Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum
As we celebrate this year’s United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities (UNIDPD), I want to sound a positive note. I think disability is (finally) having a moment. And I want to issue a challenge to all of us to make sure that we seize the day and make the most of some of the new ways that we are all working now to transform opportunities for disabled people in 2020 and beyond.
Because if not now, when? 2020 has been a landmark year for the wrong reasons but also the right ones. It marks milestone anniversaries for not one, not two, but three pieces of seminal disability rights legislation:
- The 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act (1970), the first legislation to recognise disabled people’s rights in areas as diverse as access, education, employment and mobility;
- The 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), a landmark piece of legislation to provide equal opportunities for disabled people in all spheres of life and to make it unlawful to discriminate against anyone who has a disability or to give them less favourable treatment in a diverse range of areas including employment;
- And it is also the 10-year anniversary of the Equality Act which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society and replaced previous anti-discrimination laws (including the DDA) with a single Act.
This year, before the world turned upside down, we had planned to celebrate those anniversaries and ask: what is next in the future of disability inclusion? While we haven’t been able to have this conversation in person thanks to COVID-19, arguably as a question it is now more important than ever before. We only have to look at the unequal impact of COVID-19 on disabled people to see how vital policy is in this space.
I may have my optimistic hat on again here, but I believe that we have perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an economy of work that works for everyone – to reimagine and redesign what work looks like. We have been trying to shift the dial on disability employment for ever – maybe COVID-19 presents us with the unique set of circumstances that we need to embed lasting change.
Certainly, over many, many months, we have all been living and working in a way that few – if any – of us could have imagined. Businesses across all sectors have had to adapt, overnight, how they operate. Whilst there are many challenges, there are positives too. And now there is a critical role for us all to play in building a positive legacy for the future – a future that includes everyone.
As I said at the start of this blog, I believe that disability is having a moment. At the beginning of this pandemic I was braced for Members and Partners not renewing – saying that they can’t afford to prioritise disability inclusion at this time. But the opposite has happened. They are saying they can’t afford not to. Which is why I think it’s finally time for disability. And it’s not just me who is saying it.
Earlier this year, we carried a major research study: “Towards a disability smart world: developing a global disability inclusion strategy”, thanks to the support of our Partner Royal Dutch Shell, and spoke to over 100 global brands. Not only did more than 90 per cent of respondents say that ‘disability inclusion is the right thing to do’ at a global level, but more than 80 per cent also stated that it allows them to access a wider pool of talent, drives employee motivation, has an impact on sales and opportunities and supports business objectives. All critical things in driving business success! We know that disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by previous financial downturns, but does that have to be the case this time? We’ve proven we can – in many industries – work from home. We’ve proven we can use technology. We now have the ability now to cross virtual borders and barriers to work in different countries. All these things open up many more opportunities for disabled people.
At the beginning of October, I chaired our regular Global Taskforce and was joined as usual by our friend and colleague Stefan Tromel from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva. He summed it up for me when he said: “disability inclusion is not a luxury but a vital part of the strategy to bring us out of this crisis”.
We heard the same messages at our annual conference last month. Lord Shinkwin described it as a “false economy to think about disability equality “later”.
Wendy Irwin from the Royal College of Nursing put it beautifully when she said that we need to “build back better with inclusion and equality as a necessary default”. Far from being an afterthought in this strange world we now live in, disability inclusion is more relevant, more needed, more critical than ever before.
The theme for this year’s United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities is “Building Back Better” and I believe that we have a real opportunity to create a new world that works for everyone and that has disability inclusion at its heart. That’s one of the reasons why today we are launching The Forum, Business Disability Forum’s Think Tank, to ensure that the voices of disabled people and business are at the heart of policy making. The Forum is beginning its work by asking businesses and disabled people what they would like to see in the proposed National Disability Strategy, which the Government is expected to publish in the Spring. The strategy will cover issues such as economic recovery and employment, assistive technology, accessible products and services, built environment, access to justice and independent living.
To find out more about The Forum, and to take part in consultation, go to businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/the-forum-bdf-think-tank