Let's not flatter ourselves over attitudes to disability

4th April 2014 at 01:00

We like to think that we live in enlightened times, with old prejudices banished or fast receding. A sub-genre of period television drama has sprung up in recent years to fuel that notion.

Where the past was once draped in soft-focus nostalgia, a harder edge of reality has begun to creep in. Mad Men is perhaps the prime example. Although this painstakingly researched depiction of an advertising agency in 1960s Manhattan has its fair share of wistfulness, it does not shy away from giving viewers an unvarnished dose of the retrograde attitudes and conventions of a time when racism clung on to respectability and sexism was a word that did not seem to have been coined.

Mad Men and its ilk put the present in a more flattering light. Before the 2012 London Paralympics, the BBC broadcast The Best of Men, the story of Dr Ludwig Guttman's 1940s precursor to the Paralympic Games. The drama showed a spinal unit where paralysed former soldiers were consigned to their beds and the vast majority of patients died within three years. A fortnight after it aired, as young disabled athletes thrilled millions of spectators, we congratulated ourselves on how far we'd come.

The self-satisfaction of the present makes it all the more jarring when we are reminded that we still have some way to go. Research by the Scottish Disability Equality Forum shows that the education of many disabled children is compromised by school buildings that have not been adapted to their needs. Some do not attend their school of choice because they cannot even get through the front door.

National and local authorities seem astonishingly lax in this area, and a startling anomaly exists in the law: a disabled child at school does not have the same rights of access as a disabled customer or employee in the workplace.

As forum chief executive Susan Grasekamp bluntly observed, legislation that should be increasing access for disabled students "is being largely ignored". When the forum used the Freedom of Information Act to request statutory "accessibility strategies" from a combination of 61 local councils, independent schools and grant-aided schools, it received only 13 and deemed all but two to be poor or average.

Last month, TESS revealed that deaf students are so badly supported in adapting to adult life that they can go months without being able to access college or university lectures ("Striving to be heard in a world without sound", News focus, 14 March). We also reported that the number of parents locked in disputes with councils over services for their disabled children is growing sharply ("Swamped by rising tide of desperation", 28 March). This week, the forum's research shows once more that support for disabled young learners can leave much to be desired.

No one would deny that public attitudes to disability have changed markedly. But actions speak louder than words - and inaction perhaps louder still.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk

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