Weather fails to stop successful disabled members’ conference

UNISON’s national disabled members’ pass 21 motions as well as two emergency motions in jam-packed live event

“Black disabled workers were more likely to be pushed into working on wards where there was COVID-19, but UNISON fought for disabled workers to have additional risk assessments.” 

This was at the heart of a speech to UNISON’s disabled members’ conference in Liverpool last weekend, when Elizabeth Cameron, on behalf of the Black disabled caucus, spoke in support of the motion, COVID-19 and Black disabled workers, learning the lessons for the recovery.

“Black workers are often in precarious employment, with no sick pay,” she told delegates. “And a staggering 88% of Black workers told us they were worried about going back to work.”

Delegates debated a wide range of motions over three themes: COVID-19, campaigning priorities and building an effective and efficient union.

On the first theme, conference also heard how COVID had caused a change in attitudes towards disabled people. Peter Daley, for the national disabled members’ committee, said: “In 2018, we were disabled. But in 2019, we became clinically vulnerable”.

Delegates explained how this had resulted in government and employers overlooking disabled workers’ rights under the Equality Act 2010.

Conference also heard heartfelt stories of the hardship that people had faced during the pandemic.

Speaking on creating a COVID secure world for disabled members, Angela Hamilton from the national committee, told delegates how vividly she remembered a moment in mid-March, 2020. “I packed up a few things and told friends and colleagues ‘I’ll see you on the other side’ and left the office with tears in my eyes”.

She continued: “I expected the next few weeks would be difficult, I knew I needed to be careful, but I could never have imagined what was to follow.”

Conference supported other motions on the theme including:

  • ensuring personal protective equipment is suitable for all;
  • supporting homeworking as a reasonable adjustment, while also ensuring disabled people aren’t isolated when working from home;
  • increasing the level of sick pay to cover low-paid workers.

As an extraordinary weather system saw pounding rain and ferocious waves across the Mersey, the theme inside the conference centre changed to campaigning priorities and subsequently how to build an effective and efficient union.

Among the motions, delegates heard of UNISON’s plans to make 2022 the year of disabled workers and called for this to focus on celebrating the role of disabled people in the workplace and to include renewed support and encouragement for disabled members in branches.

Linda Woods from South Staffordshire and Shropshire Healthcare branch said: “For disabled women, managing our disability and often being carers, we are left with very little energy to play the game. It’s time to change the rules of the game.

“We need support to bring more reps through and to let disabled women know there is support there for them. UNISON’s Year of Disabled Workers 2022 is an opportunity to push through and support disabled women to step forward to be reps and to have their voices heard in our union.”

While Maureen Cleator, Kent local government said: “As a disabled woman, I feel like I’m walking through treacle to get through the day. But I also run my home and I lead on pay negotiations for the branch.

“In my branch the chair, secretary and assistant branch secretary are disabled – so three disabled people run a branch of 8,000 members! We need to acknowledge that everyone has skills to bring to the table.  We have a lot to give this union and the union is better for our contribution.”

The conference heard that, while 81% of non-disabled people and 52% of disabled people are in employment, when it comes to people with autism, only 22% are in a job. For people with severe or specific learning disabilities, it is not much better at 26%.

Delegates were told that over a quarter of managers in an Institute of Leadership and Management survey said they were uncomfortable employing a job applicant with autism.

Kelly Given from Lothian Health branch said: “Being an autistic professional is like being an acrobat. You have to jump through hoops to get a workplace that meets your needs. And then you face the assault course of getting reasonable adjustments. It took 24 years for me to be diagnosed and seven years to find an employer who understood my potential.”

Conference supported other motions on the themes including:

  • a review of the Equality Act;
  • campaigning for accessible environments;
  • how to allow disabled women to fulfil their potential in the union and in society.

On Monday, conference took a break from motions to watch a film from the COP26 Coalition about the climate emergency.

Climate change causes floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events which, some would say, were in evidence outside the conference centre all weekend.

However, many disabled people don’t have the resources and mobility to travel and are forced to remain in degraded environments without housing, employment, support networks or health care services.

Conference finished by sending solidarity wishes to all those fighting for climate justice at COP26.