The new disabled boss of a legal advice organisation is hoping to use the position to address the “huge unmet need” for such support among disabled people across the country.
Mike Smith (pictured), a former disability commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has taken over as chief executive of the disabled people’s organisation (DPO) Disability Law Service (DLS).
He said he hoped to secure funding to work with other DPOs and law centres around the country to “understand and map the problems disabled people face in accessing justice and then work with those partners to find more effective ways of meeting the needs”.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “At the moment DLS is a team of just 15 people but I would hope that we can do work to demonstrate the huge unmet need around the country, and find creative ways of meeting that need.
“Far too many people are unable to achieve their legal rights due to lack of knowledge and access to practical advice and support, and structural barriers in the legal system.”
He said he also wanted to look for “more creative, smarter ways to skill disabled people up so that they are better informed and able to enforce their rights themselves”.
He added: “As someone who has been around in the disability rights movement for a while, I appreciate the unique value that access to robust legal advice can make in empowering disabled people to overcome the barriers in society that disable them, and enabling them to achieve equality.
“Such equality comes from rights enshrined in domestic law, but also framing them in the realisation of relevant human rights.”
He is currently working part-time for both organisations to ease the transition into his new role and Real’s recruitment of a new chief executive.
Smith spent three years on the disability committee of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) before three years as a board member and disability commissioner, as well as chairing its disability committee, between 2009 and 2012.
Among his achievements in his three years as commissioner, he led work on the watchdog’s widely-praised inquiry into disability-related harassment, Hidden In Plain Sight.
He described the inquiry report at the time as “the most important thing I have ever done in my career”.
He has also spent time as a board member of Disability Rights UK, the National Centre for Independent Living and Stonewall, and worked for 19 years as a chartered accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Smith said he had not been looking for a new job but had been approached to consider applying.
He said: “The more I thought about it the more I thought it could be a really interesting role.
“The organisation has faced some challenging times in the last few years but it’s grown again and is on a reasonably stable footing now.”
As a teenager, he was advised by the careers service at his special school to do “something with computers” instead of following his dream of becoming a lawyer because “you don’t see many people in wheelchairs in court”.
He told DNS: “Maybe leading a team of solicitors is the closest I’ll get to that schoolboy dream.”
DLS has been providing free legal advice and representation for disabled people since 1975, and 85 per cent of its board and three-quarters of its staff identify as disabled people.
He said: “The ‘nothing about us, without us’ mantra is very important to me and I don’t think I would have taken a role in a disability organisation if it wasn’t user-led.
“But not everyone knows DLS is a DPO and I think it’s important that we communicate this to a wider group of people.
“Having credibility is incredibly important and this goes above legal excellence.”
He said the staff were “a pretty impressive and committed group”, with many of its solicitors – most of whom identify as disabled – trained and developed by DLS.
“It means that the advice and support they give comes with empathy, not sympathy,” he said.
“That’s important in helping ensure that clients feel understood and respected.”
Last year, DLS received 30,500 calls for help on its legal advice line, and nearly 4,000 people received representation and casework support in employment, community care, housing and benefits.
He said: “The DLS advice line is regularly told that callers have tried many other avenues to get support locally and haven’t been able to. They are often desperate.
“Cutbacks in legal aid have made it harder for disabled people to access justice, and for local law centres to meet those needs.”
Smith said he would also want DLS to influence policy and strategy, including the difficulty of enforcing rights through the Equality Act 2010, which he said “really doesn’t give the results it should at times”.
He pointed to the example of access to shops and other businesses. “In theory, it should be an inexpensive reasonable adjustment for any shop or business with a step at the front door to buy a small ramp. Surely it would be proportionate.
“Yet going around London there are still tens of thousands of shops, restaurants, bars and other businesses that aren’t accessible.
“Why? Because they don’t face any meaningful consequences for not complying with the law.
“Because the law currently says that individual disabled people need to bring action. It just doesn’t work and it’s not fair.”
He contrasted the Equality Act with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has led to “huge changes” in the US.
He said: “We have to take a fresh look at how we achieve equality for disabled people when the law and the legal systems around it are not delivering.”
Smith has spoken out on this before.
Four years ago, he told MPs that EHRC should be given greater powers that would allow it to take more legal cases against organisations that breach the Equality Act.
And last year, he told Disability News Service he believed there was systemic discrimination across the airport industry in the UK, following the repeated failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers.
He had twice been failed by airport assistance services, both on the outward and return flights to Gatwick airport.
He said in July: “If this was in the US, people would be suing left, right and centre, but because of the difficulty of taking legal action under the Equality Act by individual disabled people, these organisations clearly do not feel the need to fulfil their legal responsibilities.”
He said this week that he had “blubbed” when he told the “brilliant, brilliant” staff team at Real he was leaving and how much he would miss them, after nearly 13 years in which he merged two much smaller and struggling DPOs into one which is now “pretty successful and stable”.
He said: “There have of course been ups and downs, but I know that the organisation is in a much stronger place, and all those evening and weekend hours worked have all been worthwhile.”
In a statement, Real paid tribute to Smith’s contribution to its growth and development, and wished him well in his new post.
A spokesperson said: “Under his leadership, we have flourished into Tower Hamlets’ foremost pan-disability organisation.
“We have succeeded in achieving remarkable outcomes for disabled people in the borough and beyond.
“He can be particularly proud of the strong connections he has forged for the organisation within the council, other statutory bodies and even nationwide.”
Smith has twice hosted House of Lords committees to “amplify the real-world experiences of our members”, Real said.
It is now recruiting a replacement chief executive.
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