The Welsh first minister has paid tribute to the work of Disability Wales as it celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday (Wednesday), and he re-affirmed his government’s commitment to putting the social model of disability at the heart of its work.
Disability Wales (DW) is working with the Welsh government on a “ground-breaking” project to try to embed the social model in all its policies.
Disabled broadcaster, consultant and campaigner Mik Scarlet, which is also working on the scheme, told the conference that the project to embed the social model in every area of the Welsh government’s work was “ground-breaking”.
He said the work was a “historic moment in the battle for disability equality and rights” and that a key message of the project was “expanding the idea that the social model is a tool for change for everybody”.
DW celebrated the work of disabled activists and campaigners as it marked its anniversary with the event at Cardiff City Stadium, which was also held online.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, told the conference that, despite “very passionate campaigning” over 50 years, “we haven’t necessarily made the progress we would like to see”.
But she said that “things have moved forward and what has been so important is the way that as disabled people we have taken hold of the agenda to make things happen, because rights are never handed to us on a plate”.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, told the conference that it was a “huge privilege” to be able to celebrate DW’s anniversary, which he said was a “huge achievement”.
He said Disability Wales had been a “key partner” of the Welsh government and parliament through the years of devolved Welsh government, and he passed on his “enormous thanks and appreciation” for that work.
He said: “I want to reaffirm today the commitment of the Welsh government… to the social model of disability and to the ongoing efforts that have to be made… to spreading an understanding of what we mean by the social model and not just an understanding of it but that we make that additional effort to ensure that from understanding comes real action that makes a difference.”
He stressed the importance of co-production of policy with disabled people.
He said: “People are experts in their own lives. They know how things can work and not work in a way that the person providing the service, who will have very important expertise of their own, will not know.
“And the way in which you get the best outcomes for people is when you combine those different sets of expertise in a relationship of equals, in which both parties recognise the vital importance of what the other person is also contributing.”
Disabled campaigner Andrea Gordon had earlier told the conference: “Where we are now is both exciting and has the potential for huge change, but we need to keep our foot firmly on the pedal.”
She said the Welsh government’s social model commitment and its new Disability Rights Taskforce, set up to address the inequalities exposed by the Locked Out report into the impact of the pandemic on disabled people in Wales, were “fantastic and exciting” but “won’t mean anything unless it changes the lives of disabled people”.
She said: “It won’t mean anything at all unless we can see it delivering change in everyday life and everyday policy and practice and actually what happens to us as disabled people when we go out and about.”
She added: “I am really worried that we are on the road to rights, we are still on the road, but it’s definitely going uphill, it’s definitely a climb now.”
She said she believed disabled people’s “real, enforceable civil rights” were now “falling away”, with people “struggling to live that life that we have a right to live”.
She said: “I am really keen that we keep the pressure on, that we recognise that the Welsh government is committed to that, but I will only believe it when I see that happening.
“Talk is easy, action is what will make the difference.”
A video was shown to the conference in which Davies describes the origins of Disability Wales as Wales Council for the Disabled (WCD), which was set up in 1972 as a new national umbrella body, with funding from the Welsh Office.
Its campaigning often focused in the 1980s on access to the built environment, and in the 1990s it frequently promoted disability equality training and worked with disabled people to set up disabled people’s organisations and centres for independent living in Wales.
It was also closely involved in the Rights Now campaign for fully enforceable and comprehensive civil rights legislation.
In 1994, WCD voted to change its name to Disability Wales, and in 2003, two years after Davies became chief executive, it formally adopted the social model of disability and new rules that meant all its board members had to identify as disabled people.
After the election of the first Welsh government in 1999, Davies says in the video, “there was greater opportunity to influence these policies that had been devolved to Wales”, and to engage directly with ministers and elected members.
Disability Wales influenced the government to introduce what became a framework for action on independent living, which Davies says was underpinned by the social model and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In the 2010s, key developments included DW’s involvement in the disabled-led DRILL research programme into barriers to independent living.
This “built the capacity of DPOs to develop research skills and work co-productively with universities”, which led to DW’s recent involvement in the Locked Out report.
It also lobbied successfully for the Welsh government to set up the Access to Elected Office Fund Wales, which now funds some of the extra costs faced by disabled people standing for elected office.
Davies says in the video: “It is an incredibly challenging time for disabled people as individuals but also for disabled people’s organisations, particularly those running at a grassroots level.
“We’ve had over 12 years of austerity, cuts to benefits and services, we’ve had the last two years of living under lockdown as a result of the pandemic, which has had a real impact on people’s lives.
“And now we’ve got the cost-of-living crisis, rising prices and rising energy prices, which is really going to affect disabled people who have already had so many cutbacks in their income.”
She adds: “We may not be locked away in long stay institutions anymore, but the hardship, the breaches of human rights that are going to be faced are going to have an equally restricting effect and devastating effects on people’s lives and wellbeing.
“It is a very challenging landscape.”
*Disability Wales is a Disability News Service subscriber
Picture: Mark Drakeford (left) and Rhian Davies speaking at the conference
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