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Ruth Owen OBE responds to PwC on Making the UK Fairer

If you want to make the UK fairer, start by helping the disabled

Ruth Owen
Ruth Owen

Being that rarest of rare ‘beasts’, a female CEO who is also a wheelchair user, you won’t be surprised to find I have a few strong views on equality.

I work for Whizz-Kidz, an amazing charity that provides bespoke mobility equipment, clinical advice and clubs for young wheelchair users.

Wheelchair users, perhaps more than any other group, have always needed to be more adaptable, willing and flexible than any other group.

A bold statement, but often true, for young people have to work-around and find ways to live within an unfair and disabling society that is simply not built for us.

Society fails disabled people, every day, through lack of adequate transport access, out-of-date attitudes and a built environment that is still all about the build and not enough about the environment. So it still manages to surprise me, given all of those challenges, that most young people I meet at our great charity Whizz-Kidz, see far more opportunities in ‘change’ than they ever do negatives! Where training and education is available or there is accessible employment, wheelchair users embrace the chances they are given and work hard to prosper.

Perhaps young wheelchair users grasp the idea of ‘change’ because, for them, changing our society must surely only be for the good? Optimism keeps hope alive for a better and fairer society for all of us. There is a saying ‘adapt or die’, and in previous centuries, that was often the stark truth for people with different needs. Today we need to build a society that encompasses everyone, disabled and non-disabled, inclusive and fair.

So it was that PwC commissioned its Making The UK Fairer report, to see what is going to happen in the next months, years and decades, particularly within economy and business. Its findings are a powerful challenge to everyone from Government to Local Councils and those of us in the Third Sector and a BIG wake-up call to employers.

PwC suggests that almost half of those surveyed (45%) felt ‘fairness entails everyone earning money to support themselves and their families’. Yet, the very ability to find and hold on to a job in the future will be determined more and more by new skills, extra training and further education. Will disabled people be enabled to gain the new skills required in this ‘brave new world’? There has been much progress in the thirty years that Whizz-Kidz has been helping children and young people, but we still have a long, long way to go.

The report says that learning new skills and maintaining a working life will mean adjusting, being flexible and willing to change. But disabled people can’t do all of this on their own. Government needs to intervene to offer people with individual needs, different support systems. Training and education must transform in the next decade to enable all to have a chance for the future.

Many disabled young people already face challenges in simply getting their first job- Whizz-Kidz does much to fill that widening gap through placements and up-skilling- but the need continues. This will only increase as the jobs’ market becomes polarised between those who are highly skilled and the unskilled.

Disabled people simply don’t have access to the opportunities of others, and, as a direct consequence, as a group will attain lower grades than they should, and limited further educational choices.

Unless the movers and shakers, the politicians and those who have power to make real change, listen to our young disabled people, and implement the findings of reports like this, another generation of wheelchair using school leavers will struggle to find employment.

Policy makers must act, helping businesses empathise better with people’s needs, with on-the-job training and up-skilling and schools must become more accessible and welcoming to wheelchair users, so that our next generation, those growing up today, have access to gain the skills they need.

I’d be interested to hear what others in the sector and beyond think about equality and, more particularly, what you and your employers are doing to ensure better access for young (and old) wheelchair users in the UK.

It is time for action, not words!