England & Wales, Global Communities and society, HR, workforce and communications, Personal and organisational development, Welfare and equalities

Understanding, engaging and representing the disabled community: “Don’t be the barrier, be the empowerer”

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

We sat down with Nigel Long to discuss the launch of his new training and consulting agency, Action Disability, and what he hopes for the future of the agency and the overall disability agenda across local government.

Like many LGIU members, Nigel Long has vast experience in local government and public sector work which spans decades and multiple local authorities, charities and departments. Increasingly in recent years, Nigel found himself drawn closer to his core passion of fighting for the disability agenda – especially after moving onto housing associations and working on supportive housing. Interestingly, this move is somewhat full circle to where he began, “When I first came to Milton Keynes about 30 odd years ago, I worked for a disability charity and the reason I was interested in this area was because I grew up in a household where my oldest brother was born with a severe disability.” Nigel shares that he has also been a member of the disabled community since he was 18-years-old and it is these personal experiences that have really shaped and enhanced his drive over the years.

Nigel explains that the main concept behind Action Disability is quite simple, “It’s to draw upon the experience of those living with a disability and link it into some good practices with councils, and other organisations, to show there are better ways of doing things.” When it comes to training, Nigel has buckets of experience – including a few years working at LGIU providing training to over 70 different councils. “I think right across the board there’s a huge gulf out there in terms of understanding disability – or rather not-understanding disability,” he remarks. That said, Nigel notes that there is definitely some interesting work happening in local government to try and address this – which demonstrates a desire to make change happen. The next move forward is figuring out exactly how, and that is the gap Nigel wants Action Disability to fill.

Disability provisions should be more than just a policy statement. Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Nigel emphasises, “It is about trying to make provisions for disabled people that is more than just a policy statement – like there should be 10% of properties being wheelchair accessible – it is about thinking about the bigger picture.” The bigger picture to Nigel means taking the time to strengthen the voices of disabled people, both in the community and local government. Nigel advocates that one method to achieve this is ‘co-production’ a concept he recently explored in-depth in an LGIU briefing here where he also showcased multiple good practice case studies too.

“Co-production is a really positive agenda. You bring people into the process of decision making that are affected by those decisions,” Nigel summarises, adding, “I think the people who are going to be on the receiving end of services should be able to mould those services.” However, it’s never quite that simple in local government politics, Nigel suggests that the biggest barrier to achieving this goal is likely the professional and decision-making processes themselves. “Co-production means those processes have disabled people, and indeed other groups and communities, involved in those discussions from the word go and not halfway through the process – which would mean some quite fundamental change in how councils operate.”

Co-production can yield some worthwhile results. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Nigel shares that he has witnessed the success of this approach first-hand, including while working at the Lewisham disability coalition, “At the time they were developing new leisure facilities and involved the disabled community from the start, which made such a difference.” In the context of planning and development, Nigel notes that although co-production could be quite easily applied, problems might be caused due to the contention of targets and time scales, but he believes the results would be worthwhile.

The battle of trying to change current practices and the ‘tricky’ system of how decisions are made in local government is a fight that Nigel can sympathise with all too well, having worked across four different authorities himself. Nigel explains, “The barrier is that councils find themselves with not enough time to engage and that’s partly due to legislative processes requirements but also to do with resources because it is expensive to engage with people.” But ultimately, that’s exactly the type of change that local government needs to champion to move forward. Nigel remarks;

“I think it’s about changing the processes so councils are not being a barrier but being an empowerer.”

Although engagement is certainly one part of the problem, the second, and equally important issue, is understanding. Nigel shares, “I think we don’t, as a society, understand the number of people who are disabled and the range of disabilities. Most people when they think about disabilities they think about wheelchairs, and of course, that’s only a very small proportion of people who are disabled.” He also points out that making sure local government understands the whole breadth of disabilities is only set to become more important with an ageing population, especially since there are fewer people who are born disabled compared to those who become disabled. Citing research done by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Nigel highlights there are many other reasons why this is such a critical issue for local government to fully comprehend, such as the proven links between disabled people and factors like poverty, unemployment, isolation and mental health – all incredibly big topics of concern for the local government remit.

It is important to empower disabled people to take up roles in local authorities. Photo by Amy Elting on Unsplash

The third and final core area that Nigel wants local government to reflect on is representation. Nigel believes there are important questions to be asked around the ethos of organisations and ensuring that disabled staff are encouraged and supported to take on positions of leadership. “I’ve certainly not noticed in the different authorities that I worked for many people with disabilities working for them. I think that’s one of the big challenges for the disability movement as well, giving people the confidence and empowering the individuals to take up roles in local authorities,” he explains. Nigel states that addressing this will mean committing to representation and improving how managers in particular work with disabled staff, a course which Nigel will be offering at Action Disability.

When asked to summarise the changes he would like to see across local government in 2022, Nigel states that;

“First and foremost, I think councils need to engage more with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. Secondly, I think they need to be positive about recruiting disabled people to senior positions in councils, and then I suppose, thirdly, I would like to see every policy strategy developed by local authorities take into account the needs of disabled people.”

Looking towards the future for Action Disability, Nigel shares that his core ambitions are two-fold, “One, I want to influence the policy agenda. Two, I want to be able to provide a range of courses to different organisations on disability, equality, mental health and managing disabled people,” ­– and that’s just the beginning.

You can find out more about Action Disability on Facebook here or via the website here.

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