DDA: flawed Act still better than the alternative

The absorption of the DDA into the Equalities Act in 2007 represented dilution of legislation which, despite its weaknesses still managed to achieve change, says Peter White.

Twenty years ago I presented my first piece for BBC ONE’s prestigious Six O’clock News. It covered the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and for me, if for no one else, it symbolised a moment of hope. There was still a long way to go, but after almost 20 years of battling for such a law, it was at least a start.

For the doubters, one of the major reservations about it was that it had no enforcement body; No one who could represent individual disabled people, investigate cases, and if necessary, take discriminators to court. It would just be a toothless tiger, it was argued. But within two years, this had been put right. The Disability Rights Commission was set up with a disabled Chair and a majority of commissioners who were disabled people. Some still complained; they weren’t the right disabled people, they said; they were too cautious; they were letting people get away with it. I plead guilty to joining in, making a radio programme called ‘Barking, not Biting’. But nothing’s perfect, and the truth is that what the commission did was raise the profile of the Act, and keep it in the public eye. In fact it had some very well-informed commissioners, with real and detailed knowledge of the issues, and drawn from a wide range of disabled people.

They may not have brought quite as many cases as some thought they ought to, but the truth was that we did suddenly get to hear about companies having to pay substantial compensation when they got rid of staff for no other reason than that they were disabled; shops who were excluding wheelchair users being forced to make changes; even government departments being compelled to alter policies which went against the law their own government had brought in.
And it wasn’t just a matter of bringing cases. There was now a procedure for mediation. People were being brought round a table to defend their reflexive prejudice. And the commission was also being heard on matters of public policy which was having an effect on disabled people which in the past went unheard and unchallenged.

Suddenly people were hearing a language which was explaining the talents of disabled people and telling employers, educators, transport managers, businesses why with just a little imagination they could, and should, accommodate the needs of millions of disabled people.
I don’t want it to sound like a golden age; it wasn’t. The onus was still on disabled people to initiate their own cases; this wasn’t civil rights legislation; but it was so much more than had been available before 1995. But as we enter the 21st year of the Disability Discrimination Act, has this flowering been sustained?

Many would say that at a time when disabled people needed the Act more than at any time in the past 20 years, we’re back to a toothless tiger. And the reason: the loss of the Disability Rights Commission as a separate body, and the absorption of the Disability Discrimination Act into the Equalities Act. This was the decision in 2007 that all anti-discrimination law, whether dealing with race, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation, should come under one ‘equalities’ banner. It’s seductively attractive. Bring them all together, the argument goes, and advances for one group will rub off on the rest. The more powerful and resonant groups, such as those representing women and ethnic groups can drive agendas from which less powerful groups can benefit. In other words, that most seductive phrase of all to the disability lobby: ‘inclusion’.

Inclusion, which to my mind can often be the trigger for submersion, which I believe has happened in this case. This was a baby which was suffocated long before it was fully grown. We had only had the Act for 10 years and much of it still hadn’t been fully enacted (some, especially transport regulations, still haven’t). People had only just begun to get used to hearing the arguments for full participation being properly put. Racial and sex discrimination may not have disappeared, the bigots, after all, are always with us. But at least no one can maintain that after decades of pressure they don’t know what the issues are and I believe that in many ways disability is more complex, and more diverse. While there certainly is disability hate crime much of the most damaging areas of discrimination for disabled people come from misplaced sympathy and misunderstanding. We needed to hear much more about that as a society, before we shoved it into a great big melting-pot of ’equality’ legislation.

The fact is that many of the best advocates among disabled people left the field, feeling unable to do the job properly. It is of even more concern, now that we have entered what feels like full-blown ‘backlash’ politics, that it’s becoming respectable again to imply that many disabled people are scroungers, or ’taking advantage’ of their disabilities, when they are in fact still struggling to create a level playing-field. The legislation is still there, but legislation is nothing if there aren’t enough well-informed voices making sure that it’s properly observed and relevantly developed.

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