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  1. Politics
20 March 2007

Lies, damned lies etc.

How do you measure the progress of disability equality?

By James Medhurst

The chances are you have never heard of Anne McGuire, who is Minister for Disabled People, in the Department for Work and Pensions. The position has existed for more than thirty years and has been occupied by John Major and William Hague, among others, but has made surprisingly little impact.

The most dramatic event in its history probably came in May 2005, when Liz Blackman was seemingly appointed to the post, only for a press release to appear the next day denying that this had happened. This made her the shortest-lasting member of government in history. A vanishingly small number of these ministers have been disabled people themselves, although McGuire has insulin-dependent diabetes.

Recently, McGuire, or more likely a junior civil servant, has appeared on messageboards for disabled people, inviting their users to take part in a curious consultation. Its aim is to discover a statistic to measure the progress of disability equality which actually means something.

It is certainly an unusual approach to democracy to seek opinions on the way in which a set of policies is to be evaluated rather than the content of the policies but, to put cynicism aside for a moment, she does seem to have touched upon something of great importance. Statistics are frequently highly misleading and are capable of being spun into meaninglessness. The idea of finding a number which provides the answer is compelling.

The consultation covers several areas but I will concentrate on the field of employment, where success is usually measured in terms of the number of disabled people in work. An initial problem is that the glass ceiling is ignored due to the number of disabled people in senior positions not being considered.

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This has serious knock-on effects because talented disabled people, who are fed up with an undeserved lack of progress, can lapse back into unemployment. However, rank is not the only factor. I used to work in television where a sure sign that your career in programme making was over was a transfer into production management.

The real movers and shakers in the media are those who have an influence upon editorial policy, some of whom are quite junior. Elsewhere, there are high-earning accountants whose activities have very little impact on society. The figure I would really like to know is the number of disabled people in jobs where they can make a difference.

A more subtle issue is the way in which disabled people are defined, based on physical criteria. Many people who qualify as disabled under legislation would reject the label for themselves and sometimes even be offended by it. There are some people who, like me, are autistic, but have no interest in disability politics outside of their impairment group.

A trick used by many organisations is to survey their staff for ‘hidden’ impairments, even when none of those questioned would self-identify as disabled or, even less, raise points relating to disability policy at board meetings. To achieve equality, it is necessary to put people who are passionate about it in positions of power. Being technically disabled but willing to toe the line simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

What I want to know is how many working disabled people there are who would be considered ‘troublemakers,’ who regard themselves as disabled and want to use their influence to create change. The only statistic of which I can be sure is the probability of Anne McGuire taking this approach – zero.

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