The political agenda for young disabled people could hardly be more significant for the past number of years now.
With the likes of SEND reforms, the Children and Families Act and wide scale changes to the welfare system for families and claimants of financial support often making headlines in the sector and beyond, there is no voice more important than that of the young people who will be directly impacted by these reforms. Following what I heard was a very successful morning of plenaries, including one by Education Minister Edward Timpson, three volunteers, including myself, who are part of a project at CDC presented to delegates our ideas of what our idea of government policy should look like by 2020.
As a flavour of the presentations, here is a quick list of what my fellow political ‘rivals’ presented as their policy recommendations:
- Mental health for people with disabilities
- Assisted technology
- Making the social model of disability a reality
- Improving attitudes of disabled people
For my arguments, under the ‘Ability Party’ banner, I focused on the case of Work (e.g. employment, welfare) as a matter of importance and Votes at 16. In the case of the first scenario, I was concerned primarily on three issues:
- The remit of the Disability Minister
- Proposed changes to welfare support, like tax credits
- The ‘Disability Confident’ campaign and how it could develop
Currently the role of the Disability Minister is fixed at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which regarding areas like employment support or the various welfare components play a huge role in the lives of disabled people, should not be the only factors of government priority. Areas like mental health, role in civic society and the curriculum in schools are aspects which concern other departments and therefore the role of the Disability Minister should be expanded, rather than contained, to being hosted at one department.
Support could be provided by appointing Junior Ministers, with a disability focus, to help ease the workload and consider aides that have conditions themselves, so there is some representation of a disabled people in this portfolio.
On welfare changes, families and, in particular, those who have children in poverty look set to be badly hit by the £12 billion savings the government have proposed.
Contact a Family estimates up to 150,000 families who have a disabled child will be impacted. This, alongside reductions to Employment Support Allowance (ESA), cannot be the only solution to financial problems in the country. An individual case review must be taken into account, rather than introduce wholesale reforms, which will end up like an equivalent Poll Tax at the present rate. Families and children who are the most vulnerable deserve state support and protection especially, including areas like Work Capability Assessments and ensuring they are well regulated. Mencap have continued their ‘Hear My Voice’ campaign on why benefits help those individuals or families which support someone with a learning disability, with great examples of how social security has helped them.
The DWP’s ‘Disability Confident’ campaign for the past two years has shown, by its principal of the idea, a good initiative to encourage more employers to recruit disabled people. With only 47% of disabled people employed, I feel it is the role now of representatives and ambassadors in local areas to demonstrate good practice of recruiting disabled people. Having them show to employers at Chambers of Commerce and other partnerships like Business Improvement Districts will help smaller companies to identify how disabled people can really make a contribution and that adjustments should never be a burden as an excuse to reject them. Only a stronger localised agenda can help make this campaign truly effective.
On Votes at 16, while I appreciate that many will naturally disagree and prefer to keep the franchise at 18, many young people are leaving education without a strong foundation on understanding their democracy and, for disabled people, directly prevented from taking part in the electoral process. Scope’s ‘Polls Apart’ survey from the 2010 election found that 47% of those who took part said they had significant problems in terms of accessibility. It must be a priority for the Electoral Commission and government to assess current procedures and where the gaps lie.
With very few role models currently in public office as it is, disabled young people are unlikely to feel ever inclined to take part if their needs are not even taken to account in what is their democratic right.
Whether that be having to get someone to vote on your behalf or even insulted by polling station staff, all disabled people, and especially voters of the future, deserve better than this. Having a strong curriculum within school will mean all young people should be more confident about having their say and for disabled people to be more vocal about how places like the House of Commons are largely devoid of representatives who could speak on their behalf and to challenge the status quo.
A green paper needs to be introduced for wider consultation on the feeling about this motion and have the views of young people about why they need to make themselves heard more widely. With an ICM poll indicating 75% of 16-17 year olds voting in the Scottish Referendum, there is no reason why this idea should not be pursued. Eventually, it would be very desirable to see more under-25s to stand for positions like councillors and school governors, so we can see of this generation and others after at the forefront of decision making. For disabled people too, they will be the agents of change, rather than as too often, they are victims of policy they could not influence.