Hopes for Disability Policy in Scotland

Prior to the Scottish Parliament Election in 2021, the SNP published their manifesto, including supplementary sections on a number of specific issues, one of which was disabilities. Following the announcement of the Programme for Government (PfG), and in light of the deal with the Scottish Green Party, it is important that we look at what the SNP promised prior to the election for disabled people, what they’re promising now, what these promises mean for those affected, and how the new government can move forward with these policies, and more to ensure promises are fulfilled and the best possible policy is implemented.

At the beginning of the Disability supplement of the manifesto, the party committed to incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) into Scots Law. The SNP-Green deal document also further cements this as policy, though it is not mentioned in the Programme for Government. This is a good step forward, and one that should not prove controversial, as it is the first step to creating better policies that protect the rights of disabled people. This alone will not solve every issue but it will create a framework by which continuing issues may be raised and policies to resolve them may be developed.

The Hate Crime Act passed last parliament also makes stirring up hatred against disabled people an offence, but it remains to be seen how strictly this will be enforced. Given there are some fairly mainstream personalities and organisations that continue to take a eugenicist approach to many disabilities, especially regarding encouraging abortions of foetuses that test positive for Down’s Syndrome, I am sceptical that full enforcement of this will be possible without a huge culture shift. The Programme for Government states that the government will publish a Hate Crime Strategy in 2022, so we shall see then how they intend to move forward on this issue.

The SNP also promised in the manifesto to introduce a Scottish Diversity and Inclusion Strategy that will cover multiple sectors of life and focus on removing barriers on grounds of a whole section of protected characteristics. While this specific strategy does not appear in either the deal or the PfG, it may still come to fruition in this, or another form. It will be interesting to see how the new government intends to accomplish this, if they do indeed try, given the multitude of barriers especially when considering multiple characteristics, the intersectionality of multiply marginalised people, and also the reality of conflicting access needs. 

One example of conflicting access needs has already cropped up on ScotRail, where destination announcements have become twice as loud, presumably to make them more accessible to people who are hard of hearing. Yet at the same time, these announcements now grate against the ears of people with auditory processing disorders that make loud sounds appear even louder. Such conflicting needs do exist, and exist in many places, so in a quest to remove barriers, any task force will need to handle this issue.

When people talk about public transport accessibility, they are usually speaking only of physical access needs while completely ignoring other access needs such as quiet spaces, being able to get a bus to stop if you can’t stick your hand out for it, knowing what stop to get off at when they’re not announced, systems that rely solely on sight or solely on hearing, anxiety issues around crowds, trying to get from A to B, a 1-mile journey when the only route takes you through C, 10 miles away… I could go on.

I hope that other accessibility issues as well as wheelchair access – which is still hugely important, and needs to be a priority when so many bus stops and train stations are still inaccessible – are considered in the promised measures to improve accessibility. Quite aside from getting on the public transport, there needs to be training for bus drivers and others to be inclusive of disabled people using these services to avoid more incidents of direct discrimination, which sadly still happen.

The NHS has been the number one issue throughout 2020 and into 2021, so it is no surprise that a commitment to increase NHS funding, and particularly to increase primary care funding, is present in the manifesto. While this will help all people, it is particularly important for disabled people who are more likely to rely on the NHS for check-ups, medication and therapies. The NHS is mentioned five times in the deal and a whopping 45 in the PfG, making it clear that this will indeed be a priority for the incoming government, especially following the recent events.

It will come as a relief to many whose disabled children are nearing adulthood to see a pledge to introduce a National Transitions to Adulthood strategy for disabled children, but little detail was given either in the SNP’s manifesto or the PfG, and it is unclear what such a strategy would entail, and what age ranges it would cover. In the PfG, it states that such a strategy would include joined-up guidance and support on accessing better educational and employment opportunities, which will be largely welcomed by the young adult disabled community assuming it is done in a way that respects the rights of adults as adults.

It would be good to have a strategy that covers disabled people for a number of the early years of adulthood, but it would be a mistake to lock young disabled adults into a strategy that treats them like children over the age of 18. If done well, this could potentially be very helpful to disabled people at a difficult life stage, but it needs to be done carefully, respecting the rights of disabled adults as autonomous beings, and refraining from giving parents too much control of their adult children.

The long-winded title of Learning Disability, Autism & Neurodiversity Bill is excessive in that the third term encompasses the previous two, but the inclusion of the term neurodiversity does at least mean that the government has listened to Autistic People’s Organisations (APOs) when three non-disabled-led charities started the “our voice, our rights” campaign without actually listening to our voices. Autistic people warned that conflating learning disability & autism has led to poorer outcomes for both in the past, and wanted the name changed to neurodiversity which includes all non-typical thinking styles.

What we’ve ended up with is a mish-mash of both, clearly designed to please both sides while likely irritating both to a lesser degree, typical of politics. It is excellent that neurodivergent disabilities will be removed from the Mental Health Act, as it has been wholly inappropriate that they’ve been included there which has led to unnecessary detentions, forced treatment and poor outcomes for people who have had the misfortune to be treated under this act, both in the UK and Scotland. Hopefully this new act will change things.

Abolishing charges for non-residential care is a major win, and will allow more people to stay in their own homes rather than be forced to move into an institutional setting which is not appropriate for many. Social care is so important, and creating a free-at-the-point-of-use National Care Service to go with our NHS will be a game changer for many. This must be done in a way that lets disabled people choose their own care, and also fairly compensates carers for their work in a difficult and often underpaid profession.

A commitment to more localised care, as made in the SNP’s manifesto, would also be welcome from the government, but I’d add that with the new Health & Care hubs, it has moved doctors surgeries further away from some residents – and in some cases they do not have direct public transport to the hub from everywhere in their catchment, which is an issue for people who don’t have cars – in the UK, 40% of disabled people don’t have access to a private vehicle.

As everyone who has had to deal with the DWP knows, the benefits system in the UK can be a very stressful thing to deal with. The more social security powers are devolved, the better, especially when Westminster are determined to make the environment ever more hostile for benefit claimants. The UK remains the only country to be investigated by the UN for its treatment of disabled people, which is down to their horrific system of benefits which has led to disabled people literally dying following sanctions.

The new Child Disability Payment and subsequent Adult Disability Payment will hopefully be administered in a much more compassionate manner, where suicidal people are not asked during needs assessments “why haven’t you done it yet” and deaf people aren’t expected to make phone calls in order to claim benefits or wind up being sanctioned. We need a system that is actually accessible and does not place added stress on people as soon as possible.

There is only so much that can be done in the area of employment under devolution, and even less that can be done without a culture shift. Discrimination against disabled employees and prospective employees, both direct and indirect, is widespread despite legislation at UK level making it illegal. The issue is that it is virtually impossible to prove, and impossible for people who can’t find a job due to it to afford a lawyer to even try. There is only so much a government can legislate against a culture where disabled people are seen as lesser, and where money still means better access to justice.

Improving the accessibility of housing is necessary when so many properties are still wholly inaccessible with stairs to get into front doors that aren’t architecturally necessary. This is important both in social housing and in private housing where inaccessible ‘features’ are often added to properties for aesthetic purposes, reducing supply of accessible properties and thus increasing the price for properties that those with physical access needs.

Disabled people are less likely to become elected officials, and a plan to develop schemes to improve this, as well as funds for disabled prospective candidates are good moves. There are still barriers that cannot be solved through finance and encouragement, however, such as physically inaccessible spaces in council buildings and Westminster, the amount of work people in these positions are expected to do over and above normal working hours, and the lack of structure in many of these jobs. We need to overhaul our systems to change some of these barriers, or there will continue to be less disabled representatives, particularly with some disabilities – and as long as there are few disabled representatives, disability policies will rarely meet the principle of “nothing about us without us”.