Can you imagine being in hospital for five years? Bob Benson can. He was admitted in 1950, aged six months, and discharged in 1955. He had contracted polio and is amazingly sanguine about his experience, saying that it was all he knew: “My memory is of being cared for very well. The nurses never really changed, so there was constancy in adults.” The polio left him with a permanent disability, but he has never allowed it to hold him back. This week, Benson takes up his new job as the director of the Disability Rights Commission’s Scotland office.
There are more than 8.5 million people in Britain with a disability. “One in seven in Scotland across all ages: mental health, sensory loss, mental and physical disability,” says Benson. “But it’s the impact of the impairment that actually disables. Social attitudes such as ageism and disableism are social constructs.” So the commission faces an enormous educative task to challenge the stigma and ignorance that surround disability. Benson talks about a woman who was refused access to a dating agency because she had a degenerative muscular condition.
On another occasion, a group of people with learning difficulties were ejected from a restaurant because they looked different. There’s a pub near the Royal Edinburgh (psychiatric) Hospital that ejects anyone whom it thinks is a patient there. (How can they tell?)
The rights commission has set itself one goal only – but it is an ambitious one: a society where all disabled people can participate fully as equal citizens. Its chair is Bert Massie and there are 14 other commissioners representing various interests such as the business, trade union and voluntary sectors, as well as Scotland and Wales. Ten of the commissioners are disabled. Scotland’s first Commissioner for Disability is Elaine Noad, the director of community services at South Ayrshire council. Noad is blind.
From the outset, the commission has provided a helpline and legal advice, plus policy guidance to the government and others. Benson says that one of the exciting things to emerge from Scotland’s disability rights task force, which preceded the setting up of the commission, was the inclusion of youth services. “That includes education,” he beams. “So we’ll be liaising closely with the Scottish Executive.” Benson wants to know what happens to disabled people who miss out on education. “What does that mean for them in terms of lifestyle?” His vision is of disabled people as active citizens – rejecting the insulting and outmoded dependency model. He points out that Edinburgh City Council has a disability committee which allows it to measure its policies against the needs of the disabled. If they can do it, why can’t all councils?
The bedrock for the commission will be the controversial Disability Discrimination Act which has taken a drubbing since its enactment in 1995. Detractors have criticised the act as badly drafted, particularly in its definition of disability.
Benson concurs: “The problem with the definition is that it seems so vague. And because of the way it’s interpreted by doctors, particularly in relation to employment tribunals, it’s very difficult to get consistency of outcomes across the UK. It leads to confusion and confusing practice. For example, people with a genetic predisposition to, say, Huntington’s chorea can be denied life insurance because of spurious assessments.”
Benson adds that besides providing advice, conciliation and legal enforcement, the commission’s role is to change attitudes and to change and develop the Discrimination Act. This is not to say that the Act is completely toothless. Some months ago, a manager on an oil rig was awarded £92,000 for being sacked because he had cancer: £5,000 of that was for unfair dismissal, the remainder was compensation for disability discrimination. Fife council has been ordered to pay £65,000 to a partially sighted social worker who claimed unfairly dismissal and discriminated because of his disability.
Benson, who was previously director of the charity Disability Scotland, does not view his disability in a negative light, nor is he bitter. He says: “The experience of being disabled gives you another insight into your profession and life. I have used that as an added part to my knowledge base. My memories of being disabled are of being a listener. You learn about others – what makes them tick, their interests.”
He was born in Stirling, the son of a miner, and the third of four boys. At Stirling High School, the other pupils were aware that he was disabled, but he says: “I was never bullied. I never remember feeling threatened. I was confident, and confident kids don’t get bullied.”
Not much ruffles Benson’s expansive good nature. But there is one thing that drives him wild. “Being patronised. You’d be amazed at the number of people, well-meaning people, who call me son. You have to be extremely patient; people are ignorant of the impact of what they say. So you’ve got to play an educative role.” He’ll be doing plenty of that in the months to come.