Unlocking opportunity

While opportunities for disabled people are broader than ever before, complex barriers still exist. We speak to five people working towards a more inclusive society

Disabled people are the biggest minority on the planet. Around one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, live with some form of disability. According to the World Health Organisation, this number is growing as populations and life expectancy increase.

The United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities sets out goals to improve inclusion and integration. It has been signed by 182 countries, and in the UK, the number of laws safeguarding against disability discrimination have increased over the last decade.

But while awareness of disability is improving, recent research from the World Bank shows that disabled people are still more likely to suffer social exclusion and economic hardship than other people.

In Britain, the living standards of those with disabilities are generally worse than those without. According to government figures, 19 per cent of people living in families with a disabled member live in poverty, with the figure rising to 21 per cent in children.

More than a quarter of those with a disability feel they don’t often have control or choices in their lives, and disabled people are more likely to experience unfair treatment at work and to become victims of crime.

The British government is currently subject to two separate UN investigations examining whether austerity measures and budget cuts have had a disproportionate impact on disabled and disadvantaged people.

While inclusive education has been endorsed by governments since 1996, research by Mencap shows that parents of disabled children cannot, on the whole, be confident their children will have the same standard of education as their peers in mainstream schools. The charity’s James Robinson says many parents opt for specialist support in segregated settings as a result: “Teachers and schools need training and support to develop inclusive programmes that can adapt to different children’s needs,” he says.

It has been shown that when disabled people are overlooked in society, the social and economic costs to communities are enormous; it is now broadly recognised that an environment that allows every person to achieve their full potential is in the interests of society as a whole.

The needs of specific people are clearly as diverse as any form of difference. At the same time, different cultures and political situations have led to a broad array of disability policies. We spoke to just a handful of the campaigners, organisations and experts around the world creating opportunity for disabled people, in schools, workplaces and public life.

Solutions Lab PN86 1 - Jeremy

“As a society, we need to give people the opportunity to earn their own living, and the pride and the dignity that comes with that. This also has benefits to public services: it’s been shown that people in employment have to access health services a lot less.

If you’re a good, caring employer, then you’re a good employer for everyone. Regardless of whether needs are classified as a disability or not, people need to be treated as individuals.

Disability is obviously wide-ranging. We’ve got several employees here who have had full or partial sight loss during their working life. There’s then been a restructure within the organisation and that person loses their job.

People often join us when their confidence is very low. They have usually been socially isolated to a greater or lesser extent. Fitting into the workplace and learning to contribute both in terms of work and socially is one of the first benefits we see. Those sort of things are translated into everyday life as well: it helps people relate to their families.

Experience helps; the first time an employer takes on someone with a disability, it may be a challenge for them because they’re learning how to adapt. But once you’ve established a culture of peer support, which is one of the best things we have at The Soap Co, the challenges aren’t that great.

Change in the workplace is less physical and more cultural. Recruitment practices can be made inclusive, beginning with an open and honest dialogue regarding the expectations of the job.

There also needs to be an acceptance that people learn and communicate in different ways. Joining the government’s Disability Confident scheme to support disabled people at work is a good place to start.”

The Soap Co is a social enterprise that employs people that are disabled or disadvantaged.


Solutions Lab PN862. Sharon Brennan, Freelance journalist and disability advocate, UK


“Across most forms of media, disabilities aren’t just something a character has, instead, the whole storyline centres around the disability. A notable exception to this was the brilliant portrayal of Walter Jr in US television series Breaking Bad. Walter had cerebral palsy, but that wasn’t the issue that the drama was based on. It wasn’t perceived as ruining his life, it was just there. There needs to be more of that kind of inclusion.

Soap operas are good at pushing inclusivity boundaries too: Coronation Street has had a regular character in a wheelchair, for example, and Hollyoaks had a character with Guillain–Barré syndrome a few years back. It’s important that disabled characters are played by disabled actors.

In broadcasting, Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics has been powerful. Some of the adverts told the story of how the athletes became disabled, cutting back to the moment they were born, or when they might have been in an accident. I These insights are positive for public perceptions of disability as they show experiences of these people rather than their disability or athletic heroism alone.

A lot of assumed narratives would change if more disabled people were in the media – as journalists, broadcasters and actors. It really matters to have a variety of ways of living portrayed. The more we can show disabled people living normal lives, the more people’s reactions will change for the better.

Social media is also a fantastic tool: it allows people to find and connect with others who have lived a similar experience to them, as well as giving them a platform to have their views and thoughts heard by government policymakers and practitioners.”

Sharon Brennan was born with cystic fibrosis and received a successful lung transplant in 2013.


Solutions Lab PN86 3. Ken Shuttleworth, Architect and founder of the Future Spaces Foundation, UK

“Ensuring our cities enable inhabitants to access services, such as health, education, housing and employment, is incredibly important, especially for those wh??o find it ?mor?e difficult to trav???el?.

It was one of the main reasons I established the Future Spaces Foundation back in 2013: to identify the characteristics of spaces where people want to live and work. I was interested in spaces that allow people to move around in the healthiest, happiest and most sustainable way possible.

Open data can enable organisations to develop services that help disabled people plan journeys and overcome logistical challenges. A good example of this in Singapore, where the Land Transport Authority (LTA) offers free access to static and live transit data. This opens up opportunities for those that use public transport to create apps that meet specific needs. The LTA also provides a route-planning tool that includes information about disabled access and the availability of parking.

Good urban design involves ensuring equal access to city centres, which creates greater permeability, movement and mixing of people. This is a result for everyone, of course, but for disabled people in particular, as they can more easily participate in the life and economy of a city. For many, the barriers to work and education are as much about easily getting to the venues as taking part in the activities. Truly accessible cities would not only be more economically empowered, but happier and healthier too. An accessible city would help to reduce social divides and make our societies more diverse.”

The Future Spaces Foundation is a UK thinktank that explores how we can create social and economic opportunity through transforming spaces.


Solutions Lab PN864. Ladislas de Toldi, Co-founder and CEO of Leka, France


“We’ve known for a long time about the importance of play for social, emotional and cognitive development, and technology presents new opportunities to make the most of this. We can now create toys that are fun and engaging, but that also act as research tools and aid development in a really targeted way.

Technical solutions can also provide a comfortable outlet for children of all abilities to learn and play. Children today are digital natives – born straight into a world of constant technology – which allows technical solutions to provide a degree of familiarity, as well as to help build proficiency at a young age. At the same time, research has shown children with autism have a tendency to respond better to robots than humans, mostly because they are more predictable in their interactions.

Leka, a robotic companion, was developed in response to this. It is shaped like a ball and lights up and moves around – it helps to break down the initial social barriers that so many children with autism face, and makes interactions easier.

The toy is embedded with sensors, and when a child is using it we are able to track how he or she touches and manipulates it. For example, if the child is mistreating it, it will turn red. By plotting this data out over time, parents, caregivers and therapists can understand how the child is progressing and see which areas of their behaviour need more focus. That’s the number one advantage of smart, multi- sensory toys over traditional ones.

Leka is in prototype stage. We have partnered with five special education schools for testing and research, and more than 120 children have used it. The ultimate goal is for it to be used in mainstream schools, as an affordable, accessible resource.”

Leka is a startup that creates educational toys for children with autism.


Solutions Lab PN865. Shilpi Kapoor, Founder and CEO of BarrierBreak, India

“There is a need to perpetually work towards changing people’s perceptions, and to recognise that assistive technology can enable people. At BarrierBreak, we work with organisations to demystify disability.

Storytelling can be an effective tool to promote understanding. We use it to share some of the challenges faced by disabled people that can’t easily be dealt with directly. When listening to stories – we create a persona based on a job description and a situation – people can more easily relate and see how a challenge might be overcome. Familiarisation is important in ensuring that people feel confident and not uneasy or uncertain around disability.

Employers are often hesitant to hire disabled people because they believe they will incur costs and additional liability and that productivity may suffer. They are unaware of the various adaptations that can be made and assistive technologies available that can help disabled people be as productive as other employees. We need to eliminate these misconceptions and educate the people that make hiring decisions.

In general, we find that employers need to be more flexible to accommodate disabled people in the workplace. For example, we often hear that security concerns mean they don’t invest in assistive technology and disability support services such as sign language interpretation.

We do see people overcome biases, and employers are coming forward to hire people with disabilities, but progress is slow. We are also seeing workplaces becoming more accessible and making inclusion a part of company policies.”

BarrierBreak is a social enterprise that provides advocacy and assistive technology. 75 per cent of its workforce is disabled.

Graphics: Studio Blackburn

Is there a societal issue you would like Positive News to tackle? Email editorial[at]positive.news