Despite nearly 15 years of new legislation, the results of a new survey reveal that disabled people in the UK are facing rising levels of poverty and discrimination. Yet many disabled people believe things are getting better. What explains the contradiction? Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Leonard Cheshire Disability's report Disability Review 2009, published this week, shows that the economic picture for disabled people has deteriorated over the past three years. Almost half (42%) of respondents were struggling to live on their present income, a rise of nearly 10% since 2007. Discrimination at work had been experienced by 52%, another 10% increase, and 9% stated they had been the victim of hate crime. Worrying news indeed, particularly given that the Disability Discrimination Act is now well over a decade old. It will also be of concern to policymakers who have sought to make the promotion of equality a central part of their social policy agenda.
Alongside the disturbing trends in disability poverty and discrimination revealed by our survey, many of the disabled people reported improvements in their experiences. Paradoxically, increasing discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services – and unacceptable levels of disability hate crime – were coupled with a sense that, when it comes to discrimination, things are simply "not as bad as they used to be". This could just be the knock-on effect of progress made in other areas, such as transport accessibility. An alternative explanation might be that developments in the law have triggered a shift in the way disabled people conceptualise equality and social justice issues. If disabled people have an enhanced awareness of rights and increased expectations of them, then they might be more willing to challenge prejudice and discrimination. At the same time, a better grasp of our legal and civil rights might give people the overall impression that things are improving, irrespective of reality. This offers an interesting twist on more straightforward notions of achieving social change through legal reform – food for thought for those of us in the disability sector and beyond.
Whatever the reasons for this paradox, however, it is clear that disability poverty in the UK remains a massive social justice issue. Engendering a sense of empowerment and optimism among one of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society is clearly not an undesirable end in itself. Unless the government takes urgent action to ensure that the dislocation between perception and reality is bridged, their pledge to eradicate disability inequality by 2025 will remain illusory. Perhaps the battle for hearts and minds is beginning to be won. Now the real work must commence.