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Accessibility Challenges: Invisible Disabilities

Volume 643: debated on Monday 18 June 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

It is an honour to stand in Parliament tonight to raise the important matter of the accessibility challenges faced by those in society who have invisible disabilities.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 billion people across the world carry a disability in some form, which is a telling statistic. We should consider the suggestion in an American survey that nearly 74% of people have disabilities that are hidden. However, I by no means wish to use parliamentary time to shun or ignore the accessibility challenges for those who rely on wheelchairs or mobility assistance. We have made huge progress, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that—from street furniture to narrow doors, steps and bollards—Britain is open and inclusive for all, yet these infrastructural improvements must go hand in hand with challenging the preconceived attitudes that exist towards both people with visible and people with invisible disabilities.

I want briefly to explain why I am so proud to stand here tonight. It stems from the tireless work of a young woman whom I have had the privilege to know, teach and fundraise for, and someone whom I am proud to call a friend. Grace Warnock is a diligent and inspirational campaigner for disability awareness, and someone whom I had the pleasure of teaching in Prestonpans in my constituency of East Lothian. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition which I watched my mother suffer from in her 60s. I am sure that Members across the House are aware of the disease, particularly the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. From the start of this debate, to the House adjourning this evening, one more person in the UK will be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and that person will join the 300,000 people in the UK with the disease. It is a disease that has no cure.

I have had the pleasure to speak to Crohn’s and Colitis UK, which is not just dedicating valuable time and effort to research this condition, but—for the purposes of this debate, I want highlight this role—is at the forefront of the campaign to end the societal stigma attached to this disease. Crohn’s and Colitis UK is clear that overriding stigmas and false assumptions often challenge people with inflammatory bowel disease. That is why its own research shows that 49% of people living with this condition have been abused or verbally questioned for using an accessible toilet.

When Grace was just in primary school, she too experienced this. She noticed early on how people looked at her differently when she came out of an accessible toilet. She was faced with their bemusement, and people saying, “Why are you using those toilets?” Worse, she often faced glares of hostility. She could sense people were looking at her angrily, thinking, “You should queue like the rest of us.” Grace could have ignored this—she could simply have pretended she did not acknowledge this antagonism—yet she went home and decided to do something about it. She did not want to shout at these people or to scream in their faces; she wanted to educate them.

I thank and commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this very important debate. The “Not all illnesses are visible” slogan is being taken on board by my local council in Northern Ireland. Ards and North Down Borough Council is promoting the slogan in all the toilets in the council areas. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more firms and businesses and more public bodies should ensure that people understand that a wheelchair is not necessarily the only reason for accessing a disabled toilet and that many people with hidden illnesses have the same need to do so?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is true that the fact that something is not visible does not mean it is not there. Indeed, it was the absence of anything visible that seemed to upset the people who saw Grace standing outside the accessible toilets.

Grace went on to develop “Grace’s sign”—a powerful visual aid to articulate her inclusive message. I will abide by parliamentary protocol and hold back from displaying the sign, but for those not aware of it I should explain that it depicts a conventional wheelchair symbol, alongside which are a man and woman standing, both with an emphasised red heart. Why the red heart? Grace is asking all of us to think about those invisible disabilities, but she is also asking people to think using their hearts—to hold back and have the empathy to recognise that people with a range of different conditions may need to use accessible facilities.

The sign projects a powerful message: think with your heart and do not rush to judgment. Think and express yourself with compassion and decency. I am very proud at how far the sign has travelled across Scotland—from the Parliament building in Holyrood, to airports, shopping malls, leisure centres, businesses, council offices and the school where I used to teach. Slowly but surely, attitudes are changing across Scotland. I believe it is now the time to spread the campaign across the whole UK.

What has Grace achieved aside from what I have already mentioned? The Edinburgh Evening News awarded her “local hero” status and she won a Young Scot award and a British Citizen award. Recently, she also won the Prime Minister’s prestigious Points of Light award. People will not hear too many voices on this side of the House praising the Prime Minister, but I take this opportunity to thank her for the unique honour she bestowed on Grace. At her high school, Grace also received an award for her work outwith the school in the community.

In Scotland, this is the year of the young people—a fitting celebration of the flair, creativeness and compassion that I know, as a teacher and a father, young people hold. I am sure all Members would agree that those traits are at the very core of Grace’s sign. I hope they will also agree that we need to take the ethos of Grace’s campaign and begin applying it to all hidden disabilities. As I prepared to discuss this matter, it was striking how many organisations and charities came forward to ask me to advocate on behalf of the causes that they represent. There is also the wonderful debate that we have just had in this Chamber.

I pay tribute to Grace. Will my hon. Friend join me in agreeing with all those organisations, including Headway in my constituency, which rehabilitates people with severe head injuries, that they need access to these toilets? In that way, they can take people with acquired brain injury into the community and have access to proper facilities.

I thank my hon. Friend. I was listening to the previous debate, which mentioned the stigma of an acquired brain injury and the fact that it is hidden and not obvious—someone behaves in a way that others immediately think of as irrational or drunk. That is so wrong. People should take the time to pause and think that there may be an explanation. The tutterings, mutterings and open hostility are unacceptable in this day and age.

The reality for those with these conditions is that such challenges appear every day, and it is far from unique to just one disability. ME is a hidden condition that was not even acknowledged as a disability until recently. Today is Autistic Pride Day 2018; there is the issue of the ability to raise accessibility challenges for people with autism. The National Autistic Society notes that nearly half of all autistic people in Britain often do not go out because they worry about the public’s reaction to their condition.

My constituent Grace rose to the challenge brought about by the stigma regrettably associated with her condition. She wants to extend the challenge to Parliament, to Whitehall and to MPs across the House, because when public institutions and people in buildings of this magnitude and importance are seen to do something, they start to shape the debate in society. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Scotland has given me verbal notice that he will do all he can to get this into Dover House. I am encouraged by the interest shown by the Leader of the House and I will invite the Minister to say whether she could support this with something on behalf of the Government. I will of course be writing to you, Mr Speaker, in your enviable position on the House of Commons Commission, to seek your assistance with this matter, but I encourage all Members across the House to see whether they can take the campaign to their constituencies.

As well as asking the Government to back the campaign, I would like to ask the Minister what statistics she has on hidden disabilities and what the Government’s strategy is to ensure that we are tackling those stigmas head on. Further, will the Government be willing to incorporate formally the concept of hidden disabilities in the brief carried by the Minister with responsibility for disability?

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that dyslexia is also a hidden disability that brings with it stigma? People, even as adults, will resist admitting that they are dyslexic. As a society, we have to be aware of that, as well as all the other disabilities he speaks about.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The stigma of a hidden disability, and the very word disability itself, does no justice to the individuals who suffer day in, day out. They suffer because of the ignorance of society around them. What I take from knowing Grace is that here was a young woman who, rather than wanting to shout at people, wanted to educate them. She wanted to remove the stigma. She wanted to ask people to think before they react. It is for society to make an environment that is welcoming for people both with hidden disabilities and visible disabilities, and perhaps move to a stage where we stop perceiving things as a disability and look at people as individuals. If we could get to that point, we would be a grown-up society. I have to say it took a young girl, Grace Warnock, to really show that and to help me to articulate that demand.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) on securing this really important debate. I join him in saying what a privilege it was to be in the Chamber for the preceding debate, on acquired brain injury. It is very timely that we can talk about hidden disabilities following that debate. It is a very important topic. I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tone he has taken in wanting to work so collaboratively with Members across the Chamber. He is right to say that each and every one of us are powerful advocates for change in our constituencies across our great country. There is something we can all do.

I think we can all understand that all disabled people face barriers in their daily lives, but people with hidden disabilities have to overcome the fact that it is not always easy to understand the support they might need. That is why we need to have debates such as this one and to think each day about people around us who may well have hidden disabilities that we are not aware of. It is all too easy to recognise somebody with a mobility need if they have a device or a wheelchair. Somebody with a visual impairment may have an assistance dog or a cane, but as we have heard this evening many health conditions— dyslexia, autism, acquired brain injuries and all sorts of other conditions—are simply not visible to the human eye.

The Equality Act 2010 has a very clear definition of disability. It says that it is anyone with a long-standing illness, disability or impairment which causes substantial difficulty with day-to-day activities. I am sure that, while we can all understand that as a legal definition of disability, not everyone within these groups identify themselves as disabled.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about numbers. People have told us they have a hidden disability: 14% of disabled people have a learning disability, 24% have a mental health condition and 17% have an impairment that can impact on their memory. These statistics, like any other statistics around disability, relate to people who have come forward to say, “This is how I feel. This is how I report.” We know that the information is limited, but just because it is limited does not mean that we do not take this really seriously. We absolutely do, and we want to build a culture and create a community in our country where people feel confident to come forward to their loved ones, families and employers and say, “I have this disability. I have this impairment. This is what it means to me. Can you support me, so that I can play my full part in society and achieve my potential with that support?”

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) for securing the debate, and I thank the Minister for the spirit in which she is responding and her recognition of invisible disability. I hope that in her role in the Department for Work and Pensions, she will make sure that these factors are taken into account in assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payment. Conditions such as complex regional pain disorder, on which I have an Adjournment debate tomorrow evening, are not recognised for the purposes of personal independence payment, in spite of it being one of the most painful and debilitating conditions.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will listen with interest. If I cannot be there myself, I will read the Hansard report of what she has to say on the issue. It is really important that the support that we provide through the benefits system recognises the disabilities, impairments and challenges that people face each day, and that we provide the support that they need. That is why I want to confirm to the hon. Member for East Lothian that my role does include invisible disabilities. They are just as important as physical disabilities. The Government have been very clear about the parity of esteem that we give to people, whether their disabilities are visible or invisible.

We have heard about the great work that Grace has done. She has a very fluctuating condition—one that is quite difficult for people to understand. I understand that the fluctuation itself can make it even more challenging for her, and I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman has brought the campaign for her sign to the House’s attention today, as he did on 24 May. It is really important that we keep talking about this issue and celebrate the work that Grace has done. It is marvellous that she got the award from the Prime Minister, and I would like to put my congratulations on the record. As her former teacher, the hon. Gentleman must be very proud indeed of what she has done.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have been working with the Leader of the House. We have accepted the challenge to make sure that we can get the sign up on the parliamentary estate. I look forward to working with the Speaker to make sure that that is the case, and I accept the challenge this evening to see what I can do to make sure that across Government Departments we can take up the sign that Grace has so beautifully designed and ensure that this is extended. It is remarkable that somebody from the age of 10 picked up that the sign would have such a huge impact on improving the quality of life, not just for her, but for people throughout our country.

It was really great to hear of the progress that has been made. I understand that Iain Gray, the Member of the Scottish Parliament, has been working with the hon. Gentleman and providing a lot of support to make sure that the Scottish Parliament is using these signs, and it was great to hear this evening that now Edinburgh airport, the stadium and shops all over the country are, too.

It is important to emphasise that businesses need to think very seriously about providing accessible toilets. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have championed the Changing Places toilets and how important they are. We have a consortium that we support in the DWP. I have listened to many people who have provided Changing Places toilets, and they have told me that the footfall to businesses, stadiums and outlets has increased, so it means that the businesses are getting more business from people with disabilities.

I am passionate about making sure that all disabled people have improved access to goods and services. There are 13 million disabled people in the UK, and they and their families have a huge combined spending power estimated at about £250 billion every year. This is often called the “purple pound”. Many businesses are missing out on this potential market because their goods and services, whether online or in the real world, are inaccessible to disabled people. Of course, that includes accessible toilet facilities. To tackle this issue, I have appointed 14 disability sector champions whose job is to identify and drive improvements in their sectors. They represent a range of sectors and businesses from retail to arts and culture and sport, and they are using their influence as leaders in their industries to drive improvements in the accessibility and quality of services.

Last November, I established a retail forum with our retail sector champion, Helen Drury, to raise the importance of improving accessibility in the retail sector. Helen has recently been promoted and is moving into the financial services industry, but I am grateful for her work in helping me to set up the forum and in developing an accessibility toolkit that has been widely welcomed by landlords of shopping centres and retailers themselves and which shows them how relatively easy and straightforward it is to make minor adaptations so that their businesses are far more welcoming and inclusive. I am pleased to announce that Samantha Sen, head of policy and campaigns at Revo, will take over as a temporary replacement for Helen until we can complete our recruitment exercise towards the end of the year.

The forum brings together high-level leaders in the retail sector, both retailers themselves and landlords, to roll out good practice across the sector. At our last meeting in March, a member highlighted the success that his business had had with the “Disability can be invisible” sign—it put it on its bathroom doors and seen the positive impact it could have. The forum is working with me on a new initiative called Purple Tuesday. Thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s having raised Grace’s sign with me this evening, I will make sure that the toolkit we develop for the implementation of Purple Tuesday includes the sign.

We are working with a not-for-profit disabled people’s user-led organisation called Purple to develop a new annual retail event, which we are calling Purple Tuesday, to raise awareness of the value of the purple pound and to encourage retailers to put on events to encourage people into their stores and to make those minor adaptations so that they can not only provide an inclusive environment but realise some of that £250 billion for their own businesses. We hope that the first Purple Tuesday will be on 13 November. I will make sure that the Department does everything to support it. I will update Members nearer the time once the plans are more developed, because it is something we can all get behind; we can all encourage retailers on our high streets and in our communities to do that. I hope that by introducing Purple Tuesday we will not just support retailers to improve the accessibility of their services and the customer experience of disabled people, but improve our understanding of disability, bust some of those myths and get rid of the stigma around disabled people.

We know from similar campaigns, such as the Time to Change campaign, that it is possible to change attitudes over time, and I was pleased to see the most recent results from the Time to Change national survey, which showed that the overall attitude trend between 2008 and 2016 was moving in the right direction: just under 10% of people have changed their minds and improved their attitudes towards people with disabilities. That is 4.1 million people. It is possible, then, to make progress, and I am determined to do everything possible to make sure that disabled people in our country are as appreciated as everybody else and enabled and supported to play the fullest part they can in society.

I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to talk about the importance of making toilets accessible and of getting people to stop and think again if they see someone using such a toilet. The fact that a person’s disability cannot be seen does not mean that the person does not need to use that facility.

I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on Grace’s campaign, and to ensuring that all her signs appear on the parliamentary estate, in Government buildings, and in high streets throughout our country. Congratulations to him, and congratulations to Grace.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.