Speaking at the finale of the Embrace our Difference campaign at the Jersey Library, Lord Blunkett said that creating opportunities for those with a disability was a two-way street.
‘We change things by changing minds. People with disabilities of any sort need to be campaigners, not just in their own right for things they need for themselves but they must be a breaker of new ground for other people who come behind them to help change attitudes and open up access. But society as a whole also has to be prepared to respond – it’s a two-way street,’ he said.
Lord Blunkett described how he had to struggle in early life to overcome his blindness and to acquire at evening class the qualifications that would allow him to attend university and embark on a political career in local government as a Sheffield councillor and then as a senior figure in the Labour Party. He rose to serve in Tony Blair’s cabinet as Education and Employment Secretary, Home Secretary and finally as Work and Pensions Secretary.
‘I experienced all kinds of things as a counsellor and then an MP in terms of other people’s attitudes. The only way I could deal with it was just to prove them wrong – to get on with it. A disability is not a disability if we overcome the barriers that make it a disability,’ he said.
Discussing how those without disability should deal with those with a disability, Lord Blunkett said that it was often fear or uncertainty about unfamiliar physical circumstances that created the barriers.
‘A very simple message I put out when I’m asked what’s the best approach to dealing with someone with a disability is just to ask “can I be of any help? Is there something I can do to help?” If there isn’t that’s fine. If there is, do it as sensitively as possible without creating embarrassment to the individual concerned or to yourself,’ he said.
While tribunals could compensate those who had been discriminated against, Lord Blunkett said that this was no substitute for removing blockages for those with disability in the first instance, and he highlighted the access-to-work scheme which he had protected while Work and Pensions Secretary as an example of an initiative which could allow the disabled to show what they could do in the work environment on an equal basis.
‘I’m not here tonight to tell you in Jersey what to do. Your changes and progress have to be yours and you will make the change. It will be a battle, it is always going to be a battle,’ he said.
The Embrace our Difference campaign event provided the opportunity for organisations involved in improving the lives of those with disability and promoting an inclusive society to draw attention to their work through a combination of talks and exhibitions.
It was attended by an audience including the Lieutenant-Governor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the Bailiff, Timothy Le Cocq, and Deputy Bailiff Robert MacRae, in addition to politicians, senior civil servants and charities and support groups.