by Peter Watt
Attacking discrimination in all of its forms has been something that unites many from across the political spectrum. Many political battles fought over the years to pass legislation that seeks to end discrimination. In fact Wikipedia has a very helpful list of all of the UK Acts passed over the years, and it is quite a list:
- Equality Act 2010
- Equality Act 2006
- Disability Discrimination Act 2005
- Race Relations Amendment Act 2000
- Disability Discrimination Act 1995
- Race Relations Act 1976
- Sex Discrimination Act 1975,
- Equal Pay Act 1970
- Race Relations Act 1968
- Race Relations Act 1965
- Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928
- Representation of the People Act 1918
Every one of these will have been hard fought and will often have been resisted. Each was dramatic in its impact and generally led rather than followed public opinion in the area of life that it sought to influence. And the social change that can be charted in this list is worth reflecting on.
It starts with extending the franchise to all men and then all women and ends with an Act that brings together the series of laws passed outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, disability, religion or belief, gender, age and sexuality. And let’s not forget that there have also been other battles fought along the way that have slowly made life fairer. For instance, one of the proudest moments for many of us of the last Labour government was the passing of the civil partnership act (2004).
So it would be nice to think that the passing of legislation outlawing discrimination in its many guises is “job done”. But we know that sadly this is not the case. Just think about the recent cases of racism in football, the racist chanting of West Ham fans aimed at Tottenham fans being merely the most recent. In fact I think that it is time to reflect on the limitations of the law when it comes to changing attitudes. And we need to be clear that it is people’s attitudes that cause discrimination.
My daughter has autism, pretty unlucky really as it tends to affect significantly more boys than girls. She also has several other impairments that make life a bit tricky for her like poor hearing, clumsiness and her eyesight isn’t great. But bearing all of that in mind, at six years old she does pretty well! She is at a mainstream school and has some incredible teachers and support that help her; I’ve written about her before. It’s a funny thing autism; according to the national autistic society it is:
“Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support. People with autism may also experience over – or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.”
For Ruby this means that she has problems interacting with people so that whilst she is extremely social, she lacks social skills. She doesn’t really understand the strange rules and social mores that we all live our lives by.
She can become very distressed at things that the rest of us find normal like certain sounds, changes in routine or even smells or colours. And when she becomes distressed it isn’t always immediately obvious to us what has caused it, and then I guess that she can come over as a bit badly behaved. But she isn’t; it’s just that the world we share is experienced quite differently by Ruby and that means it can be very confusing and scary for her sometimes. Incidentally, she is also very caring and loving and fiercely protective of her little sister – and people who know her really like her!
Learning about autism is like suddenly learning that your child speaks a different language to you and you didn’t realise. And to be honest the more that I understand about it, the greater the respect that I have for Ruby at the way that she is able to cope. I’m not sure that I could. But just recently we have noticed that people sometimes see her and treat her badly because she has a disability. On public transport they get irritated by her behaviour or they mock her. They just assume that she is naughty or spoilt and treat her differently. We have noticed this and as proud parents it hurts. And Ruby has noticed as well.
She has said that sometimes people are mean to her and don’t want to be her friend. And she has asked whether she will always be autistic. It nearly breaks my heart thinking that people might hurt or humiliate her and even worse that she has noticed.
Of course she will have to learn to cope with this and luckily she has a very loving family and some amazing friends to support her. But ultimately the attitudes, the discrimination against her, will be an ever present part of her life until the day that she dies. And that is despite the protection that she will thankfully be afforded by the equality Act. Because ultimately passing the legislation that outlaws the various forms of discrimination is only the start. Then the really hard work begins – changing attitudes. I suspect that in many cases that this will take generations but I hope for Ruby’s sake that attitudes do change. Even if only slowly.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party