Julie speaking at an event holding a mic

“Diversity is wonderful” – including BME people in the disability community

Julie Jaye Charles is founder of Equalities National Council (Equalities), Britain’s only BME disabled people-led organisation. Equalities is based in the London Borough of Newham and turns 20 this year.

Julie grew up in East London, with family originating from the Caribbean. In 2015 she won a lifetime achievement award for her diversity work. As we celebrate Disability History Month, Julie and her colleague Robert Modeste talk about Equalities’ approach over the last 20 years and their hopes for the future.

Back in 1995, I didn’t see anybody involved in the campaign for the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) who was from a black community. There wasn’t anybody around me who I could relate to. This is this why I founded Equalities National Council (Equalities).

By the year 2000 Equalities was four years-old and we had 18 advocates. We didn’t have funding as such, but we had a table and a telephone and people, all disabled people. At the time they were all disabled people from the BME community.

Cultural differences

A lot of BME communities don’t understand the social model of disability. As far as they’re concerned their GP is God. Their GP gives them their tablets and they go away and they feel better. They could be in a wheelchair, have one arm, but they still wouldn’t relate to being disabled because the GP is treating them on the clinical side, so the social model doesn’t come into it. The feeling is that it’s your fault, you get on with it. It’s your life, you get on with it.

Equalities offers advocacy and mentoring. Most people that come to us, some of them can speak English, but they bring somebody with them too. It’s a comfort to speak to an advocate. We’ve got loads of people from Somalia and Lithuania who visit us and they also come for advocacy – so they’re two different cultures and ethnicities that want the same things. We have a Romany advocate who came up here when the mental health team were downstairs because she was homeless, and then about six months later she came back and said she’d like to volunteer. She’s doing well. She advocates for any community. All my team does, because it’s not who we are, it’s what the individual is coming to us for. That’s what we’re offering.

Cuts are really affecting BME communities

Julie standing in a hallway wearing sunglassesJulie: It hurts me when I look at the communities out there, especially in Canning Town, in Newham that has such a deprived community. From the last Census there are 26,000 disabled people in Newham from a BME community.  People are so poor and they’re not getting the support. People are still coming here for the mental health team, but since they’ve been cut and have moved away from the building, our referrals have doubled. They want to talk about housing benefit being cut, they want to talk about social care, wanting things like direct payments, individual budgets – they’ve heard about them, but they don’t know how to get them, all bits like that. Also employment and further education, as unemployment rates are high.

Robert: It just seems that all the wonderful work that we do as an organisation – planning by Julie, countless meetings with ministers, larger organisations – when it suits, it’s great for people to support BME communities, but when it comes to actually funding the work, there’s no one there for us. So it’s very tough. But Julie has a dedicated team around her, myself included, who give up their time freely because they’re passionate about what they do.

Diversity is wonderful

Julie: When they have the Newham festival, if you see how many people go – its thousands. Diversity is wonderful. Food from all over the world, you’ve got Bangra dancing, you’ve got reggae playing somewhere else. You’ve got a place people can pray, no matter what religion you are.

Robert: Anybody that walks through the door, we will help them. That’s probably our unique selling point is as an organisation. I was in young offender’s rehabilitation and no-one wanted to invest in me. Equalities have given me that platform. We need real people out there. Our people, our mentors, have real life experience. I believe that you should give everybody a chance.

I want to set up a commission so we have a voice in politics

I read policies that no one else wants to read because it’s so important. Then, when I talk to some of the ministers, I know what I’m talking about. What I want is to develop a commission so that the whole world knows what the social model means and that disabled people don’t need to feel embarrassed about having an impairment. People can ring up and get advice, but also have round table discussions with ministers, strategists and ministerial advisors.

I want to get representation from all over the country. Since the Disability Rights Commission went, disabled people don’t have a place in society, or a place where we can talk about everything openly, and the ministers can take it back and change will happen. I don’t want to do it my own. I would like to think that people see me as someone they can aspire to and will come along with me.

Equalities National Council is a national disability advice and information service. Find out more about Equalities by visiting their website.

Photo credits: Equalities National Council.