Why is the Equality and Human Rights Commission playing down the role of disabled people?

A player on wheelchair competes in the men's 50m rifle 3 positions SH1 on day 5 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Getty Images)

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wants to make its Disability Commissioner, Lord Shinkwin, redundant. Its aim, the EHRC argues, is to do away with the services of one disabled person so that it can develop that strand of its work more generally. But in a new report published this week for the think tank Localis my co-author, Liam Booth Smith, and I argue that the EHRC in particular, and the government in general, needs more not less focus if it is going to unlock the real potential of the 12 per cent of us who are disabled.

The EHRC has made a special effort to track how black and ethnic minority people and women are doing at work. They have done studies looking at the obstacles they face rising to the top of their chosen careers. The Department of Business pays attention to those questions as well. But when it comes to disabled people the government’s draft industrial strategy left disabled people out altogether and the EHRC seems to date to have not made a similar effort as it does in other areas. For the EHRC they seem to hint that deep down disabled people only worry about social benefits and that we have no agency.

No wonder there is what the policy wonks call a ‘disability employment’ gap between the number of total people out of work and the number of disabled people – in some areas, this is 40 per cent greater for the disabled but in others, this can get to 80 per cent. Unsurprising then, you might think, that disabled people find it harder to get backing for the firms they want to start, the charities they want to set up and the jobs they would like to try. Stranger still when one reflects that combined spending power of disabled people – the ‘purple pound’ – is valued at over £200 billion. Better still the future high tech market in providing the ‘assistive technology’ that help those with disabilities live independently is estimated to grow to $150 billion or more globally. Britain is already a world leader in this regard with the ‘assistive tech’ ventures earning £1 billion per annum already.

To redress the balance our report suggests that it is time for the government to do a ’disability deal’ to mainstream their needs and contribution in education, the economy, skills and leadership. We suggest churches should take part in such an effort by reorienting more of their giving to people with disabilities and mental health conditions who have often remained off our radars. And we were shocked to discover that in NHS charities are to be found some £2.4 billion in reserves that in our view could be better put to use in support of these aims.

A ‘disability deal’ would take focus from several government departments. It would gain from particular attention from the EHRC. But while the government seems open to this opportunity, the EHRC instead is running the risk of turning its underdeveloped work on disability into a general field of work, losing a dedicated commissioner and side stepping the future potential of a community ready to play its part at work as well as on welfare. It’s time for an upgrade, not a redundancy. It’s time for a ‘disability deal’.

Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham. ‘A Sector Deal For Disability’ is available without charge from