1680 ……Okay, enough of the Housing Department, let us talk about me. (Laughter) Before I started this speech I should have perhaps declared an interest in this Strategy, as I am actually a disabled person – officially, that is. I might not walk around with a label on my forehead and I refuse to display a blue badge on my car, but I suffer from chronic emphysema. My lungs are damaged and, while drugs slow the progression, they cannot repair it, but that is just the way it is. Most of the time you would not notice. My wife says, ‘As long as your mouth keeps working, we will never starve,’ (Laughter) but run up a set of stairs ahead of me and you will soon see how long it takes me to join you at the top. Like many of the people in the ‘We All Matter, Eh?’ videos I have a hidden disability, but I count myself as one of the lucky ones.
I am more than capable of making my needs and views known and I have a supportive family and friends to help me when I need it. My employers, the parishioners of The Vale and the States of Guernsey, are flexible. They understand and allow me the time I need to function to the best of my physical ability. I can, if need be, in the Department delegate to an excellent Board, Chief Officer and the Department civil servants, who know my limitations by understanding there are some things I simply cannot do. And, of course, all of you, my fellow States Members, make allowances for which I am very grateful. But consider this, what if I was still driving diggers for a living? How different would my life be? Construction is an extremely competitive industry. It is also a very physical occupation where shortness of breath can seriously affect your ability to do the job. Would my employer even consider making a reasonable adjustment away from the heavy work of operating machines by transferring me, for instance, to do an office job? Would they be able to if they tried? Who would be there to give them and me information and advice to help make those decisions in a way that was fair to them and to me? Could I find another employer who would allocate me a less physical job that I could do, or would I be turned away and become dependent on the benefits system?
As our population ages and the retirement age rises, I suspect that there will be many more people like me and, as a result, we are going to need lots of other informed and flexible employers in Guernsey. So, unless we are prepared to have a proper information highway telling employers what their options are, in order to help employees who have developed a disability such as mine, and we are not content that people spend years on disability benefits when they clearly want to work, then we need this Strategy.
There are lots of other simple community things we can do tomorrow to help with disabilities. Unless, of course, we want people like me to buy everything off the internet, we need to make sure there is somewhere to sit down at bus stops or in the shops. We also need to improve access to some of these shops.
Sadly for all of you, I am not ready for the scrap heap yet. (Laughter) I like to think I still have something to contribute to the Island and I am certainly not ready to spend years on benefits when there are jobs I can still do. And what I have, I want for others.
The main thing I have learnt from the development of the Disability and Inclusion Strategy is just how many people there are like me in Guernsey and the barriers that they face in going about their everyday life. I intend to support this long overdue initiative for as long as my flexible employer, the people of the Vale, give me that responsibility.
However, I recognise that lots of other Islanders are not so privileged. They are much more isolated, less assertive and, in many cases, do not know where to turn for help and assistance. This Strategy is about helping to change all that. It is about bringing disability out of the closet and into the open. It is about helping people to help themselves by providing them with up-to-date information to do so and it is also about what sort of Island we want to live in. It is all too easy to say, ‘We want to improve things,’ and then go away and do nothing. We have heard some of that this morning. This Strategy cannot be about that. It is not about a box-ticking exercise, as others have said, ‘Oh, I know, we have needed a disability strategy,’ followed by, ‘Oh, goody, now we have got one so that is okay then, the job is done.’
Many of those with disabilities I have met do not want our sympathy, far from it – a more spirited group of people you would be difficult to find. They just want us to remove some of the obstacles and make sure that we understand some of the difficulties that they face every day of their lives. Government sometimes builds its own obstacle courses that would equal the best the British Army can put up at times, simply because we do not think. We do not think when we design buildings and road layouts, pedestrian walks or even access to rural areas. How different some of those things might be if we had some of our disabled Islanders working in those Departments. Think about that.
So let’s not just vote this through because it is the right thing to do. Let us support this Strategy and vote this through because we honour those who struggle with disabilities of varying degrees from the moment they awake to the moment they go to sleep. Let’s do this because we mean what we say and because, whatever Departments we serve on, we will do our best to find ways of improving things and enriching their lives, giving them the dignity and independence that we would expect for ourselves.
Thank you. (Applause)