1999 Conference Proceedings

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THE OPEN DOOR SOCIETY

Dr. G. Busby MBE FBCS

In the UK, almost 3 million of our nations 6.5 million disabled population are of working age, and yet find it 6 times more difficult to obtain employment than their able-bodied peers. From the above 177,000 are between the ages of 18 to 34. This is in spite of many pieces of legislation, the latest of which being the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), voluntary/charitable sector initiatives, and the tremendous strides forward being made in assistive technology. Moreover, our Employment Service, which is a Government Agency with the remit of assisting people into, or returning to, employment, and having specialist teams, known as PACT’s (Placement and Assessment Counselling Teams), which are set up to serve people with special needs. I will be discussing some off these initiatives later in my presentation.

The afore mentioned statistic, in my opinion, is in part due to misconceptions, prejudice and stereotyping against people with disabilities by employers. In the main however, it is more to do with a lack of information and awareness, compounded by an education system which also presents barriers towards people with disabilities.

I have already used the phrase "people with disabilities" several times which is completely against my own belief’s, as I subscribe to the social model of disability rather than the medical one. I would like to show a short video clip which emphasises the difference between these two models.

Having seen that it might be a good time to undertake a little exercise in order to gain an insight into your own perceptions of disability. Lets now go on to look at another video clip which amplifies the message behind our exercise.

This paper will attempt to explore the difference between the two models and utilise my own experiences, being one of the people with the severest impairments engaged in open employment. I will be aiming to illustrate how, even with such impairments, it is possible to breakthrough the barriers and gain a position in main stream employment, as well as occupying many posts to assist in the whole process of improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. This slide gives an idea if my lifestyle. I often say, " If I can do it you can do it, and quite likely better".

I suspect it is worth saying at this stage that my ultimate goal is to witness a seed change in the UK culture, in order for it to accommodate people with disabilities being handed the power to create a society which is not discriminative and affords equal opportunities in all areas of life to this particular sector of our society.

Currently, in general terms, this is not the case and decisions are made for people with disabilities, not by them. Such a situation is not exceptable and has to be revoked. In theory the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) ought to begin this process which I will discuss more fully later.

Taking a look at my life, I was born in 1943, during an air raid and a thunderstorm. I often comment to my friends that if you put a thunderstorm and an air raid together, I am the end result.

Thankfully, my parents had the courage to allow me to mix with my peer group, despite the fact that much scorn was directed at them from people outside our immediate circle. My father also made me a chair in which I manoeuvred myself by using my feet, and thereby I could participate in games of football, cricket and so on, not to mention the occasional kick I dished out during the many childhood fights that occurred.

My education and passage into employment was not the easiest achievement in my life. From the age of six to twelve I had a home tutor for two hours a day, from 12 to 18 I attended a special needs school which did not allow students to take exams, however from 18-22, I attended a residential college which was the first of its kind in Europe for people with special needs. Having got there, I quickly gained the qualifications required to reach university where I undertook an MA and Doctorship in IT and psychology. While I was doing this I realised that I needed to earn some money, and therefore I started to undertake contract work for companies such as Fords and BP. This was fortunate because, even with a Doctorship, it became obvious that I had to prove I would be a valuable employee, it wasn’t until after ten years of self-employment that I gained a position in open employment with EASAMS Ltd, a subsidiary of GEC. I have been with this company for over 22 years, the last nine of which, being seconded to undertake projects concerning disability and technology.

This whole experience helped with my socialisation process and I quickly learned that to enjoy life I had to take the knocks. I seriously think that if you go through life without being hurt then you have not really been involved, therefore a message for you is not to over protect disabled people, or indeed yourselves. What does need to be done however, is to provide the basic services, or the means to buy them. Technology is not so advanced as to enable a person with severe disabilities to survive without people power. For example, despite technology, my life model would look far different without the people power which surrounds me. It is because of this I have become involved with an initiative in the County in which I live. It aims to support people who are taking control of their own care package’s. The mission statement of the initiative is, "We shall be a non-profit making membership organisation. It will facilitate it’s members, through supportive services, in order to enhance the philosophy of independent living".

Independent living, which in the UK equates to people having their care needs assessed and then being paid the appropriate sum of money to purchase these needs. A real move to empowerment by giving people with all types of impairments the ability to control their own life style. The legislation which allows such initiatives, to be created, is the Community Care (Direct Payments) Act 1996. This happened just two years ago, and guess what, because of budgetary shortfalls, it is now planned to measure individuals disposable incomes in order to make deductions on the amount of monies available to the individual accordingly. This surely must be seen as an extra tax on people with disabilities and a significant disincentive to gain employment. We therefore have a crazy situation where by, millions of pounds are being spent by government agencies to assist people into work, a pretence being made by our Social Services to allow people to run their own lives while proposals are being made to destroy all of these efforts through making it uneconomical to do so. Such situations are caused by decisions being made, as I have already mentioned, for people with disabilities by people who have no perception of the real issues and are not taking a holistic approach to form strategies of equality.

The last few comments highlight the anomaly of my life, which started in the days before any Welfare State, and with a society in which people with impairments depended solely on charity to dictate their quality of life, through and into a political and social structure, which is designed to be inclusive of people with disabilities.

Yet how much has really changed, taking into account the cost to the country, during the years I am discussing.

The answer of course is a great deal, but how much more could be achieved if government departments took a unified approach to strategies as discussed above? I would be interested to hear of the American approach. From across the Atlantic the provision made for people with disabilities seem to hinge around the outcome of the Vietnam war as opposed to a Welfare State. It appears to me that the huge numbers of returning war veterans, many of who had acquired disabilities during the conflict, simply refused to lie down and be ignored, which in turn led to the ADA and a society in which people with disabilities, if anything, have increased self-esteem and respect. Until the last ten years or so this is in complete contrast to the placid approach which was apparent in the UK. However, we have become slightly more radical during this time leading to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). Although, in the beginning, this had far less teeth than the ADA it has recently gained strength through the creation of the Disabilities Commission, which is a task force with powers to advise Ministers on appropriate issues. The DDA, apart from defining disability, will over a period of time, introduce new laws and measures aimed at ending the discrimination which many disabled people face. The Act gives disabled people new rights in the areas of:

Unfortunately the time span for the enactment of all these components is over a period of ten years but I am hopeful that it will be achieved much quicker.

In turn the DDA is leading to companies being far more aware of disability and creating corporate policies, not only to be in a position to utilise the skills of people with disabilities, but also tap the huge market potential of the 6.5 million disabled people in the UK who have a disposable income of £33 billion. It is becoming recognised that the above can only be achieved by having a clear business case to provide good customer service to disabled clients by meeting their needs, to their satisfaction. At this point I would like to show brief glimpses of video’s which state good practice by employers, goods and service providers and why it is commercially astute to take into account issues of access. If people would like to see the full versions of these video’s I will attempt to arrange a showing during the course of this conference. I would also be extremely interested to hear of any such American video’s.

Being a technologist by heart and having been Chairman of the British Computer Society Disability Group since it’s inception in 1975, I am obviously interested in how technologies can, and will increasingly, help to diminish the effects of various impairments.

Our philosophy is that it is the duty of the BCS Disability Group to explore all modern technology in order to encourage designers and producers of such technology to, as I like to say, "design for all". It is all too obvious to me that technology which is accessible to disabled people will be that much easier to access by anybody and therefore, become that much more marketable.

The above demonstrates clearly how a Special Interest Group within a Professional Body cannot only assist people with impairments to have an increased quality of life, but also, facilitate an awareness and heightened levels of interest within a National Culture, producing a level playing field. Within this playing field we must be certain that society does not continue to design features which impose disability as it has done in the past. Moreover, we have to be sure that people with impairments have equal opportunities in order to assist in closing the skills gap, which is prevalent among high-tech industries of most countries.

Our efforts are enhanced by the services provided by the PACT’s described at the beginning of this paper. The main initiative being "Access to Work" which provides financial support to people with disabilities who have already gained employment. It can provide assistance with the cost of travelling to and fro from their place of work, structural alterations necessary to their place of work and provision of extra equipment, in order for them to undertake their duties.

I am optimistic that we are moving away from the old culture into a more inclusive one in which people are what they are and don't aspire to being labelled. At the moment I feel we live in a society which I call the "cupboard locker society". Most people aspire to enter a cupboard and those who either by design, or fate, end up in the locker are perceived to be abnormal. It is my hope, that through technology, we can develop an open door society, in which people can enter, stay or pass through lockers with freedom and without being marginalised.

Whether this will be achieved, depends on sustained pressure from people with disabilities, to ensure that the political and social will to recognise all sectors of society as being of equal standing and making the adjustments necessary to allow this to happen. Hence my title "the open door society" I hope you, from across the Atlantic will keep a watchful eye on the developments in the lives of people with disabilities in the UK.


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