JR: You’ve very recently become Disability Minister, what do you think is the really key challenge you are going to be facing in role?
My top priority is sorting out the delays in the assessment process for Personal Independence Payment – I know how important this is for disabled people. I also have to ensure we get a new provider for the Work Capability Assessment and ensure the transition from Atos Healthcare is as smooth as possible. Finally, I want to do what I can in the months ahead to improve the support we offer to enable disabled people to be able to stay in or find work.
JR: As a follow up – you’ve been on my personal radar since 2007 when you (while in opposition) put forward a question on AAC, a major interest of mine, can you tell us a little bit about how that interest developed?
I saw how important technology was in some cases to enable people with a communication difficulty to communicate with the world around them. Having worked in the technology sector for 7 years (for Intel Corporation) before being elected to Parliament, I felt sure that we could do more here – hence my question in Parliament and the Inclusive Technology prize I mention.
JR: Your maiden speech was on the topic of learning disability – very appropriate to your new role – can you tell us why you chose that as your very first speech to the house of commons?
The two political parties then running my county council in the run up to the 2005 general and county elections (not mine, I’ll leave your readers to work out which) were determined to close special needs schools on principle regardless of the wishes of either parents or students. I thought this was wrong and campaigned on behalf of those parents and students. Although the elections came too late for the school in my area, the people of Gloucestershire elected a Conservative administration and we were able to stop one closure in the neighbouring area. I used this as a challenge to those who say elections don’t change anything – they can and do.
JR: I’m just back from an international meeting of disability bloggers and it was fascinating to see how differently (often worse) disability is treated internationally. Do you think that the UK is setting a high standard in terms of disability policy or are there innovations you’d like to bring in from other countries?
We want disabled people in the UK to be treated fairly, to be able to fulfil their potential and to be supported if they’re unable to work. That is at the heart of our policy and I absolutely think we are setting a high standard – and would hope other countries take the same approach. The 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was the first legislation in the world to recognise and give rights to disabled people. It was followed by the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act which made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people at work or when providing goods and services. The 2010 Equality Act went further and showed that the UK is at the forefront of ensuring equality and protection for disabled people.
But we should not rest on our laurels. The employment rate for disabled people has risen gradually over the years and attitudes have changed a lot since the first Disabled Person’s Act over 40 years ago. However, sometimes it’s about a lack of confidence, with employers uncertain about employing a disabled person. We want them to realise that actually, the average cost of adjustments that disabled people may need is £75 – which can very often be paid for by the Government. This is one of the reasons we started the Disability Confident campaign – to dispel the myths around hiring disabled people.
JR: How else do you think we can achieve better equality?
The latest figures show 150 disabled people are moving into work or training every day. This is good news but there’s more we need to do to harness the talents of disabled people at work. We want disabled people to pursue their chosen career without fear of being discriminated against or stifled. With our Disability Confident campaign, we have held roadshows across the country to dispel outdated views about hiring disabled people, as well as showcasing their talents. Already more than 1000 businesses including Barclays, Sainsburys and EON have supported the campaign and are leading the way in opening their doors to disabled people – both in their recruitment and services to the public. For example, Fujitsu has become one of the first companies to introduce a Disability Passport – a single record of agreed adjustments and other relevant information that moves with an employee – making sure reasonable adjustments can be made more easily. Barclays became the first high street bank in the UK to introduce talking cash machines – using feedback from its own disabled employees. We want to encourage more forward-thinking companies like these.
Accessibility is still unfortunately not good enough in some venues in this country – including tourist attractions, sports stadiums and shops and restaurants – which is why I launched the Accessible Britain Challenge this month. The challenge is partly about fairness but we also want businesses to realise they’re excluding more than 12 million customers and their families if they fail to cater for disabled people. That’s the equivalent to the populations of London, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Cardiff and Manchester combined. There are plenty of low cost, easy things businesses can do to make their premises’ more accessible – ranging from making sure menus are in an easily readable print for people who are visually impaired, to making sure aisles and corridors are free from clutter. We have guidance and some great examples of communities that have made positive changes on our website – www.gov.uk/accessiblebritain
JR: How important do you think technology is in improving the lives of disabled people?
Technology can transform people’s lives, which is why I believe we need more entrepreneurs to design innovative aids, adaptations and products with and for disabled people. Thousands of people rely on assisted living technologies to support them in their everyday lives but more needs to be done to update these and make sure they’re in line with other technological developments. A great example of innovation in this area is the former Liverpool FC player Terry Nelson’s idea to create an aqua running suit. Inspired by his own disability, he designed a suit which allows the wearer to run in a swimming pool without touching the bottom – helping both disabled people and injured sportspeople to exercise more easily. The suit is now being used by Manchester United and Real Madrid to help injured players to get back on top form.
It’s tough to get an idea like this off the ground which is why we will be launching the Inclusive Technology prize shortly. Its aim is to stimulate the co-creation of innovative or imaginative adaptations of accessible technologies or products which enable disabled people, their family and carers to live more independent lives. Innovations can relate to any aspect of life including, but not exclusively to education, home, leisure, transport and work. I would encourage anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and imaginative ideas to get thinking!