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Disability Charity in Scotland

In October last year, Capability Scotland began a yearlong celebration to mark the 60th year since its inception in 1946. Named “The Spastic Society” back then, Capability began as a group for parents of children with Cerebral Palsy and is now one of Scotland’s leading disability charities. However, as someone who has Cerebral Palsy, I find myself wondering how far the disability movement has come over the last 60 years, and what charities such as Capability have and are really doing to promote disability.

The way that disabled people integrate into society has moved on considerably over the last few years, particularly from the 1970 and ‘80s where many disabled people were often confined to institutions and were excluded from mainstream society. Thankfully, thing are slightly different now and disabled people are slowly being integrated into schools, housing and employment, and are being given access to local services which previously would have been impossible. However, despite attempts to further integrate, disabled people remain largely marginalized and on the periphery of our society. Statistics demonstrate that disabled people are still several times more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be living on benefits, have little or no education and have poor access to public services and transport. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was designed to prevent employers and service providers from denying disabled people access to jobs and services on the grounds of disability. However, more than a decade on statistics still demonstrate that disabled people are still being excluded from their communities.

An entire economy seems to have developed around disability where there are numerous charities in Scotland that have established themselves to provide some sort of service to disabled people. Disability charities come in all shapes and sizes and providing different services ranging from support to parents of disabled children to advice to employers on recruiting disabled staff. Such charities tend to be funded by organisation public money as well as charity funds like the National Lottery, European Social Fund or independent trust funds.

Unfortunately, many disability charities are both governed and run by able-bodied people and figures have shown that such charities often employ little or no disabled people. For example in 2004 it was estimated that Capability Scotland employed around 1300 staff across Scotland of which only 5 or 6% were disabled. Similarly, the RNIB had a workforce where only around 8% were disabled people. Organisations such as Intowork in Edinburgh, an agency set up to promote disability in employment, employs only a very small proportion of disabled staff.

I find myself wondering why society, and in particular the disability movement, has allowed a culture to develop where able-bodied people are responsible for providing services and making decisions that directly affect the lives of disabled people. I’m not aware of any other minority groups where this has happened. For example, I have yet to come across a national organisation, which promotes rights for ethnic minorities that only employs 8% of its staff from ethnic minorities, or an agency that campaign for lesbian and gay rights where 90% of its staff are straight. This situation would not occur for other minority groups, however seems to be generally accepted when it comes to disability organisations.

The culture where disability charities are run and governed by able-bodied people is one that has developed over several decades and possibly stems from the way that disability was traditionally perceived.  There are charities in existence which have been around for a long time and were established in the days when disabled people were institutionalised and were viewed as a needy cause. Many of these charities have changed their name and tried to change their image in some way, but unfortunately they still hold onto their traditional principals and values.

Charities that still hold on to traditional values ought to look at the way they portray disability and what affect that has on the disabled community. For example some prominent charities still use images and slogans and images about disabled people learning to do menial tasks such as cooking or eating by themselves. Charities with a focus on disability and employment often show disabled people in very low paid or unskilled work such as cleaning or gardening. The image and the messages that this gives out about disabled people is a very negative message indeed and does nothing to promote and further the rights of disabled people. As someone who has Cerebral Palsy I find this sort imagery most disempowering and in my mind only perpetuates the notion that disabled people are not able to play a full and equal role in society.

In order to move closer towards an equal society, there needs to be an entire shift in the way the disability is portrayed. Organisations need to move away from the traditional values and dissociate themselves from the word charity all together, and begin talking about equality and human rights. The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is about to merge with other rights commissions to create one Equalities Commission which encompasses  race, gender and sexual orientation as well as disability. Perhaps now in a good time to begin campaigning for equal rights in the same way that other minority groups do.

To begin to change the way people think of disability and to drop the traditional ideal of charity, organisations need to look at the way they operate. For example, Capability Scotland has charity shops across Scotland to raise money the help their campaign. This does nothing but reinforces the notion of the disabled community being needy and unable to help themselves. I have yet to come across a charity shop trying to raise money for lesbian or gay people or to help campaign for racial awareness. Disability charities not only need to change their ideas of disability, but also need to lead the way and set an example to other organisation by getting disabled representation at board level and actively recruiting disabled people.

When The Spastic Society changed its name to Capability Scotland, which I must say is another unhelpful name, it split into two agencies one for Scotland and one serving England and Wales.  I am pleased to say the Scope, Capability’s equivalent in England and Wales, has changed a lot in the recent years and has begun to align itself more with equality and rights rather than the traditional charity ideals. This is visible in much of Scope’s publicity material and literature where it gives out a much more positive image and message about disability. I only hope that organisations like Capability follow suit and perhaps then the Scottish Executive, employers and service providers may take the rights of disabled people more seriously.