Leading Article: Moral duty, practical sense

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The Independent Online
FEW topics are more delicate than that of how society should make it possible for people with disabilities to lead fuller lives. An initial problem lies in the very different ways in which disabled people view themselves and are viewed. Where the able-bodied incline to see disabilities as a direct result of physical, intellectual or sensory impairment (the 'medical' model), many disabled people have come to reject this view in favour the 'social' model.

This sees disability as a reflection of society's failure to adapt itself to the needs of disabled people. Society, they argue, bears the responsibility for erecting barriers, and should adapt to the full variety of its citizens. The argument is influenced by the high lobbying profile of wheelchair users. They account for only around 500,000 of Britain's 6.5 million disabled people, but are often young and articulate.

In dealing with this increasingly assertive lobby, the Government has shown so leaden a touch that disabled people feel collectively under attack. They were particularly incensed by the 'talking out' in May of a Private Member's Bill intended to give them legal redress against discrimination. Alarmed by the resulting outcry, the Government tabled a consultative paper setting out its own ideas for tackling discrimination. It also commissioned a questionable assessment of the cost of implementing the Private Member's Bill.

The precise shape that government legislation will take remains under debate. As an analysis on page 23 shows, the consultative paper falls well short of the earlier Bill; but it goes further than expected on the employment front. The existing discredited 3 per cent quota system would be replaced by a statutory right for qualified disabled people not to be unjustifiably discriminated against in larger firms.

Government proposals for improving access to goods and services as well as buildings also represent an advance, but suffer so far from over-generous let-out clauses, and do not cover either public transport or education. The Government also seems to have been unduly impressed by assurances that there is no discrimination in the financial services field.

Disabled people are seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity. To remove barriers to their self-fulfilment is both a moral duty and a way of ensuring that society is able to use the skills and energies of all its citizens. Those who find jobs become less dependent and pay taxes instead. Easier access to buildings and transport additionally helps parents with prams and older people. The burden of removing barriers should be shared by employers and, through tax breaks, the Exchequer.

It is not easy to construct judicious legislation in this field, but as it completes its consultation process the Government should recognise that there has been a change in public mood. A clearer framework of rights for disabled people would command widespread support.