In my national consultative work I see a real need for public appointments to become more representative of the public as a whole. I want to see more disabled people gaining positions on public bodies and advisory committees. Disabled people are 10% of the UK's population and our spend is about £200bn per year - so you can't afford to ignore or sideline disabled people in your organisations.
I will say that there has been a small improvement in involvement, but progress is slow and patchy and more needs to be done if those who are appointed are to reflect the diversity of Britain.
The credit for this performance lies not just with the government ministers and departments responsible for appointing these positions; it’s about all of us taking the bold step to look at filling posts, those seeking board and trustee applicants, and those of us who are disabled in applying.
Too many disabled people say they don't bother applying because they feel they have reached a point where they don’t think they're being taken seriously and often say "my application is just to make up numbers". I don’t work on that principle and in my national work my role is to report and to champion diversity, highlighting good practice and urging changes that will broaden the range of disabled people taking a more active role in public life.
The link between the desire for greater diversity and the relevant outcomes is in many respects indirect and, in part, tenuous - simply because some decision makers just don’t get the value of disabled people; rather they see a potential cost inclusion problem. Yes there are good intentions, but the levers of decision-making that can produce increased diversity are widely and thinly spread.
So nationally, first, the good news: progress has been made on appointments and reappointments of people declaring a disability, now at 6% in all areas, the second highest level in the past five years. Now comes the ‘but’ – these trends are in the right direction but there is still a long way to go to reach acceptable levels of diversity.
In particular, the level of more diverse appointments to chairs of public bodies remains disappointingly low: this means that out of 136 appointments and reappointments of chairs, just three were those declaring a disability. These figures are worryingly small. I do not believe that there are so few suitable potential chairs of public bodies among disabled groups. From my own contacts among disabled groups, I have met a number of people with the potential to be candidates to chair various bodies and boards.
For candidates declaring a disability, the key is getting an interview. Overall, a paltry 8% of applicants declaring a disability were appointed, but the statistics themselves are patchy. Over 25% of all applicants either choose not to declare their disability status or it is unknown.
So, how does this all fit with me and my aims? Well, in my case after I gained a civilian MBE in the 1990/91 Gulf War ‘Ops Granby’ awards, I became visible and had a few good job offers - including up to a senior post in aerospace and engine technology - but I then became disabled through a double spine fracture in an accident in 1997. I became unemployed, ‘invisible’ and went through a bad time, but then in 1999 I undertook a course at Coventry University gaining a BA First Class Honours in Political Communications in 2002.
Since then I have used the skills gained through the degree and networking experience prior to and increasingly enable disabled people to fulfil their potential both with government and other agencies. I create training and research projects and give seminar presentations in many areas including various Universities on inclusion and equality, but also I use my keen interest in transport access issues as a platform for engagement; as I now have to use public transport I have turned that into a working asset.
I am now an active non-executive director of Blackpool Transport, particularly looking at customer/staff understanding and I have been a key part of reducing complaints by 75% in two years. I also work on boards and groups with Northern rail, Transpennine Express, and Virgin Trains on a range of accessibility matters.
To further my work, I am a member of various Disabled Peoples organisations and charities including being an Ambassador for Disability Rights UK, and by experience I believe that only by engaging with and including disabled people in planning and awareness can real positive inclusive outcomes for any organisation happen.
So, my words end with a question – have you actively engaged with disabled people in your work and organisational structure? If not, why not?
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