I’ve been involved in disability issues from the start of my career: during my second year as a civil servant, I became the officer responsible for developing the Disability and Inclusion Strategy, which was eventually approved by the States in November 2013. When I left the States and started working in the private sector, I joined the Committee of the Guernsey Disability Alliance as a volunteer, and saw things from the other side.
So it was funny and daunting to take part in the Disability Hustings last night, alongside many other candidates. Funny, even enjoyable, because these are my friends, and we’ve been working side-by-side for disability rights for a long time. But daunting too, for almost the same reason – this is an area I know well, and I can rightly expect to be held accountable for my actions from the very start.
If I had one wish for my fellow candidates from last night, it would be this: that you’d see the people sat across from you as ordinary people – humorous, kind, insightful, occasionally grumpy, totally normal human beings. Not set apart; not made any weaker or any stronger by the label of “disability”. Just average Guernsey folk who are obliged to sit opposite us and campaign, because we don’t yet have a legal framework or a practical infrastructure which enables everyone to participate as equals in our community, and because that impacts directly on their day-to-day lives.
The GDA manifesto points out that Guernsey is among a very small number of nations worldwide that have not signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention is important – not because it creates any new rights for disabled people, which go over and above the rights of other citizens: it does not. But because it explains to governments, in clear language, what they can do to resolve many common challenges which prevent disabled people from enjoying the same basic rights as other citizens.
For example, Article 13 talks about access to justice. It points out that, for the justice system to treat disabled people fairly, on an equal basis with other citizens, people who are working in the system – such as police and prison officers – may need training to understand how different disabilities affect people, and how to respond appropriately to this in their work.
Last night, I found myself on the Mental Health table for a while, and we talked briefly about people going through a mental health crisis who may end up getting arrested. I was told that, since Guernsey Police appointed an officer with responsibility for training on matters of equality and diversity and rolled out training to the force, the experience that people in mental health crisis have had in their encounters with the police has been very noticeably improved.
We’re doing things like that already, without the Convention in place – but the Convention provides us with a checklist for all areas of government business, so that we can make sure we are treating all citizens fairly. Without the Convention, we would be making even slower progress on Capacity law, which provides protection for people with dementia, learning disabilities and serious mental health conditions who might lose the ability to make their own decisions. The need for Capacity law was included in the Disability and Inclusion Strategy because Article 12 of the Convention points towards its importance, as a way of providing adequate protection for those least likely or able to speak out on their own behalf.
Adopting the Convention doesn’t require a large bureaucratic overhead. But putting it into practice will inevitably come with costs. The training the police receive to support people with mental health conditions? That costs. The provision of support services to enable people with long-term care needs to live active and fulfilling lives? That costs, too. But these aren’t extra costs – they’re costs that any decent government would incur anyway, in ensuring that all its citizens are able to enjoy fair treatment and an acceptable standard of living.
The Convention gives government a very strong steer in the right direction, but it also embraces the principle of “progressive realisation” – a commitment for governments to move towards greater inclusion as fast as their resources allow, not faster. It’s not that different to the concept of “reasonable adjustments” which is at the heart of disability law – the idea that employers and businesses should be expected to make changes that are appropriate, affordable and sensitive to the needs of customers and employees; rather than ones that require huge expense and complete transformation.
I won’t be seeking the Disability Champion role in the new States – a post that has been held and developed well by Arrun Wilkie, John Gollop and Jane Stephens in the past two terms. The more of us who understand and care about disability, the better – I think the Champion role could be a great opportunity for someone who’s new to the issues, but cares deeply about them, to engage with this area in more depth and speak up for disabled islanders. But, if elected, I’ll certainly be working alongside them, and alongside everyone who was motivated by yesterday’s hustings, to champion disability issues and to make the kind of changes that disabled islanders and carers will really feel in their day to day lives.