Young people presented a letter to Tony Blair at Downing Street yesterday asking him to support a change in the law stopping local education authorities forcing disabled children into special schools.
Among the group were disabled youngsters fighting legislation to join friends and siblings in ordinary schools.
While the law says society should not discriminate, Rights Now, the group which campaigns for civil rights for disable people, says it does not always work in practice. Rachel Hurst, chairman of the group, says: "It's a kind of apartheid - we've been saying that for years. All the other things we have to put up with, being spat on, patronised and ignored are just the icing on the gingerbread."
A survey by Britain's leading disability care charity, the Leonard Cheshire, recently revealed that almost a third of the public believe those in wheelchairs are "less intelligent". More than half said they have no contact with the disabled although one in ten people have a disability. Last week the Royal National Institute for the Blind revealed that among older blind or partially sighted people, nine out of ten have an income of less than half the national average and half were living on a weekly household income of less than pounds 150.
"Imagine having to cope on an income well below the poverty line. Imagine being unable to get out and visit friends and family, go to the pub or even to the local shops," said Ian Bruce, RNIB's director general. "That is the harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of older people in the UK - because they have a sight problem. It is quite simply a national scandal." At present the main legislation is the two-year-old Disability Discrimination Act. "It is the only protection we have, but it has no enforcement mechanism," said Ms Hurst. "And we can't afford to go to court. The act doesn't cover some of the most important areas, such as transport, housing and education."
A ministerial task-force recommended in December that a commission be set up. This has been accepted by the Government and must be implemented by the year 2000.
"I'm not sure whether it is the discrimination so much as the thoughtlessness and lack of vision," said Jess Clare, manager of specialist services for Jewish Care. "But when it comes to employment there are lots of extremely intelligent people with university degrees who can't get jobs."
A spokesman for Mencap said that people with learning disabilities face similar prejudice. "People who are disabled face discrimination in all areas of their lives, whether it's finding a job, using the health service or going on holiday. There is a lack of understanding about what they can achieve. People can live independently with the right support.
"There is still much to be done. Last year a Mencap group going to the Costa del Sol was not allowed to board a plane because the pilot said it wasn't safe. "
"The Government has given a manifesto commitment to provide `dignity and security in retirement'," said Barbara Scott manager of a residential RNIB home in Somerset. "However for older blind and partially sighted people, dignity and security are luxuries enjoyed by the small minority. Additional resources are needed on a major scale to tackle what is undoubtedly a national scandal.
"Long-term reform to pensions and the funding of social care will not meet the challenge, which is immediate, urgent and real."
HAVING an obvious physical disability makes you an easy target for the prejudiced. But having a less obvious one, or a mental disability, can leave you just as open to discrimination.
Ronald Taylor suffers from hearing impairment and learning disabilities. He used to work in a leather factory making handbags and shoes. When the firm closed he found it impossible to get another job.
Not that he'd been treated that well when he was employed. Despite his ability to carry out skilled work he was made to do the menial tasks: "I was always the one who was made to run up and down everywhere, get everyone's breakfast, it was always my turn to make the tea. It hurt to be talked to as if I was a little kid, as if these were the jobs that I should do," he says.
Apart people taking advantage of his learning disabilities, Ronald encountered lack of sympathy because of his hearing problems: "A lot of people don't understand when you're hard of hearing, that it's not that you're stupid, you just haven't heard what they said. They'll get in a temper with you and start to shout at you and it's not your fault. Say if I'm on the telephone and I have to ask someone to speak up they get really annoyed."
He has felt lonely and isolated, although he tries to maintain a cheerful outlook. "Since my mother died no one in the family has had anything to do with me. They don't want to see me or speak to me in case I'm asking for something. They assume I want money. All I want is a bit of understanding."
CORAL McKenzie is thinking of giving up trying to get a job, after a string of job interviews in which people saw her disability first and her abilities second.
"People look at you with their mouths open and the first thing that pops into their mind is the mobility problem. They think `you're no good because you're not mobile'," she says.
Coral, 32, from east London, had a stroke at the age of 21. "I just cried and cried. It was months of crying and I realised it was turning into years of crying. I began to think I was going mad."
Before the stroke she had worked in the Post Office. She has taken a number of computer courses. Her attempts to use these skills in the workplace to help herself and others have met with failure.
"Just because you're not as mobile [as others] they don't care if you can do something as well as, if not better than, someone else," she says. "The last interview I went to, the man turned round to me and said: "We would have given it to you it's just that we need someone who is mobile for the job.
"This was a desk-bound job with computers. There was no moving around needed. I'd rather that he had just been honest and said: `I can't cope with you being disabled.'"
She now begins to think that she will not be trying again. "You get so many knock backs, you think can I be bothered? How many more times can I take this?"
She feels the disabled are treated as second-class citizens, even by those who are meant to help them: "Housing is hell. I waited two years to have a shower installed that I could use. I rang up the council and they said they'd closed my file. I said: `Hello, I'm not dead. I'm still alive.'"
For transport she has to rely on taxis. "I've attempted public transport but it's dreadful," she said. "Trains are usually better as there's at least someone to help you on and off.
CHRISTINE Dance suffers from arthritis and for the last six years has been forced to use a wheelchair. As soon as she stopped being able to walk she noticed a change in the way people treated her.
"They suddenly started to talk down to me," she says. "They look right through you and address the next person in the queue."
If she tries to make her presence felt the reaction is as hurtful: "They look at you as if you were from a different planet. I want to say `Do you think I've got two heads or something?'"
Since her illness things she used to take for granted have become impossible. "Public transport has been so hard. It's not really possible to use public transport if you're disabled."
Her home had to be modified: "I had to wait for about a year and a half before my home was done. I think I was lucky I only had to wait that long, as the housing trust is pretty good."
"What I miss is things like not being able to go to the pictures because so many of the cinemas have stairs."
She now works as a receptionist at a Leonard Cheshire day centre in east London. "I was a housewife before I became disabled but trying to get into the workplace if you are disabled is dreadful," she said. "It's like a vicious circle - you don't see any disabled people [in a firm] so none can get in."
She says the most difficult thing has been the reaction of family and friends: "My next door neighbour accused me of faking once. I was so shocked. And as for my family I don't hear from them."Reuse content