Disability equality cannot be parked during COVID, says conference

Leading non-profit membership organisation calls for urgent action from Government and business to change the narrative on disability inclusion

Both the Government and businesses need to re-think the way they look at disability to achieve disability equality in society, said a panel of experts on day-one of Business Disability Forum’s virtual conference, on October 14.

The call made by key employers, campaigners and business organisations representatives who sat on the panel entitled: ‘How do we build on the positive and tackle the negative for disabled people post COVID-19’, highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the lives of disabled people.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum, said: “While we’ve seen lots of kindness and community spirit during the pandemic, for some disabled people the reality has been very different.

“Disabled people are amongst those most impacted by coronavirus with deaths disproportionately high. But alongside this we are seeing the loss of casual interventions – acts of kindness by the public to assist disabled people who need it – and worse, the rise of abuse of disabled people in public.

“We need to raise awareness amongst the general public of those who legitimately cannot wear a face mask or who are unable to guarantee social distance, for example, people who need to lip read or who have sight loss. As we move at pace, we need to make sure that the solutions we put in place are solutions that work for everyone.”

Disability equality

Rick Williams, CEO of Freeney Williams Ltd, and Lord Shinkwin, Peer and disability equality campaigner, were among panel members who thought that there were positive lessons to be learnt from the pandemic but expressed concerns about a return to the medical model of disability.

Rick Williams said: “Even if we wanted to drive forward with the positives – and I think that there are many – the framework coming out of the Government is worrying because it is going back many years in its perception of disability. This then underpins and forms the framework for the way organisations are looking at this.

“To take a simple example, the term vulnerable is being used a lot in, and it is a very confusing term. They are conflating vulnerability with disability, and they are two different things.

“My concern is that unless we move forward in a much more creative and broad way at a policy level, we could slip back to the way we used to think about disability in the ’80s and ’90s.”


Hopeful and optimistic

Lord Shinkwin said that he remained ‘hopeful and optimistic overall’ but agreed that ‘there was a danger’ of moving back to a solely medical model understanding of disabilities. Speaking about the impact of the language used in relation to disability and Covid-19, Lord Shinkwin said:

“It has reduced the worth of disabled people’s standing and value in society and may have sent out a message to society that disability was something that eroded the value of someone’s contribution to it.”

Wendy Irwin, Head of Equality and Diversity at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), also joined the panel. She highlighted the potential impact of group risk assessments on disabled colleagues.

“In some cases, some members have felt that the risk assessment process has been weaponised against them. Risk assessments are done on mass and people are removed from areas without thought being given to reasonable adjustments or better-quality PPE.”

Bela Gor, Business Disability Forum’s Head of Legal, warned of ‘age, race and disability claims coming through down the line’, where individualised risk assessments have not been conducted. She also urged the Government to consider the unintended consequences of its initiatives and to introduce ‘disability speed bumps’ to ensure that policy does not disadvantage a particular group.


Allan MacKillop is Disability Lead for Workplace Strategy at the BBC. Commenting on the transformation of cities in the light of the pandemic, he emphasised the link between accessible housing and employment. Allan MacKillop said:

“Inaccessible housing is a major thing. This will affect individuals’ ability to take up opportunities in the employment market when they arise. If the new normal involves looking at that infrastructure it can only be a good thing. A lack of provision there is falling back on the employment market because it reduces the flexibility disabled people can have.”

Looking to the future, Diane Lightfoot backed the panel’s call for disability equality to be centre stage of Government and business planning in the months and years ahead.

Lightfoot concluded: “We must not let economic and social disadvantage be a foregone conclusion of the economic downturn for disabled people.

If we are to ensure that progress on disability inclusion is not lost, Government and businesses alike must continue to invest in and prioritise disability equality as a fundamental element of rebuilding for the future.”

The panel session was chaired by David Brindle, Public Services Editor at The Guardian. The session was part of Business Disability Forum’s virtual annual conference, ‘Disability today and tomorrow: Living in a post-pandemic world’.

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