Rights of access

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Young people with disabilities are at the forefront of numerous campaigns and advocacy training stemming from the final implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act this autumn. It is now illegal for businesses and public services, including schools and colleges, not to consider providing equal access to goods and services, including education, for disabled people. Karen Gold profiles three inspirational campaigners speaking up for others and for themselves


Putting the word sex in a DVD title was an attention-seeking ploy, admits 22-year-old Hayriye Mehmet, who has cerebral palsy. Sex, Lives and Aptitude is a brief, upbeat portrait of the daily lives of four young people with disabilities. Hayriye, who has an HND in travel and tourism from City College Brighton, was the producer as well as featuring in the DVD.

Before starting work on it last year, she had no idea what video production involved, she says. As one of a small group of people on a disability rights and awareness workshop run by the Brighton charity DARE Foundation (Disability and Rehabilitation Education), she became involved in thinking about how positive images of disabled people's lives - their independence, their aspirations, their successes at university and in the workplace - could be put over to secondary school students and their teachers.

"We wanted to show the barriers that we face, but also that they could be overcome," says Hayriye.

With money from DARE and Brighton University, the group hired a professional camera operator and director for guidance, and set about filming episodes from their lives, as if retold at a dinner party to celebrate the Sussex University graduation of the film's actual director, 23-year-old Sophie Reilly, who is in a wheelchair and registered blind.

Film-making was a steep learning curve, says Hayriye, who we see shopping, cooking, locking away her wheelchair and driving her car, as well as talking about when she mistakenly trapped a blind man's cane in an automatic door. "We wanted to show that we weren't perfect, that we make mistakes," she says. "The film was very hands-on. I had to sort out the locations, make sure everything was in the right place at the right time."

But the outcome is a new purpose for her. She is now writing a training programme, which she and Sophie hope to use in schools, as well as a teachers' pack to accompany the DVD. "People need to be introduced to things. It's not that they don't want to know, it's just they don't know the facts," says Hayriye. "It's good for me to do this kind of thing and it's good for other people, because you can sit back and say 'This is wrong' and 'Why don't they change that?', but unless you tell people, nothing is going to change."

Sex, Lives and Aptitude can be ordered from the DARE Foundation: www.darefoundation.org.


When Sophie Erskine saw a newspaper advertisement for a competition asking disabled pupils what they would do if they were prime minister for a day, she had no doubt of her answer: "I said I would give funding to young disabled people's leadership courses."

She won, and went to London to meet Tony Blair - just one of a series of high-level political meetings which have occupied her since she first went on a leadership partners course run by the North West training and development team of Merseyside health and social services in 2001.

"I went on the first partners course with my mum. I listened to other presenters and got so inspired, I wanted to carry on. So I started presenting on courses, telling other people what it's like being disabled and going to mainstream school."

Sophie, 16, is studying 10 GCSEs in Year 11 at Range high school in Merseyside. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Even before she visited 10 Downing Street, her local health authority had invited her to meet the then health minister, Alan Milburn, and talk to him about the need for access to local schools for disabled students. They also discussed the difficulty of sustaining friendships and privacy when dependent on care assistants, and lunchtime physiotherapy schedules, even in her own supportive and equality-minded school.

Since then she has travelled to Brussels and Amsterdam, on a young people's team advising on school and transport access in those cities, and to Minnesota in the United States to study summer camps for young people with disabilities on behalf of the health authority on whose leadership panel she serves.

"I get nervous sometimes thinking I'm going to be speaking in five minutes, but once I've started, I'm fine. I talk about how I progress and solve problems. I try and make people aware of what can go right if you work together. It helps me because people know what I'm into. I totally believe in what I'm doing, and that if you show people that something good has happened, they can see it's possible."


Between mini-marathons and medal-winning for wheelchair racing and shot putt in the London Youth Games, 12-year-old Rebecca Harding is the only disabled member of the Lewisham young advisers group, which scrutinises policies proposed by the London borough of Lewisham's council and young mayor.

The charity Contact a Family recommended Rebecca, who has spina bifida and is in Year 8 at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham girls' school in New Cross, to speak up for disabled under-21s on Lewisham's 20-strong young advisers group. It has met monthly since forming in the spring, considering proposals such as borough-wide youth sports competitions, provision of arts activities and attempts to strengthen links between different wards.

"The young mayor wanted to have a cricket competition but we thought not everybody would like cricket so we wanted swimming and athletics as well," she says. "We also wanted tournaments where people were grouped into different abilities, so they could be equal.

"In drama and sport, some people don't have the training for working with people with disabilities, so children with disabilities can't go. Or there are access restrictions, like I sometimes go to the cinema or bowling and can't get my wheelchair in. We thought there should be training organised, and if there's no access they should run an alternative activity. Because I do lots of activities, I know what needs changing. I think I am determined.

If I have ideas and I think they're good, I keep saying them until people listen to me."

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