It’s a lack of enforcement which has left attitudes towards disabled people pretty much unchanged, argues Professor Mike Oliver, and initiatives such as the Government’s Disability Confident can never be more than a busted flush.
Since the Second World War the implementation of disability policy has been shaped by a tension between persuasion and enforcement. It began with the introduction of the Quota System designed to get soldiers who were disabled in the War back into the workforce. It imposed restrictions on firms employing more than 100 workers requiring them to meet a 3% quota of disabled workers.
Unfortunately this requirement was largely ignored and there was never any serious attempt to enforce the system. Instead successive governments tried to persuade employers to employ disabled people. Conferences were held, glossy brochures produced, videos made and a range of incentives offered. But the unemployment rate amongst disabled people never came down and remained approximately five times higher than that of non-disabled people.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the failure of this persuasionist approach, no government ever grasped the nettle and decided that enforcement was the best way to implement disability policy. In fact persuasion became the overarching way of implementing disability policy in other areas as well. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970) and the Education Act (1981) hailed as charters of rights for disabled people and parents were never enforced either.
Even when the Disability Discrimination Act made its way onto the statute books, it was never seriously enforced. The Disability Rights Commission itself preferred to produce glossy research and reports to persuade people and institutions not to discriminate against disabled people than to seriously enforce the legislation. Again it ended in glorious failure and it disappeared along with the Act which spawned it.
However the lessons of history still have not been learned. The current Government still tries to persuade people not to discriminate as does its implementation arm, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Witness the Department for Work and Pensions Disability Confident initiative aimed at persuading employers to employ more disabled people.
The disability charities collude with the persuasion approach as they always have done; Scope’s End The Awkward campaign is aimed at changing attitudes around disability and Disability Rights UK has recently announced it will campaign to produce a ‘sea change’ in attitudes to disabled people.
Platitudes about attitudes now seem to be the only way to implement disability policy. And this is happening at the same time as a House of Lords Report into the implementation of the Equality Act (2010) has concluded that it is “not working in practice” and that disabled people are being “let down across the whole spectrum of life”.
So the favouring of persuasion over enforcement has been an abject failure. The fundamental problem with it is that it assumes a direct, causal relationship between attitudes and behaviour when social scientists have known, at least since the 1930s, that there is no simple relation between the two. Just because people or institutions hold positive attitudes about a particular group does not mean they will behave positively towards them. Similarly negative attitudes do not necessarily mean negative behaviour.
Persuasion has then inevitably been a bankrupt approach to policy implementation. So why does it persist? Governments are reluctant to force organisations and institutions to change their behaviour for fear of losing corporate support and sponsorship and they fear forcing individuals to change their behaviour will cost them votes and ultimately power. The disability charities don’t want to alienate government for fear of losing lucrative grants, contracts and patronage. Their directors and executives also know that if you fancy an OBE, CBE and the like, play nice and don’t rock the boat.
However, when disabled people have been asked about policy implementation, they have made it clear that it is the behaviour of institutions and individuals that we want changed and not their attitudes. We want to ride the buses and trains regardless of whether others want us to or not. But until the authentic voice of disabled people is listened to, disability policy implementation will continue to be based upon platitudes about attitudes.