Deborah Orr: The scandal of our failure to agree on how best to meet the needs of the disabled

The sad thing is that both sides of this awful schism in the disability rights debate are right
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The Independent Online

A lot of people are glad to see the back of Tony Manwaring, who resigned last week as chief executive of Scope. The cerebral palsy charity is not saying much about the reasons for his departure, but it's easy to guess what they might have been.

Since he took over three years ago, Manwaring has been characterised by his detractors as an opportunist, whose aim was to take a practical provider of services to the vulnerable and turn it into a slick, shallow campaigning group, with the flashy headquarters, competitively paid executives and high-profile media campaigns that are evident at a number of other large charities.

The anger he has roused during his tenure has been remarkable, even for someone with a charge sheet like that, not least because he has intervened uncompromisingly to diminish or end some of the services many at Scope consider to be the charity's raison d'être. Flats in Cardiff providing independent living for adults, for example, were slated for closure, with the land earmarked for sale. Likewise Scope-run schools have found their ethos questioned along with their income streams. Parents talk of demoralised teachers and "quick decay" in at least one school that has faced such attentions. The threat to "special schools" has been particularly upsetting for parents, as local authorities have have done similar things for some years now, under the government-backed policy of "inclusion".

People who felt the Government did not understand their needs, but that Scope at least was there to provide a safety net, felt deeply betrayed. The sense of betrayal was exacerbated because of the history of the organisation. Founded in 1954 by parents determined to prove that their disabled children were "educable", the charity has always seen itself as a champion of disabled rights, and concerned with practicalities rather than image. As late as 1994, for example, the charity changed its name to Scope from The Spastics Society - the name surviving through considerable years of political correctness.

In reality, though, the charity had been in trouble for quite some time. When Manwaring arrived, its budget deficit was running at £10m, largely due to diminishing public donations. Manwaring suggested the charity was spending a great deal of charitable money (£174m) on services - like the flats in Cardiff - that really ought to be provided by the state. By being tough about refusing to use charitable cash to provide core local authority services, he has brought the deficit now down to £7m, and Scope is projected to be in surplus by 2008-09. The harsh truth is that by failing to face such problems, Scope would merely have been putting off an inevitable financial meltdown.

Yet this politically tough approach has in itself simply confirmed some of the worst fears of some members, because local authorities too have been promoting policies that call for the restriction of special schools, and sometimes with the bottom line rather than the needs of service users in mind. Many parents who feel that their children need special schools have fought against their closure. It is indicative of the deep philosophical rift in thinking about disability that Tony Manwaring was very far from being the only disabled rights campaigner who was less than enthusiastic about standing with them.

"Special schools" and "residential care" have become hated institutions among many of the most passionate and articulate of disability campaigners. The point is that while Manwaring may have been prompted to tackle the status quo at such institutions for financial reasons, his move does chime ideologically with the views of a number of the toughest and most formidable campaigners.

In the recent past, children with physical disabilities but little or no cognitive impairment have been enrolled at schools for the disabled - Alison Lapper being a high-profile example - and treated because of the appearance of their bodies as capable of little academic achievement or independent existence.

Such insensitivity and cruelty has deeply radicalised a generation of people with disabilities. The demand now, led by those who have suffered under the old attitudes, is for mainstream inclusion and independent living. For many people whose cerebral palsy has only, or mainly, physical manifestations, Tony Manwaring's stance was a long-overdue breath of fresh air.

They point to his success in drawing attention to the shortcomings of local authority funding, not just by attempting to end Scope's subsidy of local authority provision but also by championing direct payment (whereby people with disabilities are given the money to commission their own support services).

They point to the robust content of "Independent Living", the report from the think tank Demos on disability policy that is widely seen as providing new intellectual vigour with its promotion of "trading zones" as a way of encouraging an exchange of ideas and skills between disabled and abled groups or individuals.

The emphasis, as far as this group is concerned, has to be on maximising individual autonomy and minimising institutional prejudice. The frustrated users of services for the disabled, fashioned by the non-disabled, are all for the kind of consciousness-raising exercises that Manwaring felt were more important than providing homes to save the local authority from doing so.

Many disability campaigners admit that Manwaring could not have chosen a less likely place from which to launch an assault on the "paternalism" of much provision for disabled people than Scope. Such is the culture of the charity that some of the 3,500 staff in the organisation were resentful of the emphasis Manwaring placed on recruiting people with disabilities. In three years, the percentage of disabled workers at Scope has gone from 4 per cent to 17 per cent. In this way the organisation has put its money where its mouth is, and is genuinely providing independence and experience to the people it professes to help.

The sad thing is that both sides of this awful schism in the disability rights debate are right. The best possible provision has to be made for the people for whom independent living is not a possibility. Likewise, such provision should never, ever be seen as a catch-all mechanism that anyone who could be labelled "disabled" finds themselves processed into. If this all sounds elementary - well it isn't. It is a debate that is far from resolved and lies at the heart of thinking about the future for people with disabilities - a category that one fifth of the population will find themselves in at some time. One thing that has been amply illustrated over the last three years at Scope is how very hard our society finds it to sort out how it feels about this apparently straightforward issue, and then to cough up the cash that's needed to make it work.