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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Big guns back disability equality
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Political heavyweights Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy are endorsing a new campaign to fight prejudice against disabled people.

Photo of Julie Fernandez
Fernandez says many people are surprised she's a successful actress
Called Time to Get Equal, the drive is being organised by disability charity, Scope, and was launched in London on Wednesday.

Its chief executive Tony Manwaring said many disabled people "lead lives which are wrecked by poverty and exclusion, and are much less likely than non-disabled people to be able to achieve their potential".

Nelson Mandela was not at the launch, but sent a personal video message wishing the campaign well.

The launch event was hosted by actress and wheelchair user, Julie Fernandez, who played Brenda in The Office.

"When I meet people for the first time, a significant number seem uncomfortable that I'm using a wheelchair and are surprised that I'm a successful actress," she said.

"Society must face up to its responsibility of making disabled people feel accepted, valued and equal."

'Not in work'

Mr Blair said society needed to change its attitudes towards disabled people - to see past the disability and see the person.

"We cannot expect disabled people to fit into a standard model imposed by others," he said.

"We all need to make adjustments to help everyone to fulfil their potential."

For opposition leader Michael Howard, the most important change that needs to take place is to remove discrimination in the job market.

"There are 1.3 m people with disabilities in Britain today who would like to work and who are not in work," he said.

Photo of David Blunkett
If we talk about equality we really can't mean it unless those with a disability are provided first of all with a practical means
David Blunkett
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy says Parliament should be more representative of society in order to remain relevant to people's lives.

"People are going to disengage [with politics] even more if the parliament that is supposed to represent them doesn't look like them," he said.

Home Secretary David Blunkett addressed an audience of MPs, business leaders and disability rights activists at the launch.

"If we talk about equality we really can't mean it unless those with a disability are provided first of all with a practical means, and then are able to operate in a world where people's attitude has changed positively," he told BBC News Online.

New word, old attitude

He said that government could make a difference by providing people with practical help like the Access to Work scheme which supports disabled people in their jobs.

"Secondly we can talk much more positively with employers about the tremendous potential of people with disabilities."

"Thirdly, we can change awareness so that people understand that those with a disability are just the same as they are."

Scope wants to draw attention to what it calls "disablism" and has commissioned a report from think-tank Demos on how to tackle it.

We've had disablism in our dictionaries for a very long time... I've altered my spell check to accept it and I hope other people will too
Rachel Hurst
Disability Awareness in Action
"We've had disablism in our dictionaries for a very long time," said Disability Awareness in Action director, Rachel Hurst.

"I've altered my spell check to accept it and I hope other people will too - this is my objective for this campaign."

The report documents the day-to-day inequalities experienced by many disabled people and suggests new ways of talking and thinking about disability.

Demos recommends setting up so-called 'trading zones' - a forum where disabled and non-disabled people can meet and exchange skills, resources and experiences to bring about change.

The idea is that someone enters the zone with something to 'trade' and leaves it with something that they want.

The report recommends setting up trading zones to look at:

  • How everyday products and services are made and used
  • More flexible ways of working and more personalised support
  • Influencing attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Alex Bushill
"Ignored and discriminated against... complaints so familiar to those with disabilities"



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