Disabled members look to the legacy of 2022

Meeting in Brighton, delegates look at the legacy of the Year of Disabled Workers

Christina McAnea, Paddy Toner and Helen Illidge after Paddy received his award as a Local Government Champion from Christina

The first plenary sessions of UNISON’s annual disabled members conference took place this morning, with the cost of living and securing a legacy for the unions’ Year of the Disabled Worker dominating proceedings.

But it also saw member Paddy Toner presented with his award as this year’s winner of the union’s Local Service Champions Awards by general secretary Christina McAnea (pictured above).

Mr Toner is a rehabilitation worker for the visually impaired at Halton Borough Council. He himself is registered blind. He was nominated by Helen Illidge, his support worker, who accompanied him to the conference.

Watch a video about Mr Toner here and read an article here.

In the morning’s debates. speaking for the national disabled members’ committee, Tony Slaven explained that he’d spent this year touring a presentation around: 2022, The Year of the Disabled Worker, from Lanarkshire to Westminster – Lanarkshire, because that’s where the idea originated.

He noted that the year had highlighted the value that disabled workers bring to the workplace and the union and had promoted the need for disabled members to “take control” against a background of a government that not only overlooks or ignores disabled workers, but “deliberately discriminates against” them.

Of the year’s work he stressed: “It cannot stop on the 31 December … it has to be embedded in the union.”

Lisa Dempsey from the North West noted that: “Disability is not a dirty word. “Why are my needs ‘special’ because I have a disability? “We need to reclaim the words disabled and disability”.

Sarah Barwick from Kent said: “Employers do not understand the Equalities Act” and this needs to be challenged. Additionally, “if you don’t notify your employer [that you have a disability], they can say they didn’t know when it comes to reasonable adjustments”.

In a motion on “smashing all equality pay gaps, from the national Black members’ caucus, Tara Thomas told conference: “We all know we’re not paid enough.”

The gender pay gap is well documented and acknowledged, with women’s jobs not being valued as much as ‘male’ jobs “perfectly legal, but wrong”.

“So what happens if you’re Black, disabled and a woman?” she asked. “Turned down so often, I no longer apply.” She said that the union needed to find ways to prove such attitudes so as to challenge the situation.

Peter Daley from Greater London asked that the national committee take this work across all the union’s self-organised groups.

Discussing the COVID pandemic, Hazel Barnet from Yorkshire and Humberside said that many disabled members feel particularly worried.

Members who were previously classed as vulnerable, have not been given any extra protections after the government announced that the pandemic was over, including the stopping of free tests.

Andrew Berry from Islington – who has dyslexia and is asthmatic – reported that now, after COVID, he had “never felt more vulnerable. COVID is not over and we must continue to learn from the pandemic.

“There is an urgent need to treat air quality as a health and safety issue and as an access issue. It also remains important to encourage employers to adopt the COVID safety pledge, while the union itself can work toward increasing the number of UNISON events that are hybrid, which can set an example to employers”.

In a motion on accessibility to mental health services, Tina Kemp, for the national Deaf members’ caucus, told delegates. “For Deaf people, it is nearly impossible to access services.

“For example, they’re told there’s no money for interpreters or the interpreters are poor or have no experience in mental health issues.

“Personally, I have noticed Deaf members have committed suicide while waiting for services.”

Moving a motion on disabled people and the cost of living crisis, Graeme Ellis for the national committee said: “It’s not a cost of living crisis – it’s a cost of survival crisis.”

Many members are low paid, with no hope for a pay rise, rent is rising and food itself is going up, while the cost of food for special diets has tripled.

“They couldn’t get us with COVID,” he said, “so this government is having another stab, with starving us to death. We need a better deal.”

Mr Ellis asked people to use the They Work For You website to contact their MP and explain about the effects of the crisis.

“We have to get the message out that we’re not going to stand for this any more.”

Moving an emergency motion calling for a general election, Stephen Lowry from the Northern joked: “We’re three PMs and six chancellors away from Christmas.

“Liz Truss was a PM for less than 50 days. I’ve waited longer for a hospital appointment. Two PMs have been unelected.

“We need a general election now.”