Time to tap into the resources of disabled people

Disability rights is not a marginal issue, writes Stephen Bradshaw
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Today, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is re-introduced to the Commons. If passed the Bill would give disabled people like myself the right of access to public facilities, and the right to challenge the discrimination we face every day of our lives.

The Bill, which has been drawn up by disability groups and others over a decade, would directly affect 6.5 million people in the UK. It enjoys support from all ten political groups in Parliament: it ought to become law.

Ironically, the greatest obstacle to it becoming so is the Government, which has a rival Bill before the Commons. The Disability Discrimination Bill has been cobbled together over the past few months.

This represents a government retreat of sorts. Last year, ministers claimed that no new laws were needed when they defeated Roger Berry's civil rights Bill. There are plenty of disabled people who would disagree with the ministers.

One celebrated example is Ruth Bailey, a cerebral palsy sufferer. She applied for a job as a planning officer with a health authority - working partly with disabled people to get them involved in the planning process. She telephoned to check that the interview would be in a wheelchair-accessible location. She was told that it wasn't, and nor was the office; in fact, she "shouldn't bother" attending the interview at all.

Under the present legislation, Ms Bailey has no access to legal redress; and that would not change under the new Disability Discrimination Bill.

The problem with the government's Bill is that it defines disability so narrowly that millions may miss out. Little is proposed in education and transport. Improved access to public transport terminals is covered, for example, while access to vehicles themselves is not.

Companies with under 20 staff will be excluded from the legislation, even though nearly 40 per cent of disabled employees work in this growing sector.

It lacks a strategic enforcement body, accountable to parliament, that would help those seeking redress. Redress will only be available, without legal aid, through tribunals and small claims courts. These only deal with individual complaints and don't make test cases.

The Barnes Bill, on the other hand, sets up a disability rights commission, similar to the equal opportunities commission, which would enforce the law and set legal precedents.

Last year, the Government spread spurious stories about the costs. Equality, they claimed, would cost £17 billion. In the United States there were also fears about costs. But their experience indicates net social and business benefits; the American smallbusiness federation saysthe Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has become a goldmine, widening customer bases and opening up an untapped labour pool. Every opinion poll has shown businesses are surprised at the cheapness of change.

Disabled people are also consumers with often untapped disposable income. Marketing Week estimates disabled people's potential spending power in this country as £33 billion a year.

Strong those these financial arguments are, the strongest of all is the moral right disabled people have to full civil rights.The Government has, to its discredit, ignored this argument in the past.

It cannot afford to do so in the future. As the over-65-year-old population increases, from 9 million to 14 million in the next 20 years, many more people will be affected. Disability rights was never a marginal issue, but soon it will become an unequivocally part of the political mainstream.

The author, a wheelchair user, is chairman of the Rights Now consortium of disability organisations