them to live independently, 40% thought that people with disabilities turned down jobs, even when they were physically able to do them.

If you look at the responses of young people and those on low incomes, that figure rises to well over 50%.

This suggests that it is particularly those also struggling for jobs at a tough economic time who are the chief sceptics about disabled people's willingness to make an economic contribution where they can.

The relationship between work and disability is an intractable problem.

For the last 20 years governments of all colours have, with increasing desperation, been trying to cut the benefit bill, and that includes people with disabilities.

Despite toughening the medical tests to judge your ability to work, reducing the level of incapacity benefit to people with occupational pensions, and now shortening the time people are allowed to stay on benefits, numbers stubbornly refuse to come down.

'Honourable exceptions'

So why? We certainly now have a wider definition of disability than we once did. Time was when you needed those telltale symbols of disability: the wheelchair, the guide dog, the hearing-aid!

In the past people did not declare disability if they did not have to: there was nothing to be gained from it, and much to lose, including, ironically, the chance to work!

Employers, with some very honourable exceptions, have always been sceptical about taking on disabled people.

Amongst those receiving work and disability-related benefits have been a rising number of people with psychiatric illnesses - they make up around an estimated 40%.

Though few will come out and say it, there is a suspicion amongst many that quite a number of these people could work.

Cecilia Weightman knows this.

Cecilia has bipolar disorder, which can strike her with 12 mood swing cycles a day, not a brilliant scenario for rejoining the workforce.

"But for people who observe me, there's no outward sign; people think because there's no physical evidence, then I can't be disabled; but I am".

Nobody but a fool would claim there is no fraud involved in disability benefit; wherever there is money, there is fraud.

But interestingly, the Department of Work and Pensions itself has always said that the level of cheating amongst genuinely disabled people has always been very small; and let us be clear, all those claiming disability work-related benefit have been deemed by a doctor to need it.

This government, despite its determination to tackle high benefit costs, has consistently maintained that it does not intend to hurt "genuinely" disabled people.

But perhaps we still do not agree on what is genuine.

Maybe the next step is a more sophisticated understanding of what disability really is, and how people are likely to cope in an increasingly stressful workplace?

Lord Morris, still observing the scene closely 40 years on from his big law, agrees with that.

"I don't like talking about what I or my bill achieved. That way lies complacency. There's still so much to be done".

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