Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
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Britain must do more to tackle ‘virus of social isolation’ says Commission

A NEW national debate is needed to address the scale of social isolation and loneliness affecting growing numbers of disabled people and older people who risk being increasingly ‘locked out’ as modern Britain changes, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will say today.

In a landmark speech to mark the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities and 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), EHRC Commissioner and nine-time Paralympic gold medallist Lord Holmes is to call for national summits in England, Wales and Scotland with politicians, service providers, leaders in civic society and captains of industry.

He will say more must be done to stop Britain’s growing number of disabled and older people being left behind and unable to participate in society and the economy, as technology and other societal trends transform Britain. And he will draw attention to how social exclusion and loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking, excess alcohol consumption and obesity.

Underpinned by the largest ever review of equality and human rights in Britain (Is Britain Fairer?), he will highlight trends in 10 areas as ‘roadblocks to opportunity’ – including the digital economy, transport infrastructure, public participation, employment and enjoyment of cultural activities.

In a speech to Parliament, Lord Holmes will say:

“Three years ago, London 2012 was seen as a turning point for the visibility and inclusion of disabled people in our society, and with an expected legacy of improvements. Since then, Britain has made progress on many fronts but there is increasing evidence that disabled and older people are being locked out or left behind.

“While we’ve seen greater cultural understanding and acceptance of disabled people’s rights, these positive changes are masking increased social isolation for many disabled and older people as Britain’s society and economic life undergoes significant structural changes.

“Far from enjoying increased visibility and being able to participate more fully in every aspect of life, there is a risk that disabled people will become more invisible as both consumers and participants, with organisations losing out on their valuable experiences and custom.”

There are more than 12 million disabled people in the UK and as the proportion of disabled people in the population grows, more and more people will experience disability either directly themselves or in their families.

Lord Holmes will identify a “double whammy” of changes which are driving older and disabled people to spend more time isolated at home, and at the same time make it more difficult – and expensive – for them to travel into and beyond their local communities.

In particular he will note how as more and more transactional services move online - from local authority services to banking and broadcasting – disabled people, who have far lower levels of access to the internet, are losing out as potential customers of new services. They are also often forced to pay higher fees both for the technology to access these services and because they can’t get the best deals through comparison sites or discounted online-only deals.

While for many disabled and older people, new technology and the internet can provide new opportunities to connect to the world, it's not the case for all. Around 30% of the disabled adult population (3.5 million people) have never used the internet, compared to 7% of non-disabled people.  67% of disabled people have access to a computer compared to 86% of non-disabled people and disabled people are three times more likely than non-disabled people to have never used the internet.

Disabled people watch more television than average. But the rise of on-demand viewing and broadcast channels moving online means a lot of content is not accessible to some disabled people since there are currently no legal requirements for subtitles, audio-description and signing on VOD platforms unlike traditional channels.

Disabled people are more likely to use public transport when outside of their home, leading to the second part of the Lord Holmes’ double whammy of social isolation. Cuts to more than 2000 bus routes in England and Wales since 2010 mean that many disabled people feel that they are unable to travel as independently as they would like - with potential consequences for health and wellbeing.

Disabled people remain under-represented in many areas of public life. They are under-represented in senior public appointments and senior roles in the civil service and the number of self-declared disabled MPs fell at the last General Election. Disabled people are also under-represented in the media and in senior business roles, meaning that many of Britain’s largest companies are losing out on their experience and insight, which could help firms better access the £212bn annual spending power of families which include a disabled person – including more than £1.5bn alone from personal care budgets.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently consulting on its new business plan and new strategic plan for 2016-19.

Lord Holmes adds:

“Disability will remain a top priority for the Commission. I am pleased we will be expanding our work in important areas including tackling social isolation. This follows an extensive consultation with stakeholders and we will publish more details on this in the New Year

“But we can’t do this alone. Government, business, service providers and civil society all need to join together and play their part. That is why we will be organising a series of summits early in the New Year to bring together leaders from across these areas of our national life. The government has put fairness and equality of opportunity for everyone at the heart of its programme for the next five years and we must ensure that recognising the needs of disabled people is central to this process.

“We must all step up our collective efforts to tackle the virus of loneliness and social isolation if we are to avoid Britain becoming a more segregated and divided society."

Notes to Editors

For more information visit: www.equalityhumanrights.com

For more press information and interviews contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102, out of office hours 07767 272 818.

The 10 areas highlighted as 'roadblocks to opportunity' are:

Transport:  Ensuring greater accessibility, including on local bus services

  • The Campaign for Better Transport reported in 2014 that local authorities have cut, altered or withdrawn 2,000 bus routes in England and 179 in Wales since 2010.
  • In 2015 Whizzkidz, a charity that supports disabled young people, polled wheelchair users, their carers and families.  They found that the majority of people (70%) said they do not feel they can travel as independently as they would like to.

Digital Exclusion:  Ensuring nobody is locked out of the digital revolution

  • In 2013, Ipsos Mori on behalf of Scope conducted research on disabled people and internet access, including finance and banking services. It found that:
  • Disabled people are less likely to own a computer and have internet access at home.
  • 67% of disabled people have access to a computer and 64% have access to the internet. This compares to 86% of non-disabled people who have access to a computer at home, and 84% who have internet access at home. 
  • Disabled people are three times more likely than non-disabled people to have never used the internet.

Public Participation: Ensuring disabled people have a proper voice in public life

  • Disabled people are under-represented in senior public appointments and senior roles in the civil service. In 2015, the proportion of self-declared disabled MPs fell.
  • The UK Government has suggested that to be representative of the 11 million disabled people in the UK, the House of Commons ought to include at least 65 disabled MPs. 
  • However, the exact number of disabled parliamentarians is not known because an important recommendation of the Speaker’s Conference - for the House to collect data about under-represented groups – has still not been implemented. A provision in the Equality Act 2010 for political parties to publish diversity data about their candidates has also not been enacted.
  • At local authority level, sign language interpretation, induction loop systems and accessible meeting rooms are not always available or publicised.

Financial services: Ensuring services are accessible to all those who need to use them

  • Many disabled people receive professional financial advice from their banks, yet a significant minority of disabled people cannot access their bank at all.
  • Four in 10 disabled people (38%) get their financial advice from managers or advisers at their bank or building society – this is the second most commonly used form of advice after Independent Financial Advisers (IFAs) (mentioned by 42%). Yet one in eight disabled people (12%) had found it difficult to physically access their bank or building society in the last 12 months.

Culture: Ensuring everyone can play and enjoy an equal part in the cultural life of the nation

  • While broadcasters are required to meet quotas for subtitles, audio description and signing on their traditional television channels, no such quotas exist for View-on-demand (VOD) services.
  • Only 3.5% of Sky VOD content is subtitled. VOD platforms such as BT Vision and Virgin and content providers such as Discovery and Disney don’t provide any access services.
  • Just three of the 20 Premier League football grounds currently reach recommended spaces for wheelchair users.

Safety:  Tackling harassment and hate crime

  • A survey of over 2,000 disabled people by OPM and Ipsos MORI carried out in 2013 on behalf of Scope found that, in the previous 12 months,
  • 4% of disabled people reported being physically attacked
  • 16% experienced someone acting in an aggressive or hostile way, and
  • 17% experienced being called names when dealing with members of the public.
  • The survey also found that other people’s attitudes or behaviour are more of a barrier for people with a learning disability or a mental health condition than for disabled people in general. (IBF Identify, Expression and Self Respect, Executive Summary p.17 and Media briefing on disabled people)

Housing:  Supporting the right of older and disabled people to live independently where possible

  • Young disabled people say that they find it very difficult to live independently from their parents
  • Many houses are designed badly so that disabled people are unable to get in or out of them, meaning they cannot socialise with their friends and family
  • People with learning disabilities and/or autism continue to be placed in inappropriate settings for too long and a long distance from family and home due to a lack of good quality alternatives in the local community.

Urban planning: Making sure town centres and safe and accessible

  • Shared space is an urban design concept that creates barriers for disabled people. Lord Holmes summarises shared space as a practice: “whereby kerbs, traffic lights, crossings, zebra crossing, all of that stuff is simply removed. So, there is no distinction between the road and the pavement, or junctions.”
  • His report, Accident by Design, explored the responses of disabled drivers and pedestrians to shared space. The report found that:
  • Over a third of people actively avoid shared space schemes;
  • 63 per cent of people who have used shared space schemes rated their experience as poor; and
  • There was significant under-reporting of accidents in shared space.

Health and social care. Ensuring everybody has access to proper health and social care

  • Mental health problems accounts for around 23% of the total ‘burden of disease’ in the UK, but only a quarter of all those with mental ill health receive treatment, compared with the vast majority of those with physical health problems.
  • People with learning disabilities and/or autism have been, and continue to be, placed in inappropriate settings for too long and a long distance from family and home due to a lack of good-quality alternatives in the local community. There were reports of systemic ill-treatment of disabled and older people.
  • Spending on social care fell by 13.4% over the period covered by the EHRC's Is Britain Fairer? report. Older people were particularly affected, with fewer older people in receipt of social care at a time of growing demand.

Employment: Ensure fair access to jobs and unlock talent

  • Only half of disabled people in Britain are in work compared to four-fifths of non-disabled people. Unemployment rates increased significantly for disabled people in Great Britain between 2008-2013, resulting in a larger disability unemployment gap, and disabled people in 2013 were almost twice as likely to be unemployed (11.1% compared to 6.4% for disabled people).
  • Government policy had previously made it a priority to ensure that disabled people can access the support they need to obtain and retain employment, but there are indications that spending on employment support for those with mental health problems and/or a learning disability, from local authorities and the NHS, has levelled off.
  • There is an average pay gap of 9% between disabled and non-disabled people. In 2013, disabled people were paid on average less per hour (£9.70/hour) than non-disabled people (£10.60/hour).

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