I have always thought that the problem is in the minds of those of us without disabilities; not with those who are disabled. I have vivid memories of such situations, when I served on the judging panel for the National Fit for Work award scheme. We had a chairman for the panel, Sir Geoffrey Gilbertson, who used a wheelchair. He used to say that whenever people helped him up steps, they would put him down gently and act as if the next move was to pop a sweet into his mouth.
Years later, at the innovative factory for Komatsu in Birtley, north east England, we found we had a “white elephant” office block at the front of the factory which the Japanese did not want to use for its original purpose. The “executive” offices sat there unused and eventually we were able to persuade Tokyo and the Department of Employment to put money into converting the block into a one-stop-shop for people with disabilities to use for assessment, training, job hunting and business start-ups. The Pinetree Centre celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. It has helped thousands of people and facilitated over 200 successful start up businesses. The point of all this is that a couple of years into the project, we had a combination of tremendous “free” offers of technology to help with this work from a combination of Komatsu, BT and IBM. The board of the Pinetree Centre saw this as a great opportunity for people with disabilities who clearly had a physical struggle to get into the centre on a daily basis.
We all got quite excited about this and outlined the opportunity to those in training at the centre, expecting an enthusiastic response. We found we had floated a lead balloon. Despite the physical struggle of getting to the centre, nothing was going to get in the way of trainees seeing their colleagues and friends. We had completely underestimated the value of social interaction. This “brainwave” never materialised and we learnt a lesson from it – don’t assume you know what other people want. Talk to people and listen to what they have to say.
The JobCentre staff at Walsall were probably working with the best of intentions. But nobody likes to be patronised and legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act is supposed to provide a framework for sensible action. The key is not over weaning legislation, but a sensitivity about how other people feel and the grace to ask for views so that crass errors are avoided.