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The 'involvement' of disabled people in the development of disability policy and provision is now high on the Government's agenda, but in practice, whose voice actually dominates these processes?
In recent years there has been an increased recognition by politicians regarding the value of including the voice of those who have historically been excluded in the development of policy and provision. For example, this is clearly evident in the Disability Equality Duty (DED), part of the Disability Discrimination Act (2005), which recognises that a key principle in promoting disability equality within public services is by the meaningful involvement of disabled people. However, whilst there has been this important recognition, this paper explores the question concerning how effective the voice of disabled people is in practice.
Evidence is mainly drawn from a recent study undertaken for a PhD examining the experiences of disabled students in higher education. Two important issues are considered. The first relates to the role of traditional charities and voluntary organisations in the representation of disabled people. Such representation in the 1990's was viewed as grossly mis-representative (Oliver 1990, 1996; Barnes 1991; Drake 1992, 1996a, 1996b, 2002; Campbell and Oliver 1996). However more recently, it has been argued by Shakespeare (2006: 159) that such a stance is now outdated and that 'the major disability charities have changed out of all recognition'. In response, consideration of the role and influence of charities in the development of legislation and policy is made, together with the consequential impact that this is likely to have had.
The second important issue to be discussed relates to the involvement of disabled people at an institutional level in the development of policy and provision. Politicians define 'involvement' as 'a more active engagement of disabled stakeholders than consultation' (Disability Equality Duty: 3.13). Therefore, how far are disabled people included in such processes and how genuine is involvement? We know, as Arnstein (1969: 217) has discussed 'there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process'. Moreover, as Young (1990) contends it is through challenging decision-making processes that inequality and oppressive practices can be confronted, raising awareness of all concerned. This, crucially, confronts the power that has traditionally existed, empowering disabled people. Thomas and Pierson (1995: 134) discuss this as being '...concerned with how people may gain collective control over their lives, so as to achieve their interests as a group, and a method by which...to enhance the power of people who lack it'.
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