Why a country that works for everyone must include disabled people

Earlier this week at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham we held an event with senior Conservative Party parliamentarians to discuss how disabled people can be at the heart of the Prime Minister’s social justice agenda.

Scope attends political party conferences in order to influence decision makers from across the political spectrum and discuss Scope’s work and priorities with them.

This was the first Conservative party conference since Theresa May became Prime Minister so it was an opportunity to understand her, and her new cabinet’s priorities. Theresa May set out her commitment to social justice in her first speech as Prime Minister. She said she would make Britain a country that works for everyone and we are determined to make sure that includes disabled people.

Our event heard from the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board George Freeman MP, Scope’s Executive Director of Policy and Research Anna Bird, Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and Ryan Shorthouse, Chief Executive of Bright Blue. We arranged the event in partnership with Bright Blue, a think tank.

We were also joined by MPs with an interest in disability and social justice, including the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Maria Miller MP and Heidi Allen MP. Attendees emphasised the importance of Government departments working together in order to improve the lives of disabled people and what more the Government and employers can be doing to support disabled people in work and the progress that is needed to improve attitudes. Recent Scope research found that 85% of disabled people do not think employer attitudes have improved since 2012.

Managing extra costs

Theresa May has said her Government will do more to support those who are “just managing”. Life costs an average of £550 more a month if you are disabled, as a result of the need for specialised equipment or of using more of the basics such as heating and clothing. These extra costs undermine disabled people’s financial security and reduce their ability to save or build any financial resilience, leading many disabled people into debt and poverty and preventing disabled people from living independent lives. Disabled people have an average of £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people.

In his speech to conference, Damian Green MP, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions spoke of the need to tackle the barriers that disabled people face when looking for work and announced that the Government will soon be publishing a Green Paper on disability employment. Scope have set out the things we would like to see in the Green Paper including further reform of the Work Capability Assessment, specialist employment support and changes to sick leave.

The Prime Minister’s speech

Of course, one of the biggest moments of the week was Theresa May’s first leader’s speech to conference as Prime Minister. Having given a speech on Brexit earlier in the week, this speech focused mostly on domestic policy. She reiterated her commitment to making Britain a country which works for everyone.

For disabled people this must include halving the disability employment gap, tackling the extra costs they face and ensuring they are able to live independent lives. She highlighted the need for consumers to be protected and represented on company boards. Later this month we’ll be publishing our ‘one year on’ review from the Final Report of the Extra Costs Commission to highlight how more can be done to reduce the extra costs disabled people face.

Over the coming weeks and months we hope that Theresa May will outline in more detail how a country that works for everyone will include disabled people. We will work to make sure the Government prioritise employment, protecting disability benefits and independent living for disabled people.

Read more about our work on the extra costs of disability

“I want to make the extraordinary seem ordinary” – Read about our event at the Labour Party conference on disability and employment.

Sign language isn’t just for swear words – End the Awkward

Liam is a student, writer, blogger and has his own radio show. He also happens to be deaf. For End the Awkward, Liam writes about awkward moments, misconceptions and how to communicate with a deaf person without avoiding them or making them feel uncomfortable.

I’m not a comedian, yet there seems to be something I do which makes people laugh on a night out. Except I’m not laughing and everything’s suddenly turned a little bit awkward. It’s a tumbleweed moment, and I don’t know what’s so funny.

I’ve misheard something. All it takes is for me to confuse two similar sounding words and everyone around me either laughs or feels uncomfortable. It’s particularly easy for this to happen in a pub or restaurant, where background noise is a constant problem. As soon as I realise that I’ve misheard and ask for clarification, the conversation has moved on and I’m told it ‘doesn’t matter’. It’s frustrating, but I try to shrug it off.

For the rest of the night, people avoid conversations with me in case there’s another mishap, so I’m left trying to understand people talking around me. It’s particularly hard in a bar when there’s a lot of noise and a group of men in the corner getting way too invested in a game of football.

Communication is key to ending the awkward

Most hearing people don’t know how to communicate with deaf people, and that’s where the awkwardness lies. Poor deaf awareness has led to misunderstandings and a sense of mystery surrounding the deaf community.

Something I still find uncomfortable is asking someone to repeat themselves. Sure, as someone who struggles to hear now and then, you’d be right to think that I’m allowed to say ‘pardon’ every once in a while. Yet, as I ask them to say what they’ve said again, I fear that they’ll do something which isn’t helpful – be it shouting, exaggerating lip movements or getting frustrated.

In the end, I’ve resorted to asking someone to repeat themselves around two or three times. After that, I just nod, smile and agree. It saves the hassle, but it becomes a problem when you then find out that they were complaining about something you shouldn’t have agreed with. Oops.

Liam wearing radio headset, smiling at the camera

Sign language has so much to offer people

In 2014, I was on the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Youth Advisory Board. At the first meeting, I met a few young people who use British Sign Language. However, as I didn’t know any BSL at the time, I was forced to write on scraps on paper, or use mobile phones to talk to them.

It worked, but not knowing basic BSL made me feel a little embarrassed. So, in-between the next three meetings, I tried to learn sign language wherever and whenever I can. The end result was that I could finally communicate with my friends on the youth board in BSL. Now, I’m more involved in the deaf community and a few misconceptions I had have since been debunked.

As someone who is keen to teach others, I’ve had a lot of friends ask me to show them some BSL. The only problem is that they want to know swear words and not useful phrases which will help break down the communication barrier.

How to End the Awkward

I’m not saying that every hearing person has to take BSL lessons. Next time you meet a deaf person, just say hello and ask how they like to communicate. If they happen to know BSL, ask if they can teach you a few words or phrases. If not, there is one workaround which I am encouraging my friends and other people to do.

Written English is the best way for deaf and hearing people to communicate together. If a hearing person cannot understand BSL, and a deaf person is struggling to understand what they’re saying, then taking out a phone and going to the notepad app can really help. It may feel awkward for the hearing person having to type out their response instead of saying it, but the alternative is far more awkward and confusing.

Eventually, hearing people will get to understand the lives of deaf people, ending the misconceptions, ending the mockery and ending the awkward.

You can read the rest of our End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.