The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was talked out of the Commons earlier this month and is now all but dead. Peter Stanford, the Chairman of ASPIRE, a charity for people with spinal cord injury, argues that it is time to give disabled people equal rights.
MY PARENTS PARISH recently installed a ramp to enable people in wheelchairs to get into the church under their own steam without having to be heaved up the main steps by the ushers like a sack of coal.
We have lived here for a quarter of a century. For well over half that time my mother has been one of several wheelchair-users who attend Mass each week, but the ramp took an eternity to climb to the top of the list of parish priorities for action.
Hopefully it will not be another decade until it gets round to the inexpensive but inclusive act of shortening one of the pews so as to make a space where worshippers in wheel-chairs can sit with the rest of the congregation rather than stuck out at the front like defendants in a murder trial.
It is not that I want to single anyone or any institution out for criticism. But when you have an eye for the bathers that are unthinkingly placed in the way of wheelchair users, you see them everywhere in offices, in supermarkets, even in buildings that boast they have been designed with the disabled in mind.
My intention is merely to point out that in one small area close to home there is still so much work to be done to integrate people with disabilities into the community.
Roger Berry's Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill would have been a major step in that direction but amid a political hullabaloo was talked out earlier this month and is now all but dead. Those who have followed the long procession of attempts to reform Britain's abortion legislation by private members' bills in the House of Commons will be alt too familiar with the scenario.
Unless the Government wants to put itself out to promote and protect such a measure, any well-organised, prejudiced minority can block its way. Sadly, when it comes to setting the rights of unborn children against mothers or disabled people against a possible, though much exaggerated, cost to the public purse, this Government washes its hands.
However, those who think that a little swift footwork in the House of Commons can kick into touch the campaign for civil rights for disabled people could not be more mistaken.
Other versions of this bill will surface and in the end the battle will be won if only because the arguments that are being employed by the opposition, when they are not busy concocting procedural ploys to frustrate the will of the House, are so weak.
In their appeal of 11 April about the Berry Bill to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, the Institute of Directors (IoD) thundered away apocalyptically about the cost of ending disabled people's status as second class citizens in the work-place.
The main objection was the potential of Dr Berry's proposals for "swamping the measures contained in the Government's Deregulation Bill". The needs of Britain's six million disabled people were, according to the IoD, as of nothing compared with the threat of disrupting a measure to shuffle away a few items of red tape.
Such a strange order of priorities is not unusual in high places. While figures such as the Princess of Wales have been an inspiration by conveying in her words and gestures that she considers the disabled people she meets to be no different from herself, the prevailing mood in Westminster and Whitehall is still one of parting the poor souls on the head and dispensing charity. When words like civil rights and justice are mentioned, panic and incorn prehension set in.
Thankfully, disabled people and the organisations they have founded are not sitting back and waiting for the big wigs to see the error of their ways. For the past few years, I have been involved in one small area of disability: spinal cord injury, with the charity ASPIRE.
Until the 1940s, spinal cord injury was considered untreatable and it was usually a question of waiting for kidney failure, infection or pressure sores to finish off the patient.
Today, however, medical advances mean that even people who have lost the use of their arms and legs can expect a normal life-span.
Society and officialdom have been struggling for the past half century to readjust their attitudes to keep pace with such improvements in clinical practice. For with advances in caring for people with spinal cord injury have come efforts to make sure that they go on not just to exist but to lead fulfilled and independent lives. Despite the unstinting efforts of some dedicated campaigners like Jimmy Say& and the Catholic peer, Lady Masham, there are still many obstacles.
Most people with spinal cord injury like Sam, a 40year-old London docker with two children, who ended up in a wheelchair after he fell into the hold of the the ship he was unloading will never be able to return to their previous jobs. Retraining facilities, exploiting the shift towards computer and high technology industries, are now available.
Martin, a 31-year-old from ssex, who can't move from the neck downwards after his accident, now runs his own desk-top publishing business by operating the computer systems via a dental plate fitted with electronic sensors. When he runs his tongue over the sensors, different signals are sent out to the various pieces of machinery.
However, if such pioneering ventures are to become common practice, with large employers taking on disabled people to work alongside the able-bodied, then there needs to be some encouragement at an official and legal level. The Berry Bill aimed to provide just that.
The most basic obstacle confronting disabled people, though, is the able-bodied themselves. The idea that to be in a wheelchair is to be less
than fully human is deeply ingrained. When they walk past someone in a wheelchair in the street, able-bodied people do not know whether to avert their gaze, stare, smile sympathetically or do all three at once.
Again it has fallen to disabled people to give the lead. One of the most powerful ways I have seen of conveying the message that the ability to move certain limbs does not make anyone any better or worse than anyone else is through a dance company that ASPIRE helped to set up.
CandoCo was founded by Celeste Dandeker, a conventeducated ballerina with the London Contemporary Dance Company who is in a wheelchair after an accident while performing on stage.
She teamed up with ablebodied dancer, Adam Benjamin, and together they have gathered around them a company of dancers some in wheelchairs, some not who perform modern pieces of dance, choreographed by such leading names as Siobhan Davies, all around the country at venues like Sadler's Wells and the South Bank.
CandoCo has won praise in the dance world and among the public not because some of its company are in wheelchairs but because they have developed something beautiful, graceful and powerful on stage. That is true integration: the wheelchairs cease to be a way of distinguishing between individuals but are simply a prop for the performance.
Anyone who has seen CandoCo will never think of disability in the same way again. Perhaps the company might think of staging a performance for Olga Maitland and her fellow Tory backbenchers who talked out Roger Berry's Bill. Then they might understand the vital importance of the underlying message of fundamental equality and justice it was trying to convey.
ASPIRE can be contacted at Freepost, Suanniore, Middlesex H47 41P or by ringing 081954 0164.