Progress on disability rights in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has stalled in many areas in the last five years, and in some parts has even regressed, according to reports by national disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).
The three DPOs told a parliamentary meeting that the impact of the pandemic and a decade of austerity had delayed progress towards implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Action in Northern Ireland have each been working with other DPOs to prepare “shadow reports” on how the convention has been implemented since 2017.
The all-party parliamentary group on disability heard that their reports showed that disabled people were struggling with poverty, discrimination and the “devastating impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nuala Toman, head of policy for Disability Action Northern Ireland, said that rights had regressed in Northern Ireland since 2017, with the continuing political instability, a decade of austerity, welfare reform and the pandemic all playing a part.
She pointed to issues including the continued use of restraint and seclusion in health and educational settings, segregated education, significant evidence of abuse and degrading treatment in institutions, increasing levels of disability hate crime, and disabled people living in poverty and having to rely on foodbanks.
And she said there was a “continuing disparity” between the lesser legal protection from discrimination available to disabled people in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK, an issue that was exposed by the pandemic.
Toman told the meeting: “We require the legal incorporation of the UNCRPD into law if we are to advance the rights of Deaf and disabled people.”
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said it was impossible to escape the impact of more than 10 years of austerity on disabled people in Wales.
Although the Welsh government had attempted some “mitigation” for the policies of the UK government, the day-to-day reality of life for many disabled people in Wales was a “sense of weariness and the daily grind of living”, she said.
She said the Welsh government had published its Action on Disability framework on independent living, which was under-pinned by the UNCRPD, and had introduced the Access to Elected Office Fund Wales, as well as committing to incorporating the convention into Welsh law.
But she said the pandemic had exposed the “deep inequality” in Wales, with “widespread breaches of disabled people’s human rights”, such as the suspension of social care assessments and the imposition of “do not attempt resuscitation” notices.
Davies told the online meeting that she was “sad and shocked” that disabled people had made up 68 per cent of all COVID-related deaths in Wales.
She said: “What we saw was the very right to life of disabled people impacted in the most fundamental way.
“[There was] very much the sense of the lives of disabled people being devalued and disregarded.”
She said: “What is clear from the engagement we did with disabled people in Wales around the UNCRPD report is the implementation gap between often very good intentions in terms of Welsh government policy and legislation and the actual delivery on the ground.”
Davies said there was a “sense of disabled people just feeling worn down by the system, literally ground down, having to fight every single day for the right to basic entitlements.
“Poverty levels among disabled people remain high in Wales and while most of this has been imposed by the UK government’s austerity measures, and they hold most of the levers of power and control around things like benefits, tax and pensions, there are areas where the Welsh government does have control, does have some levers, and those need to be used much more effectively.”
Rebecca McGregor, policy and research officer for Inclusion Scotland, said the situation in Scotland since 2017 had been one of “stagnation”, despite some “small improvements”.
She said the danger is that “things can look better” in Scotland when compared to England, but that “disabled people in Scotland are still experiencing worse outcomes [than non-disabled people] in pretty much every area”.
She said there was an “implementation gap” in Scotland, with “a lot of good rhetoric from the Scottish government” which “doesn’t always result in real change”, which was why it was “so essential” to incorporate the UNCRPD into Scottish law, as the Scottish government has promised.
McGregor said the shadow report showed that disabled people’s rights in Scotland “still aren’t met through all areas of life and throughout the life course”, with breaches of their rights in education, employment, housing, transport, health, social care, and in social protection, as well as the “devastating impact” of the pandemic.
She said public attitudes towards disabled people had worsened during the pandemic, following years of austerity in which disabled people had been “portrayed as scroungers and second-class citizens by the structures and institutions that are supposed to be there to protect them”.
But she said there was “cause for optimism”, with the planned incorporation of the UNCRPD into Scottish law and the devolution of disability benefits, both of which have been welcomed by disabled people in Scotland.
The three shadow reports – along with a report focusing on England (see separate story) – will be submitted to the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), along with a UK-wide report.
The UN committee will use the shadow reports – and other evidence – to help it draw up a list of questions to put to the UK government, and the three devolved governments, which will have a year to respond in writing, before being examined by the committee.
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