The disabled campaigner who led the equality watchdog’s 18-month inquiry into disability-related harassment says he hopes its report will finally force society to address its “systemic, institutional” failure to tackle the issue.
Mike Smith, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) lead commissioner on the inquiry and chair of its disability committee, told Disability News Service (DNS) that leading the inquiry and producing the Hidden in Plain Sight report was “the thing I am most proud of”, and added: “It is the most important thing I have ever done in my career.”
He said he hoped the report would finally “start tipping the balance” towards dealing with the “incredibly complex” problems and producing the necessary changes in society.
But he warned that disability-related harassment was “a whole society problem”.
He stressed that the EHRC was not accusing public bodies such as the police and local authorities of “institutional disablism” in their failure to address the problem, as the Met police was accused of institutional racism after its investigation into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
He said: “We are not saying that. What we are saying is there was a systemic institutional failure to recognise the problem in the first place and tackle it.
“We are just saying they have not even seen the problem. It is not that they are taking conscious action not to deal with it, but they are just missing the point, which is in some ways even worse.”
Smith said some things had already started to change because of conversations the EHRC had had with senior members of public bodies during the inquiry.
But he said: “Real change will happen when other bodies acknowledge that things need to change and take personal responsibility for change in their own bodies.”
Smith also made clear to DNS that he had insisted that strong statements linking segregated education with disability-related harassment were included in the report, despite the government’s anti-inclusion education policy.
In his introduction to the report, Smith stressed the need for inclusive education, and said educating disabled children separately in special schools “just stores up problems for the future for all of us”.
Smith says in the report that he believes that forcing disabled children into special schools makes it harder for them to integrate into society when they are adults, and makes it more likely that non-disabled children will perceive disabled children as “different”.
He told DNS that he was “unequivocal” in discussions within the EHRC that those comments and calls in the report for more inclusive education must be included.
He said: “People were saying, ‘do we really want to say that, it’s the opposite of government policy?’. There was a good robust debate… and we agreed it was the right thing to do.
“Personally I was highly committed to make sure those things were in the report and very glad that I stood my ground and they were there.”
He said the inclusion of such comments shows why it was important that the inquiry was led by a disabled person, and that the EHRC has a disability committee.
Smith called on disabled people and their organisations to use the report as a platform for pushing for change, for example by writing to their local councillors and MPs.
And he said it had been a deliberate decision by the EHRC not to invite any government ministers to the launch of the report, in order to make the event “non-political”, although he said the commission had been working with ministers “behind the scenes” and with “a great many government departments”.
He added: “There are a significant amount of actions we were requesting and the government needs time to work out how they respond.”
14 September 2011