Young disabled people shouldn’t have to ‘speak-out’, they should be spoken to

Conrad Will, EPIC MemberAuthor Conrad Will, EPIC MemberDate 16 Sep 2015

My name is Conrad Will and I’m a 17 year old sixth form student from Kent. I am visually impaired and have been a part of EPIC since its inception, nearly 3 years ago.

Originally conceived as the Young People’s Advisory Group (affectionately named YPAG by Members’ and staff during the early meetings) EPIC has developed and adapted over the past few years, taking on new mandates of responsibility and picking up new members on the way. Initially, our task was to assist the DfE with its role in the Children and Families Bill, which became Act last year. Yet even with the initial Bill now enshrined into law, we are still very much an active and determined set of young people who are passionate in furthering the cause for greater participation amongst disabled young people and young people with SEN in determining their own future.

EPIC stands for Equality, Participation, Influence, Change – four principles that the group founded itself upon, and four principles which we have stayed true to throughout our work over the last 3 years. While we are all immensely proud of the influence we have had on UK law affecting both ourselves and thousands of other disabled young people, fulfilling this role was just the start of something much, much bigger.

When the group first started, it immediately became apparent to me that although we were incredibly diverse, both in terms of disability and more importantly personality, we shared key traits which had brought us all together in the first place – determination, courage and a certain degree of confidence.

This comes in very useful in a situation where you are called upon to openly discuss your experiences as a disabled person in an unfamiliar environment with adults who you don’t know. But the fact still remained – the overwhelming majority of disabled young people are not as lucky as we are. Growing up itself is hard, but growing up with a disability of whatever nature is that much harder. To speak out and make your voice heard as a young disabled person is an unspeakably difficult thing to do. And proudly that’s something which EPIC can safely say we have worked towards.

The new Education, Health and Care plans being rolled out in the place of statements and other legal documentation contain elements which EPIC were directly involved with. We can then say that we have had a positive impact in making it easier for disabled young people up and down the country to voice their concerns in a comfortable environment without pressure from parents, teachers, carers etc. into what they ‘should’ say.

But we can do more. While the tenure of EPIC draws to a close, we should now shift our attentions towards securing a legacy for a group which has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including our own. By this I mean that what started out as the YPAG, has grown into something pretty EPIC (pardon the pun) – a dynamic set of young people who stand for the progression of disability rights as a whole. What we proved was that the DfE was entirely justified in requesting the advice of young disabled people in laws that affect us. We proved that young disabled people not only fully deserve the right to a say in their own future but can also make a telling contribution to the process itself. This all goes a long way in tackling the biggest barrier that faces the disabled community today, and that’s attitude and awareness. At the end of the day, people simply aren’t educated enough in disability – it’s almost entirely foreign to some. How can we expect the lives of disabled people to improve when their teachers, employers or peers simply don’t understand what it is that they have to cope with on a daily basis? What is most important is for people to start seeing past the disability. A common phrase that was thrown around frequently in EPIC meetings was ‘see the person, not the disability’. And for good reason.

Back in 2012, I was greatly encouraged by the London Paralympic Games as a hugely publicised display of the talents and capabilities of disabled people. It seemed that at last, disabled people were viewed on mass simply as ‘people’ doing great things, without the endless patronisation and sickly sympathy that is often encountered. But it seemingly didn’t go far enough, as even now disabled people are not treated with the same dignity and respect that any person deserves.

We can make progress through education and inspiration. By this I mean that we tell more people about disability and we inspire people to make a change in their own outlook.

Now more than ever we have the immense powers of technology at our disposal to spread awareness of the kinds of issues that disabled people face around the world. It is so easy now to make trends happen, to get people impassioned about disability rights. This is where I believe EPIC’s strongest legacy may lie. And it doesn’t necessarily require direct involvement – simply by being the people that we are we can do unspeakable amounts in terms of changing people’s attitudes. Taking courses, going to university, getting jobs, living within society as interesting and inquisitive people who are not afraid to simply ‘have a go’ is the simple answer to fundamentally changing the way disabled people are viewed and treated.

It is because of groups like EPIC that disabled young people and those with SEN are given the skills and confidence to be able to do this. With that in mind, it is our responsibility to ensure that the opportunities we have been given are continued and that the generations of young people with disabilities in the future are able to build upon our successes, both in the past and to come.