The Cabinet Office has admitted that it does not ask its own disability ambassadors if they self-identify as disabled people, sparking serious concerns about the government’s commitment to equality.
The government now has 20 disability and access ambassadors across areas such as advertising, arts and culture, banking, energy, housing, recruitment, retail and tourism.
The ambassadors are supposed to “drive improvements in the accessibility and quality of services and facilities in their sector for disabled people”.
But only a small number of the 20 ambassadors have publicly self-identified as disabled people, including Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion for East West Rail, who covers rail travel, Claire Walters, the long-serving chief executive of Bus Users UK, for buses, and countryside access champion Debbie North, founder of Access the Dales.
The government’s heavily-criticised National Disability Strategy – later declared unlawful by the high court – claimed that the government wanted to “help ensure disabled people can play a full role in society” and “remove barriers to participation in public life”.
But evidence available online suggests that most of its own disability and access ambassadors are not themselves disabled people.
Disability News Service asked the Cabinet Office in a freedom of information request how many of the ambassadors identified as disabled people, and how many declined to provide that information when applying for the roles.
The government department replied: “Thank you for your request regarding the self-identification of the Disability and Access Ambassadors as disabled.
“This information is neither sought nor collected.”
He said the government “keeps missing the open goal of getting inclusion right” and that the appointments were “a missed opportunity”.
He said: “After the minister for disabled people going on a benefits fraud raid, reinforcing the stereotype that fraud in so-called disability benefits is rife while doing very little to visibly work for better inclusion and accessibility, we see that the people the government are working with to further these goals might not be disabled themselves.
“To load a group of ‘experts’ on disability with any non-disabled people highlights how out-of-touch the government is with the desires of disabled people and the current thinking around best practice.
“Of course, there is a need for experts in other areas to advise the panel, but they should be brought in when the advice is required. The ambassadors themselves should only be disabled people.
“There are enough talented, knowledgeable disabled experts out there who would be able to give the government advice that combined learned experience with lived experience.
“This is another misunderstanding of the Equality Act and what it asks around recruitment.
“A fear of the right-wing press shouting discrimination has led to disabled voices being excluded from playing a constructive part in building a better, more inclusive society.”
He added: “I think we’re seeing business and the private sector really getting that disabled experts should be leading the move towards inclusive design and practice, but government is just not getting it.”
David Buxton, chief executive of the London-based disabled people’s organisation Action on Disability, said he was “gravely concerned” that some of the ambassadors were not disabled people.
He said that Deaf and disabled people “face everyday barriers in life” and “by using their own experience and skills to influence change for a better, more inclusive and accessible society, we will all participate and contribute as equal and valued citizens and consumers”.
He said it was essential that recruiting for such roles included a declaration of whether the candidate is a disabled person and a description of the barriers they experience.
Buxton said that non-disabled experts should still be valued as “key strategic partners, to drive and support disabled leaders”.
DNS contacted several ambassadors about the Cabinet Office freedom of information response, but none of them had commented by noon today (Thursday).
The Cabinet Office’s Equality Hub had also failed to comment by noon today.
Picture: David Buxton (above left) and Mik Scarlet
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