Reasons to be cheerful

It’s been very slow progress, and there’s still a long way to go before the island has its own disability and inclusion strategy, but Deputy Emilie Yerby is hopeful we will end up with something that will make a positive difference to the lives of disabled islanders and their families

Spring emerges in Cambridge Park.
Spring emerges in Cambridge Park.

It’s one of those days: the sun is shining, I’m finally seeing the back of the nasty cold that’s kept me down for the last couple of weeks and my spirits can’t help but lift. As I walk away from the Cotils towards my next appointment, I find myself listing reasons to be grateful in my head.

It was the crocuses that tipped me into this cheesy frame of mind. The first of them are starting to emerge, little purple heads popping through the green, a tribute to the industry of the local Rotary Clubs who’ve planted them out all across the island. They’re a living reminder of the clubs’ campaign to end polio and a source of endless joy to the Overseas Aid and Development Commission. By matching the local Rotary Clubs’ fundraising efforts with a grant, we enabled them to apply to an international foundation which then trebled the amount they raised – we are so proud to have been a part of that and really care about their efforts to wipe out the dreadful disease. Match-funding local initiatives that make a difference around the world is something we hope to do more of and our doors are always open to islanders who want to discuss new ideas with us.

But I care about what’s happening in the local voluntary scene, too, not just among those charities working overseas, and I had been at the Cotils to hear the first part of the Lloyds Foundation’s annual seminar, aimed at equipping local charities with the skills they need for success. The room was full of people who have dedicated their lives to making our community a better, safer, more welcoming place – from working with disadvantaged young people to providing care to older islanders and everything in between. It is always a treat to be surrounded by so many sincere and committed people whose efforts and energy provide the caring backbone of our community.

I had a shadow with me for the seminar – although perhaps that’s the wrong word, as she was really much more of a bright light whose boundless curiosity was a positive challenge and an inspiration. I and several other States members have had the privilege of being shadowed this week by a young student with a strong interest in local politics, whose enthusiasm and fresh perspective has been welcome and refreshing. In her couple of days with me, she came volunteering, attended a Scrutiny hearing, and even joined me for a radio interview, where she easily eclipsed the rest of us. Seeing our role through her eyes was a reminder of just how diverse it is, as well as a wake-up call about the importance of making politics accessible to the community so that people who might want to stand for election in future have a good grasp of what they’re letting themselves in for.

If I had one more thing to add to my list of reasons to be grateful, it would be the robust but ultimately constructive and forward-looking Scrutiny hearing earlier this week on the Disability and Inclusion Strategy. It is impossible to talk about disability and inclusion without acknowledging how hard the slow progress of the strategy has been on disabled islanders, and on the families of disabled people, who have at times found it impossible to be hopeful. I wish it were otherwise and I am sorry.

All the same, this is one thing I came into the States to fight for. And, as the hearing showed, although we’ve had a difficult few years, it feels like we are now moving into a different phase. Over the course of February and March, international experts in disability discrimination and equality law will be working with us at the Committee for Employment & Social Security to help identify an effective law from another country which we can adopt in Guernsey. This will give us the added strength of having an existing body of case law – that is, judgments showing how the law has been interpreted in a range of real-life situations – and people who are experienced at working with that law, to help us put ours into practice. This will be key in ensuring that the law remains a positive, progressive force for helping to ensure equality and fair treatment for disabled people at all times.

For me, one of the most useful consequences of the Scrutiny hearing was that it gave me a better sense of what people already understand about discrimination and equality law, and what they don’t. For example, when we looked closely at it, there was still a real fear that this law could set impossible standards for businesses and employers. That simply isn’t the case. At the heart of almost any disability law in any country in the world is the idea of ‘reasonable adjustments’ – something we’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more of in future.

Both words matter. The concept of ‘adjustments’ speaks to the idea at the heart of all these laws – that organisations can change many things, from the layout of their premises to the way they recruit their workforce, to be more inclusive of people with different impairments. But the concept of ‘reasonableness’ also matters – this is about finding a balance between what employees and service users may need and what employers and service providers can actually afford. The focus of our law will be on constructive change that works well for everyone, not on trying to trip people up and punishing them for getting it wrong.

Putting those reflections to one side and drawing this column to a close, I get distracted, flipping between tabs on my computer and opening up my inbox. Some of the cheesy cheerfulness ebbs away as the emails slip in – there’s so much still to solve, on so many different fronts, and so little time to do it in. With a pile of emails about education – from all angles – still sitting unanswered, my next task is to pull together all the key questions and draft up a blog that tries to give some answers. Until we get a new committee in place next week we are stuck in a limbo of uncertainty, but at least for now I can give my own explanations and show willing to be accountable for my own choices. As with everything we do, it’s a small contribution to a long and complicated debate, but hopefully, for some at least, it may help.

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