The minister for disabled people appears to have appointed a string of non-disabled people to be his new disability ambassadors, just as his government’s National Disability Strategy was claiming it would remove barriers to disabled people’s participation in public life.
Justin Tomlinson released the names of 12 new disability and access ambassadors on the same day last week that prime minister Boris Johnson said the new strategy was about “our ability to acknowledge and appreciate the contribution that disabled people make to our national life”.
The strategy – heavily criticised by disabled people’s organisations – aims to “help ensure disabled people can play a full role in society” and “remove barriers to participation in public life”, while it claims that the government is “committed to ensuring fairness and inclusivity in public appointments”.
But Tomlinson’s announcement, published quietly as “guidance” rather than through a press release, appears to include as few as three disabled people – creative industries ambassador Allan MacKillop, rail travel ambassador Caroline Eglinton and buses ambassador Claire Walters – in his 12 new appointments.
This could mean there are only three disabled people out of a total of 15 ambassadors now in post.
Other ambassadors include those for the built environment, energy, pubs and restaurants, retail, and universities.
The ambassadors – who are not paid for their work – are supposed to “use their influential status as leaders in their sectors to drive improvements to the accessibility, and quality, of services and facilities”.
It is is not possible to say exactly how many disabled ambassadors there are, as the Department for Work and Pensions has always refused to provide this number, even though the role is supposed to be about championing disability inclusion.
But David Buxton, chief executive of the London-based disabled people’s organisation Action on Disability, said: “It seems the majority of the disability and access ambassadors are non-disabled, without lived experience.
“Why doesn’t the minister simply appoint disabled leaders as a set of strong and positive role models to influence employers, business owners, leaders, politicians and decision-makers in this 21st century modern and ever-changing world?
“Again, nothing about us, without us; even more importantly, without our voice, without us!”
Disability News Service approached several of the new ambassadors to ask them whether they believed the government should have appointed disabled people to the posts.
Several had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
Professor Geoff Layer, vice chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton and chair of the Disabled Students’ Commission and the new ambassador for universities, declined to comment.
Peter Hamilton, head of market engagement for insurance giant Zurich and the new ambassador for insurance, also declined to comment on the apparent failure to appoint more disabled people to the posts.
Claire Walters, chief executive of Bus Users UK, and one of the few disabled ambassadors to be appointed, said that whether the posts should be given to disabled people was a question for the government’s Disability Unit.
But she said: “These appointments have only just been made public and not everyone will necessarily have disclosed whether they have a disability and some may not wish to.”
A government spokesperson declined to say if Tomlinson was embarrassed to be left with so few disabled ambassadors, just days after the government highlighted the barriers to participation in public life.
But she said in a statement: “Disability disclosure is entirely personal, and to insist on disclosure in the appointment would not be lawful.
“The ambassadors are all figures with proven influence in their industries, who were required to demonstrate they are passionate about driving social change for disabled people, and able to be public advocates for improving the accessibility and quality of services and facilities in their sectors.”
But she declined to say how many ambassadors had voluntarily disclosed they were disabled people, or why the government had failed to make “lived experience of disability” one of the selection criteria for the appointments, or to reserve the posts for disabled people.
Picture: (From left to right): David Buxton, Geoff Layer and Justin Tomlinson
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