An Unequal Crisis: The Fight For Disabled People Goes On

Robert Mooney, STUC Disabled Workers Committee

We should never forget that behind every single statistic is a person, and it is deeply troubling that disabled people make up more than two-thirds of coronavirus deaths in the UK, so far.

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on pre-existing structural inequalities and the discrimination that disabled people face. It has also confirmed that when it comes to disabled people and our rights, we are of low priority to both the Government and many employers.

Once again, it is disabled people that have been hardest hit. Throughout COVID, our rights as disabled people have been infringed upon, our voices have consistently been neglected, and disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. And, if that wasn’t enough, recent research from Citizen Advices indicates that one in four disabled workers are now facing redundancy.

During times of crisis, the pattern and policy approach seems clear: attack the weakest and the most vulnerable in society first.

The treatment of disabled people during COVID and the impacts it is having on disabled workers has correlations with how we were treated during the austerity years. Not only were our benefits and supports as disabled people attacked, but we were the first in the cue when the redundancies took place.

The waves of redundancies as a result of COVID is harrowing and upsetting. Even more so, when many of these redundancies are preventable. None the less, the scale of disabled people that are facing redundancy and the impact that COVID has had on disabled people cannot be ignored.

I feel the same sense of anger today as I did almost forty years ago when I first joined the Trade Union Movement. Back then, I was appalled at the levels of disabled people of working age who were unemployed, and at how inaccessible the labour market was for disabled people. I was infuriated with the stigma attached to disabled people, and at the exclusion, disabled people faced from society and employment opportunities.

I feel ashamed that more than forty years on disabled people still face momentous challenges both in the workplace and in society. It is outrageous, that in 2020 we are still fighting the same battles to be valued, for our voices heard, and for our human rights and dignity to be respected. The disproportionate impact of COVID on disabled people threatens the progress we have made.

Despite living in one of the wealthiest and developed nations in the world, I am in despair at how disastrous the labour market is for our young people. Too many are in low paid, insecure, and exploitative work, and are expected to live off of a zero-hours contract. The employment opportunities for young people and chances of stable employment are slim, and even tougher if you happen to be young and disabled.

From education to employment, our current systems and models consistently fail and disadvantage young disabled people. No young person should be deprived of their basic human rights to learn or work, and no young person should have to fight so hard for their basic human rights. The system is systemically discriminative against disabled people and for our young disabled people in particular. Most young people entering the labour market don’t know any different from austerity and now face the grim impacts of COVID. As a disabled person who has been part of the trade union movement for decades, I am particularly worried about what the future holds for our disabled young people.

Now more than ever, disabled people must be fully equipped with the skills, knowledge, confidence, and support mechanisms to navigate the labour market. Crucially, job opportunities, and guaranteed fair and stable employment that embraces inclusion and diversity must be implemented. The problem is not disabled people and what disabled people bring to the table, the problem is that society and the economy have locked disabled people out it for too long.

People like to wave the word ‘equality’ and inclusion’, however, equality and inclusion in practice if far from enshrined throughout Scotland and the UK. We need an inclusion revolution and a post-COVID society that respects the voices and protects the rights of disabled people.

The COVID crisis has been catastrophic on so many levels. Undoubtedly it has been an unequal crisis. However, it has proven that as a society we can be adaptable and flexible and that we can work in completely different ways and rise to challenges. Post-COVID offers a unique opportunity to build an inclusive, accessible, fair, and diverse society and economy. It offers employers a real chance to embed equality and value the rights of disabled workers.

We are about to embark on the biggest recession that the UK has faced. Disabled workers, and disabled young people, cannot bear the brunt of this crisis and be left behind once again. Austerity is a choice. It failed before and we can’t use it again.

As a trade union movement, we must have a coordinated approach that places Equality and Fair Work at the core, and champion the voices of disabled trade unionists in decision making and policy proposals for things to truly change.