“It’s barriers”, Rob Platts, founder of the Guernsey Disability Alliance (GDA) said, “That’s what ten years of the GDA have been all about – removing the physical and social barriers which are preventing many islanders from being included socially, economically, culturally and politically”
Back in 2008, Rob, Shelaine Green, Dave Purdy and Wendy Beaven set about forming a group which would become the collective voice in Guernsey of disabled people, carers and the organisations which represent them.
Before the GDA existed, the scores of disability organisations in Guernsey were all busy doing what they do best, delivering services to the people they represent. Many just did not have the inclination or resources to tackle the systemic issues which were preventing many islanders from being included in island life. The GDA brought a much-needed collective approach and voice and, for the first time, initiated a holistic approach to disability issues from the States of Guernsey.
Ten years on and the GDA has a membership of over 40 member, disability related organisations representing thousands of islanders, and also about 100 individual members whose physical or mental impairments may not be represented by a particular group in Guernsey.
“It’s been a tough and relentless journey”, Rob explained, “We’ve had to deal with three different States Assemblies and a system of government which does not always lend itself to strong leadership or ownership of matters concerning social policy and equality. While successive governments have included “equality of opportunity” within various States plans and visions, translating this admirable and rightful aspiration into reality requires much more than rhetoric.”
“The great thing about Guernsey though, is that our Government is very accessible. At our first meeting with representatives of the Policy Council, the fledgling GDA explained that it believed that disability was a substantial and growing issue which no Guernsey government had ever properly recognised or addressed. We suggested that Guernsey has a burning hidden human rights issue which, for the most part is hidden, but remains burning, behind a fire screen of segregation and exclusion.”
Rob thought that some members of Policy council, at that first meeting, were sceptical about the GDA’s estimates that over 11,000 people in Guernsey were living with health conditions which affected their daily lives. They were also not initially accepting of Rob’s assertion that, “for some disabled islanders, the usual human goal of the pursuit of happiness, is replaced instead with the avoidance of misery.”
Rob recalls that one politician at the time had been heard to remark, “There are only three wheelchair users on the island and I know them all”. Although inaccurate (a later wheelchair report estimated that over 1,200 islanders use wheelchairs), Rob explains that this remark may have summed up two things about the general perception of disability in Guernsey; that not many people are affected, and that disability is about wheelchairs and white sticks.
The GDA has been instrumental in starting a process of education and attitude change. Through its work influencing government and through its “We all matter, eh?” (WAME) campaigns and videos, it not only put disability on the political map but also, Rob believes, it is “realigning people’s perceptions so that more islanders are aware that disability is a broad concept which can involve a wide range of impairments and health conditions and an equally wide range of physical and social barriers. Disability is definitely not just about wheelchairs and white sticks”.
At that first meeting with the Policy Council ten years ago, the GDA called for research into the issues faced by disabled islanders, for measures to prevent discrimination and for stronger leadership on disability issues.
To the government’s credit, it not only carried out that research but then, together with the GDA, spent two years developing the islands first Disability and Inclusion Strategy. The research showed that the GDA’s estimates were in the right order but had actually been conservative. There are in fact over 13,000 islanders living with a disabling condition in Guernsey and a further 4,000 islanders who are were providing care to friends or relatives on a voluntary basis.
For the first two years after the Strategy was passed (November 2013), its implementation was dogged by issues of a shortage of government resource and capability. Rob explained, “The GDA was a member of the group which was meant to be overseeing the implementation of the Strategy, but that group lacked the power and the civil servant resource needed to make progress. Also, at that time, there was a veritable explosion of social policy initiatives, it wasn’t just the Disability Strategy the GDA was involved with. The GDA was intimately involved in many other strategies and plans; for example, the Children and Young People’s Plan and the Supported Living and Aging Well Strategy. I remember the “Enough is enough” protests in Guernsey in 2015 and I remember thinking that there are many disabled islanders for whom enough was most certainly not enough and that more, not less, government resource was required. After all, it is the States of Guernsey which holds the key to ensuring employment, transport, services, information, and even our system of government are equally accessible to everyone.
Although progress was slow, the GDA continued representing its members in dozens of the States social policy initiatives and continued to be involved in many areas outside of the political arena. The GDA spin off group “Access for All” has dealt with hundreds of access issues and has advised many organisations about improving access to their buildings, goods and services. The GDA has also spawned the first broad equality group within the island. Karen Blanchford from the GDA founded the Guernsey Equality working group in 2017.
The change in government in 2016, and changes in the structure of government, meant that most of the responsibility for the Strategy to the Committee for Employment and Social Security. The fact that most of the civil servants involved with the Strategy had changed, and there was nobody from the old system to carry out an organised handover, meant that the new Committee had a steep learning curve. Fortunately, the GDA was on hand to flatten that learning curve and bring the committee up to speed.
2016 also saw a change in GDA leadership. Shelaine Green had brilliantly led the GDA for 8 years but, back in 2014, had signalled that that she would not be able to carry on indefinitely and that she planned to retire with the next two years. Up to this point the GDA had been mainly staffed with volunteers, with Rob Platts carrying out much of the research into legislation and policy and Shelaine taking the lead in the hundreds of meetings with the States and other stakeholders. Fortunately, the Guernsey Community Foundation stepped up with the funding needed to employ an Executive Director who would assume many of Shelaine’s duties. Karen Blanchford was employed in April 2015. However, that funding recently ran out and the GDA has had to re-organise its work and approach.
The GDA has found fundraising difficult, Rob believes that in addition to the generally overwhelming calls on charitable givers, islanders perhaps don’t have a clear understanding of what the GDA does; the enormity of what it has achieved or indeed the value to Guernsey of its continued existence. “We are at full stretch doing we are were formed to do, speak to government with a collective voice and influence and guide government, business and other organisations. Finding the time and expertise to fund raise and explain to the general public what we do, has been a challenging distraction, but we have had some success and it looks like we will survive to the end of the 2018”, says Rob.
Rob suggests that many islanders he speaks to assume that the GDA has government funding, yet it has never received a penny in government support. Others may assume that the passing of the Strategy is the end of the GDA story, but, Rob explains, that this is very far from the reality. “Whilst there is definitely momentum, there will always be a need for disabled people to be actively involved and closely consulted in matters of policy and legislation which affect them. In fact, that is something the States of Guernsey agreed as a part of the Strategy when The States resolved to abide by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In just the past six months, I can think of a dozens of disability related issues which, had the GDA not have been involved, would have taken a wrong turn from a disability perspective – things like the development of disability discrimination legislation, the plans to establish an equality and rights organisation, the development of the States’ online disability training, the States plans for raising awareness about disability and even detail such as Aurigny’s revised policy on the care and assistance to be offered to passengers with reduced mobility.”
Rob and the small dedicated team within the GDA believe that barrier removal is something which all disabled people have a right to expect. It is difficult to think of another organisation in Guernsey which has brought so much structural and attitudinal change, and which has so much potential to influence and guide the future change, still needed, to break down the barriers holding so many of our fellow islanders from living inclusively within our community and from pursuing the happiness we all have a right to seek.