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Making social equality a reality

Anne McGuire MP, Minister for Disabled People, on how the Disability Discrimination Act is tackling social disadvantage

Even today, disabled people face discrimination in all walks of life and frequently find themselves having to overcome barriers that prevent them from realising their true potential.

It might be that an employer’s attitude towards disability prevents them from getting a job with career prospects.

Or perhaps there’s a physical barrier, such as a staircase or staff not knowing how to communicate with someone who is deaf, that prevents them from using their local leisure centre.

Situations such as these are deeply unfair and unacceptable. Together, we must work harder to eradicate prejudice and to create a society where everyone is treated equally.

The public sector, in particular, has a crucial role to play in tackling the inequality which is experienced by disabled people.

Of Course the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) has already made a big difference, ensuring that disabled people have the right for reasonable adjustments to be made, enabling them to access goods, services and jobs.

In many cases this has transformed the way that businesses operate.

However, disabled people are still losing out where policy makers and the people responsible for designing services forget to take their needs into account.

More must be done if we are to successfully tackle equality and I strongly believe that the public sector must lead by example.

After all, the core value of public service is that all citizens should benefit from the protection and services of both Local and Central Government.

In addition to this, the public sector is particularly important for disabled people, not only as a service provider, but also as an employer.

That is why we introduced the Disability Equality Duty (DED) for the public sector, as part of the DDA 2005 to tackle the disadvantage that is often embedded in the way organisations operate.

The public sector as a whole needs to take responsibility for making change happen, to realise our ambition to make equality for disabled people a reality by 2025.

Once the duty is in force, from December 4 this year, public authorities will have an obligation to promote equality for disabled people.

Public sector workers - whether they are policy makers or people delivering frontline services - will be required by law to promote equality for disabled people in the way that they carry out their work.

There are four key elements to the duty, which require public authorities to carry out their functions with ‘due regard’ to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful disability discrimination and disability-related harassment;
  • promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, taking steps to take account of disabled peoples’ disabilities;
  • promote positive attitudes; and
  • encourage disabled people to take part in public life

In order to show how they will do this, hospitals, schools, central and local authorities, Government departments and other significant public sector organisations, including the police, must produce a Disability Equality Scheme.

Schemes will have to set out how the authority will implement the Disability Equality Duty.

Public authorities should be examining their processes and service delivery, looking at their impact on disabled people and thinking about how to tackle the causes of inequality.

The implementation of the Disability Equality Duty will shift the responsibility for changing the way the public sector away from individuals, employees and disabled customers.

Instead ministers, chief executives and officials, who are responsible for designing policies and services, will be held to account.

It is also vital that disabled people are given a role in this process. That is why public authorities are legally obliged to involve disabled people as they draw up their equality schemes.

As public authorities, we need to better understand the needs of disabled people better.

Involving disabled people themselves will help us to develop our understanding of their needs.

In this way we will be able to ensure that the standard of public services being provided for disabled people will significantly improve.

We want disabled people to be confident that the public sector will treat them properly.

This is an important step on the route to our longer term vision of achieving equality for disabled people by 2025 and is something that we are taking very seriously in Central Government.

In December last year, we launched the Office for Disability Issues to take forward the Government’s strategy for improving opportunities for disabled people.

It continues to build links between Government departments to ensure that disability equality remains high on the Whitehall agenda.

One element of this work will be to promote the effective implementation of the Disability Equality Duty.

The ODI is already working alongside the Disability Rights Commission to support and encourage departments to commit to meaningful actions that will improve their policies and services, and realise the potential of their diverse workforces.

We have come a long way since the early 1990s and the introduction of the DDA and of comprehensive civil rights for disabled people have made a huge difference.

However, it will take more than Government legislation alone to actually achieve equality.

In 2000, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was set up, with the Government’s support, to help disabled people to secure their rights.

Through its website and helpline, it provides information and advice to disabled people, service providers and also employers.

It will continue to do this when it joins with the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to form the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

However, this is just the foundation and we realise that there is still more to be done.We will continue to work to ensure that equality for disabled people remains at the heart of the new commission and also the wider Government agenda.

Attitudes towards disability need to change to reflect the fact that disabled people are just as much a part of society as anyone else.

The public sector must lead by example, by promoting equality for disabled staff and members of the public. By working together to challenge negative attitudes and prejudice, we can help to make sure that equality becomes a reality.