The government has been accused of a “shameful manipulation of reality”, after its Disability Unit sent out desperate emails to its regional disability networks, begging for positive accounts of how its policies have improved disabled people’s lives.
The note was sent out by the government’s Disability Unit to the chairs of its nine regional stakeholder networks across England.
One leading disabled campaigner said this week that the gambit “smacks of desperation”.
The government’s note asks the network chairs: “We are looking for disabled people who would be willing to write up to 100 words about how they have achieved their aspirations, and if there has been a government policy that has supported them to do so.”
It was sent out as this week’s 13 February deadline approaches for disabled people around the country to respond to the government’s national disability survey if they want their response to influence this spring’s planned disability strategy.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the disabled people’s and service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said the note sent to the network chairs was “a shameful manipulation of reality”.
He said: “Only this government could choose a time when disproportionate numbers of disabled people are dying as a result of its disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to ask disabled people to send in accounts of their successes to bolster its own appalling record on disability issues.
“Disabled people have faced rising barriers and challenges under this government, not least because of its welfare reform programme and cuts in social care and other services.
“But still, as we see from what we hear from members of Shaping Our Lives, even against these odds, we are still achieving, we are still contributing. But that’s too often in spite of government policy.
“If this government wants the truth then let it commission disabled people to carry out independent research on trends in our life chances.”
Mark Harrison, from the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), said the Disability Unit’s note “smacks of desperation”.
He said: “The fact that they are writing to the chairs of the networks asking for good news stories suggests to me that the feedback coming from surveys that are being filled out is not what the government wants to hear.
“They are putting a PR gloss on 10 years of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights and retrogression against most of the articles of the UN convention [on the rights of disabled people].”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said she was “very concerned” about the note sent to the networks.
She said: “I’m concerned as a strategy isn’t about promoting good news stories, it’s about setting a new ambitious direction.
“Requesting positive stories hints that the strategy isn’t going to be focused on transformational change.
“The disability strategy should be focusing on the transformation of society, so that disabled people can live as equal citizens.
“Whilst an ambitious strategy should be built on whatever positives currently exist, the need for change is massive and has been underlined by the inequalities experienced by disabled people during the coronavirus crisis.
“We need a new legislative framework, funding for disabled people’s organisations, major reforms to social security and social care. These are the areas that the Disability Unit should be asking about.”
Lynne Turnbull, chair of the north-west regional stakeholder network and chief executive of the disabled people’s organisation Disability Positive, confirmed she was among network chairs who received the note from the Disability Unit.
She said it would not be appropriate for her to comment on the note, as chair of the regional network, but she said her organisation was happy to do so.
Jessica Tait, policy and communications manager for Disability Positive (formerly Cheshire Centre for Independent living), said: “As well as the request for stories being short notice, we are concerned that featuring these in the strategy may gloss over the less than positive experiences many disabled people have had with government schemes such as Access to Work.
“Clearly the strategy will recognise that government has the power to make things better for disabled people, but it shouldn’t seek to overstate the government’s previous successes, as this risks undermining the reason a national strategy is so needed.”
The government’s Disability Unit had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).
Turnbull said her network has carried out research with nearly 400 disabled people in the north-west and had submitted it to the government to feed into its disability strategy, along with 34 recommendations.
She said that four key themes stood out as important to disabled people in the north-west.
One was the importance of the availability of advocacy to all disabled people who need it, for example to help them with problems with education, health and social care, benefits, housing and the justice system.
Another was to ensure the government increased funding for health and social care.
The third theme was the importance of a benefits system which was “based on need, fully supports the right to live an independent life and supports the idea that a person is disabled by a world that doesn’t meet their needs, not by their condition”, and which provides enough money for a person “to live a full life”.
The final theme was to ensure that “all government information and communication is in plain English, so that it is easy to understand, with easy read, British Sign Language, large print, audio, and braille available if needed”, as well as legal protection for British Sign Language “as a distinct language of the UK, and with an associated culture”.
Meanwhile, ROFA, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Inclusion London confirmed this week that they were backing a legal challenge to the survey, and its impact on the strategy, which is being brought by four disabled people.
They say there has been a lack of meaningful engagement with disabled people’s organisations, and disabled people have not been given long enough to respond to the survey if they want to influence the strategy with their answers.
A DPAC spokesperson said that having any future disability strategy drawn up from the survey results “would be a disaster for disabled people”.
She added: “Whole groups of disabled people like those living in residential care homes were just ignored and access for people with a learning difficulty, particularly during a pandemic, was utterly unacceptable.”
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