CROYDON COMMENTARY: It took a meeting with a disabled councillor to point out to the ‘equalities manager’ that the council has a legal duty to provide accessible facilities.
ANDY STRANACK, pictured left, explains how the council and others are missing opportunities
One of the most inspiring articles I read in 2021 was an interview with Steve Ingham, CEO of PageGroup, who became disabled after a skiing accident in 2019. One particular quote from that interview stayed with me throughout the year: “Bosses increasingly see a business advantage in recruiting disabled people. Most are overcoming significantly bigger challenges – probably daily – than somebody who is able-bodied.
“People who have had to overcome challenges have usually learnt quite a lot from that and therefore have that to offer. It is sadly not talked about a lot.”
In August, the screenwriter Jack Thorne also captured my attention, by delivering the James Mactaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. In a wide–ranging speech on disability discrimination, he highlighted the fact that between January 2020 and February 2021, people with disabilities accounted for 60per cent of all covid deaths.
These people were labelled as “people with underlying health conditions”. Therefore, it was often implied by the media and wider society that their deaths were acceptable.
And again, in September, I read a report produced by Goldsmiths and Strathclyde Universities and published by the Government’s Equalities Office, looking at the barriers to elected office for disabled people. The report’s authors note that after the 2017 election, only five MPs publicly identified themselves as disabled – yet if Parliament was to be truly representative, 130 of our 650 MPs should have a disability.
The report highlights five barriers to participation for candidates with disabilities: venue accessibility; lack of interpretation; inaccessible formatting of materials; lack of facilities; and cultural barriers (including a lack of awareness, knowledge and interest on the part of some local parties to make politics more accessible for disabled people).
Additional barriers are recognised around selection, election and representation.
All these examples point to the practical barriers facing people with disabilities – but also, more profoundly, to the gifts that society as a whole fails to receive when accessibility is not prioritised.
As a Christian who was born with cerebral palsy, I have daily experiences of living with disability – including some of the barriers it creates. It is painful to walk and stand for long periods, though I can get to most places with the aid of a car and occasionally a walking stick. Stairs and steps are a challenge, but if there is a lift, handrail or someone else’s shoulder to lean on, then these challenges can be overcome. Getting my socks on in the morning is often the first challenge of the day, but given a little time and effort this task can be successfully completed.
Jason Perry, the leader of the Conservative opposition group on Croydon Council, has always supported my fight to get reasonable adjustments provided and recognised my experience and skills by promoting me into his shadow cabinet. Sadly, in my eight years as a councillor this has not always been the case.
Since becoming a Croydon councillor in 2014, no council official has approached me to ask if I require any “reasonable adjustments”.
Councils are required by the Equality Act to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate the needs of disabled councillors, who would otherwise be placed at a disadvantage. It is an “anticipatory duty”, meaning that councils must think in advance about the needs of disabled people and make reasonable adjustments.
In 2020, after I was promoted to the shadow cabinet, I arranged a meeting with the council’s equalities manager. This is the officer who was then employed, on a significant salary, to advise the council on equalities issues (they have subsequently left the council).
When I asked why, in my six years as a councillor, no officer had approached me about “reasonable adjustments”, the response was that she was unaware that the Equalities Act applied to councillors.
At the meeting I set out a series of “reasonable adjustments” that I felt would help me in my role:
- Finding a shadow cabinet office that was accessible. Traditionally the shadow cabinet offices were on the third floor of the Town Hall, which is completely inaccessible to someone with mobility difficulties.
- A parking space under Bernard Weatherill House so that I can access meetings in the building.
- More seating to be provided at civic events held in the Mayor’s Parlour and at flag-raising ceremonies.
These adjustments were put into place, although it took more than a year to locate an office on the ground floor of the Town Hall. The room I now have is suitable for me to work in, but is unsuitable as a space to hold meetings or host guests in. It is an old room with work benches screwed to the walls and a carpet that has seen better days. When I asked if it could be decorated, I was told that it could be repainted but I would have to pay for the paint. I have done this, but the real struggle was delivering the heavy pots of paint to the town hall.
Overall, it feels like a constant battle to receive the services and facilities that my colleagues would expect.
At the same time, my disability has also created some very positive character traits.
For example, it has given me an ability to find strategies to overcome challenges.
In my 50 years of life, some of these have included cancer, being spat at in the street and laughed at due to the way I walk, and dealing with chronic pain on a daily basis.
It has given me greater compassion to empathise with others in their suffering. When every day has a degree of pain and ostracism from mainstream society, it helps build an understanding of others’ challenges.
For example, as part of my work I mentor a number of young people who are involved in the criminal justice system. There, my disability is often an advantage as the young people do not see me as a “threat”. It is my vulnerability that allows them to be vulnerable.
And it has given me the ability to problem solve quickly. After all, when every day is a series of challenges, you quickly become a natural-born problem solver: how am I going to get to my next meeting? Can I walk from the nearest Tube station? If I take my car, where is the nearest disabled bay? Are there steps into the building? If I am offered a coffee, will I be able to walk without spilling it? And on and on.
In other words, my disability has brought challenges, but also gifts.
Historically, society has tried to hide away people with disabilities by placing them in hospitals and institutions. Thankfully, in recent years, people with disabilities have become more visible and vocal. But the Bible introduces us to a vision of something greater than visibility alone, in which we all recognise our own need for the gifts that people with disabilities can bring.
Consequently, the marginalisation of disabled people not only adversely affects people living with disability, but it also deprives society of a valuable talent pool – the unique gifts of huge numbers of people within our society. There is still a long way to go if disability is going to be used as a sign to celebrate God’s glory.
I wholeheartedly endorse Steve Ingham’s call for business leaders to recognise the talents and diversity that people with disabilities can bring to the workforce.
I stand with Jack Thorne as he challenges media and cultural organisations to portray more positive images of disability and make it easier for disabled people to partake in the arts.
And as someone with a disability who is involved with politics, I am calling for all political parties to employ head-hunters to identify and assist our most talented disabled citizens to become Members of Parliament, so that our parliament can become a more representative reflection of the population it serves.
These measures will not just empower people with disabilities, but enable society as a whole to benefit from their unique talent.
- This is an edited version of an article originally published by Theos Think Tank
- Andy Stranack is a Conservative councillor for Selsdon Vale and Forestdale, and opposition spokesperson on crime, communities and economic recovery. He is the CEO of Ment4, a charity which provides mentoring to young people from Croydon who are excluded from school or involved in the criminal justice system, and is in the leadership team of a local church
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