According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were more than a billion disabled people in the world in 2020; that is 15% of the world’s population. Granted that covers all ages and disabilities, but that is a powerful dynamic, one that could change everything.
In the UK, disabled people are kept divided and powerless. According to the UK Government’s Family Resources Survey 2018/19, 21% or 14.1 million people in the UK are living with disability. According to a Joseph Rowntree foundation report on poverty in 2020, 4 million disabled people live in poverty. The Office for National Statistics put the rate of deaths in 2020 from Covid19 amongst disabled people UK at a staggering 60%. A fifth of disabled people live in poverty and all are twice as likely to die from Covid. We’re in trouble.
At a time when many in the UK are looking inwards to a rose-tinted past, the complete failure and disappointment of Brexit has only strengthened my resolve. I will not be left behind, all alone on a little island, interested only in myself and my own problems. I want to fight ableism with the rest of the world.
To do this together, we need to look at the bigger picture. What do we have in common with other disabled people? Thankfully, lock-down has widened many of our horizons. I can now go to meetings anywhere in the World. At the AtaxiaUK virtual conference last year, we had a key-note speaker and several delegates join us from the US to share their experiences.
I attended the National Ataxia Foundation’s (NAF) Annual Conference in America this month, the largest gathering of Ataxians from across the globe – ever. I was very impressed with the programme of speakers and the topics they covered. They were mostly the questions we all have: can I have kids, a relationship, is a treatment or cure on the horizon, how can I keep well, is the Covid vaccination safe? I am realising that we all have so much in common.
I went to an online meeting of disability advocates at Trinity College, Dublin and was struck by the hope they saw in the work in European Union to Implement the United Nation’s Charter on the Rights of Disabled People . It is the first international, legally binding instrument setting minimum standards for rights of people with disabilities. The charter represents a global view of disability and addresses the risks of multiple disadvantage faced by women, children, older persons, refugees with disabilities, and those with socioeconomic difficulties. Thanks to our exit from the European Union, the UNCRDP will not be incorporated into UK law.
The UN has criticised the UK for its continued failure to implement this charter. Without this recognition of the human rights of disabled people, you get the enactment of laws which threaten our very lives and liberty. I am thinking of Canada’s newly passed C7 Bill which offers disabled people an assisted death without even needing to be close to death or in any pain. Are we going back to seeing disability in purely medical terms? What does this say about the value of disabled lives?
Universities play an important part in developing this global view and exposing such threats. Worryingly, the UK Government has announced that Universities have a duty to protect freedom of speech and have threatened to sanction those who don’t. This doesn’t sound like a problem, but in this case, ‘freedom of speech’ has been woefully misunderstood. Instead of denying a platform to bigots, with provably untrue and dangerous rhetoric, universities must ensure that the voices of far-right, conspiracy theorists are included to give ‘balance’ to their debates. Much of our media which already fails disabled people down time after time already has badly hampered by submission to this idea of ‘false equivalence’. Universities must be allowed to foster debate about difficult issues without having to submit to State interference.
A key part of the progress made by the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s was university debate. Martin Luther King believed in finding equality through integration, Malcolm X rejected this and believed in separatism. Although the two men never met on the debating circuit, Malcolm debated the issue of Black Citizenship on the American colleges with moderates like Bayard Rustin. Malcolm talked about black pride and advocated violence if it was in self-defence, but he was not a hate-preacher. He was able to make a measured and compelling contribution to the debate. International debates enabled them to see global connections between the struggles of black people in America and against colonial powers around the world and also underlined the links between race and poverty. Malcolm famously debated his position before the Oxford Union and on his trips to Africa. Dr King spoke in Paris, London and Oslo. Their hosts were not required to provide a local white supremacist for ‘balance‘.
The lessons for disabled people are clear. We must press our governments to take a global perspective to recognise and promote the human rights and the intersectionality between the billion of us around the world. At the same time, our universities must be allowed to foster open debate to increase understanding and inform future leaders about ableism. Failure to do this has terrible consequences for all groups seeking equality. There are more of us than there are of them, right?
Richard Brown MBE