Disabled people ‘must find their voices again’, says Tanni


theweeksubDisabled people need to “shout a bit louder” to defend themselves against government attacks on their rights, a disabled peer has told an audience of parliamentarians and campaigners.
In one of her most outspoken speeches since becoming a peer, the retired Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said disabled people needed to “find their voice again”.
She was delivering the inaugural Jack Ashley Memorial Lecture, set up in memory of the disabled peer and disability rights campaigner Lord [Jack] Ashley, who died last year, and delivered in the state rooms of the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, whose idea it was to hold the annual lecture.
In a question and answer session after the lecture, Baroness Grey-Thompson said: “I am not advocating protests on the streets but we need disabled people to stand up and shout a bit louder about what they want, so it is not just us in parliament. Disabled people need to find their voice again.”
She said her biggest frustration as a working peer was that she did not have the capacity to deal with the flood of emails she receives from disabled people.“The emails come in day after day after day from disabled people who just do not know where to turn.”
But she appealed to disabled people to keep sending her the evidence of the impact of the government’s reforms on their lives, so she and other peers could use that information during debates on proposed legislation.
She also pleased many disabled activists by dismissing the “bio-psychosocial (BPS) model” of disability, which was developed by the insurance industry and has been criticised for putting much of the blame for disability on the disabled person.
The BPS model has been championed by the Conservative welfare reform minister Lord Freud, and was used to devise the controversial “fitness for work” test.
But Baroness Grey-Thompson said: “It is the view of one person rather than the view of a lot of people. I was sent a copy [of a research paper on BPS]and it is now somewhere underneath my desk on the floor, which is probably the best place for it.”
In her lecture, she said: “The reality, from the amount of mail I receive every week, is that disabled people are being discriminated against, they are still being spat at in the street, or excluded from work.”
And she told the audience of peers, MPs, friends and family of Lord Ashley, and disabled campaigners, how she spoke out last year about the government’s disability living allowance (DLA) reforms because she knew that the people who would be affected “weren’t all the benefits scroungers, watching day-time telly on their plasma screens, they were real disabled people”.
She said she had been accused of “scaremongering” over the government’s social security reforms, but was convinced that the public must be made aware that the changes would affect disabled people with the highest support needs.
And she said she received letters every week from disabled people who have been stopped in the street by strangers and asked if they receive DLA.
She also spoke of her fears that the children and families bill – which received its second reading in the Lords this week – would lead some families to be forced to fight for a mainstream education for their disabled child, as her parents did 30 years ago.
And she suggested frustration with the Conservative minister Esther McVey when she talked about language and terminology and told the audience: “I wonder if it is time to have a debate about the title ‘minister for disabled people’.”
She also called on the government to deliver “genuine political engagement with disabled people”.
Baroness Grey-Thompson paid tribute to Lord Ashley – who she said was the first “real” disabled person she saw on television, as opposed to actors pretending to be disabled – and his campaigning work, his persistence, his humour and his dignity, and “how he challenged people’s perceptions of impairment in a positive way”.
And she said she still had not found a way to deal with the patronising comments she often receives, and the other day-to-day discrimination she experiences as a disabled person.
She said: “Just once I would like to tell people what I think. I am slightly nervous because I think the floodgates will open and I will scream and not stop and that isn’t the right way. What I still want is change, not screaming.”
And she said she feared that there was now little time left to use the “fairy dust” created by the Paralympic Games to “positively influence” attitudes towards disabled people.
She was also fiercely critical of the “tokenistic inclusion” practised by major sports bodies, “who are happy to stick a picture of a disabled athlete on a poster, but beneath the surface do little to truly make a difference”, while disabled athletes are unable to speak out because of their contracts.
Baroness Grey-Thompson mentioned one wheelchair-user who applied for a coaching job and was told he was not suitable because he “couldn’t carry bags”.
She said the Paralympic movement had changed, and was no longer “run by and for disabled people”.
Later, in the question and answer session, she added: “I would love to know how many sports governing bodies genuinely employ disabled people to work in their Paralympic programmes.”
She also talked in her lecture about her childhood – and how she fought against discrimination even as a seven-year-old – and about her “light bulb moment” in the early 1990s when someone first told her about the social model of disability.
She said: “I suddenly realized it wasn’t my fault… What were put in front of me were barriers and not hurdles.”
The peer also spoke about how hard it had been to convince the media and public that what she was doing was “real sport”, while at the same time facing criticism from many disabled activists who accused her of “selling out”, trying to hide her impairment, and being a “supercrip”.
She said: “I felt stuck in the middle. I didn’t know which way to turn. The idea of ‘supercrip’ left me in limbo.
“Not always being treated as an athlete on one side, and then being seen to deny my impairment on the other. I wanted to be treated like an athlete who just happened to use a wheelchair.”
2 July 2013