A leading disabled campaigner and crossbench peer has called for an end to the use of the word “vulnerable” to describe disabled people.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell said the term had been used repeatedly to describe disabled people during the “worst times” of the pandemic crisis.
But she said that many disabled people placed in the category of “vulnerable” or those who were told they needed to “shield” – as she has – had been forced instead to campaign for their basic human rights throughout the pandemic because the concept of “vulnerability… simply serves to anonymise our humanity and human rights”.
She was speaking at an online event hosted by the London School of Economics (LSE), as part of a series examining policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She pointed to the use of Care Act easements under the Coronavirus Act that led to disabled people losing vital care and support; the use of “frailty scoring” to prioritise ventilation and intensive care treatment; and GPs “ringing around asking the vulnerable if they wanted to consider a DNR on their notes”.
She said: “It began to feel like there was only a very short walk from being one of the ‘vulnerables’ to the chilling club of the ‘expendables’.”
She added: “It certainly didn’t feel like we were sheltered. Far worse.
“We were definitely not sheltered from the worst effects, with more than 13,000 older and disabled people having died from COVID-19 in care homes across England.”
She said the term “vulnerable people” made her feel “uneasy”, “exasperated” and “wounded” because it conjured up “weakness, victimhood and a cry for others to take responsibility for us”.
Baroness Campbell (pictured) said “vulnerable” was used instead of words such as “human rights”, “equality” and “service entitlement to those who need them”.
She demanded that local councils and central government stop using the word “vulnerable” to describe disabled people.
She said: “We should stand up today and say we don’t want that word anymore.
“As of today, we will rid ourselves of the term ‘vulnerability’.”
Clenton Farquharson, chair of the Think Local Act Personal partnership board, a trustee of the Race Equality Foundation and an equality and inclusion consultant, spoke at the event of the “small but measurable progression” that had been made in addressing inequality before the “gut-wrenching punch” of the pandemic.
He said: “Make no mistake: the system is not broken. It is operating exactly the way it was designed.
“At every single level, the system is not about providing equality, it is about ensuring certain people, certain communities, are protected while other communities are experiencing multiple disadvantage.”
He called for more accountability at the local level, with decision-making power devolved to its lowest level, which would give disabled people and other communities the ability to use levers such as the public sector equality duty to effect change.
He said there was an opportunity to make “a huge leap forward” but also “the real threat of falling backwards”.
He said that “everyday people” must “channel that presence into power”, which he explained afterwards would mean changing the rules around sexism, disablism, racism and institutional discrimination, and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all communities, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, from the level of parish councils up.
He said: “We cannot simply accept charitable solutions to structural problems.
“We actually have to work for structural change.”
Liz Sayce, former chief executive of Disability Rights UK and now a senior fellow at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, suggested the time could be right for action on both inclusive education and disability employment.
She said: “We cannot go it alone. We need allies and there are lots of potential allies on this agenda.
“I think this is a really important moment. We have seen how we depend upon each other. We can build on that.
“It’s not through thinking about vulnerable groups or even just thinking about removing barriers.
“It’s about disabled people strongly shaping policy, it’s based on reciprocity, participation and full inclusion for everyone.”
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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