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After the last recession, a generation of people living with ill-health or disability ended up living on benefits long term – without work, opportunity or hope.

While the country grew richer, disabled adults grew poorer – their children grew up in poverty, their talents were wasted. We cannot let this happen to another generation. In a competitive economy, Britain will need all the talents it can find as we come out of recession – and it makes no sense to miss out on the abilities and customer power of the 11 million disabled people in Britain (one in five of the population).

This means that, in tough economic times, disability equality matters more, not less. We must avoid creating new inequalities and must target scarce resources where they are needed most, so that disabled people can contribute to society.

We have serious successes to build on. On 30 November, Radar hosts its People of the Year human rights awards to celebrate individuals and organisations that have really pushed the boundaries. The shortlist includes IT innovations – a web space enabling deaf children to share stories online and a wheelchair-top, personalised, portable email and communications device. It includes independent living support – run by and for disabled people, cutting through the red tape and going straight for disabled people's control of their own support services (incidentally a much better use of public money than fragmented assessments by different agencies). And, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics – when more disabled people will gather in one city than ever before – the shortlist includes organisations that have systematically improved disability access, from the Post Office to small disability groups improving access to democracy.

All these endeavours are essential to disabled people's economic and social participation. Without accessible cities, inclusive IT, control over social care, disabled people remain outsiders. With them, disabled people can become net contributors. Radar's shortlist shows how the ambition of big corporates, the skill of entrepreneurs and the determination of grassroots organisations add up to greater opportunities and more cost-effective ways of delivering joined-up public services.

Radar's Lights, Camera, Action report on the impact of the Disability Equality Duty shows how public organisations have achieved significant impact by involving disabled people, analysing evidence and acting – from improving hate-crime reporting to implementing lifetime homes standards and improving access to cancer screening.

There are several ways any organisation can future-proof equality in practice. By doing so, they can improve their business, their service and their attention to social justice. One way is by having a better workplace. You might start by eliminating health questionnaires before a job offer (soon to be outlawed). This will save unnecessary expenditure, and they can screen people out on disability grounds unnecessarily. Use the money instead to support employees and employers with disability-related issues at work.

Flexible working arrangements can be strengthened, making the company more attractive to disabled people and boosting productivity.

You can consider how you could offer fast-track support and mentoring for disabled people with senior potential. Radar's Doing Seniority Differently research, supported by Lloyds Banking Group, shows disabled people can become boardroom high-flyers, but only if they get the senior career-long support and mentoring that aids their development.

Consider also exercising a leadership approach to cultural change: we all experience disability at some point – working in organisations that respect that, and make it safe for people to be open about it if they wish, is a core leadership role.

And you can unleash the power of procurement. Public sector organisations can anticipate the new duty to take account of equality in procurement in the Equality Bill. Imagine the impact if all public sector contracts for IT or transport-operating companies made accessibility a central part of the contract from the outset. There will also be a stronger onus on private and voluntary sector organisations to demonstrate disability equality in order to compete for and secure contracts.

Whatever you choose to do, the lesson from disability equality over the last 15 years is that the involvement of disabled people is key. It changes the terms of the debate, homes in on specifics and makes developments work first time.

Liz Sayce is Chief executive of Radar

Contact liz.sayce@radar.org.uk for more information on the Future-proofing equality agenda

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