By Graham Findlay
As the singer Cerys Matthews memorably put it, “Every day when I wake up I thank the Lord I’m Welsh”. Well, I’m not Welsh (having moved from London to Cardiff over 30 years ago to study – I haven’t looked back) but I can empathise with the sentiment. And disabled people have particular cause to celebrate their Welshness, as I’ll explain shortly.
Since devolution in 1999, Wales has shaped its own political path, with whole tranches of public services under our national control (for good and sometimes ill) through the elected Welsh Government and civil service. And in contrast to England, principles of equality are embedded in the political institution – until recently via an Equality of Opportunity committee and still via a Minister with an Equality brief. The Social Model of Disability has also been formally adopted and endorsed as a principle, as we often politely remind the Welsh Government when needed.
This broad political context has been a fruitful springboard for the aims of the disability movement in Wales. Disability Wales/Anabledd Cymru, (DW) where I worked for 10 years, is the umbrella body for disability organisations – similar in some ways to DRUK in England. DW has its mandate from its members, and has been working closely with Ministers since 1999 to shape the Independent Living agenda. For example, an early win was our work with the Housing minister which contributed directly to Wales being the first nation to adopt Lifetime Homes standards in all social housing in Wales – a big achievement for a small country, and the result of many hours of meetings, task groups and consultations.
It’s been a long haul, but a massive gain was made this September when the Welsh Government (WG) announced First Ministerial (read Prime Ministerial) endorsement of their Framework for Action on Independent Living. In essence, this document is a potentially hugely powerful lever for positive change that could transform the lives of disabled people in Wales. It is a manifest commitment by WG:
“The Welsh Government’s vision is of an inclusive and enabling society, which recognises the rights of disabled people to self-determine their lives”
and, beyond the vision and soft words, nine specific areas are listed that will be targeted for improvement:
- Access to good quality and accessible information and advice.
- Improved access to independent advocacy services.
- Improved access to adapted and accessible housing.
- Disabled people having more control over their lives by being able to make choices in the care and support they receive.
- Improving access to technology that supports independent living.
- Improving access to public transport.
- Improved access to buildings, streets and public places.
- Increased employment rates for disabled people.
- An increase in the number of disabled people having access to a Centre for Independent Living in Wales.
These key elements were based upon the stirling work of DW, who over several years of conversations with members, stakeholders and Assembly Members developed a thorough and nuanced manifesto for Independent Living that was put to the Government, and eventually realised in the Framework. For a policy wonk like me, it’s a shining example of how influencing can really work, especially through developing strong and trusted relationships with important decision-makers and politicians – the people you need to have on board to make things happen on the ground.
Some may say this is all words and paper and won’t achieve much. I’m not so cynical . Already I’ve cited the Framework in WG consultation meetings around a formal review of housing design standards – and people (especially civil servants) are taking note and listening.
As always, it’s up to us as disabled people to use the Framework as a carrot and sometimes a stick to achieve change. One thing is for sure – without a solid and unified voice on Independent Living from disabled people who live the experience, not much will happen and it may be the wrong thing if it does. For disabled people in Wales, this is a historic opportunity that won’t come along again. We need to grasp it – we really can become authors of our lives.
About the author:
Graham Findlay is currently working at the Chartered Institute of Housing as Positive Action for Disability manager. He worked at Disability Wales as policy officer for inclusive environments and transport between 1999 and 2009. This blog is written in a personal capacity.