D&S column: how a school visit led to Government action

On one of my regular busy constituency Fridays a while ago I met a group of parents at the Dales School in Morton-on-Swale, near Northallerton.

As many of you know this special school provides a first-class education for young people with complex learning needs. Some of the children are severely disabled.

The problem the parents wanted to talk to me about was a pleasure most of us take for granted – a family day out which for them was all but impossible because of the lack of suitable toilet facilities for their disabled sons and daughters.

But we have disabled facilities in public buildings as a matter of routine, you might say. Yes we do, but when you are the parent of a teenager or young adult with complex disabilities who needs to be changed on a bench, perhaps with a hoist, by a carer, a typical disabled toilet is almost useless.

The Dales School parents told me distressing tales about having to change their teenage child on the floor, in a cupboard, or in the open, behind a shed, and the lack of comfort and dignity this entailed. Such was the difficulty they faced doing something as simple as visiting the seaside, a theme park or even just the local swimming pool, they had just about given up on this important aspect of family life.

It amounted to discrimination, pure and simple, they said.

One parent was very blunt. She said that if the amazing advances in medical practice enabled babies like hers to survive difficult births to reach adulthood with severe disabilities, they rest of us had a duty to ensure they could live fulfilled lives. It wasn’t fair on them, their parents or their siblings for their worlds to close in on them because of the lack of something so basic.

I left the school that Friday committed to making a difference to these families’ lives so that they would have the same opportunity to enjoy the sort of day out I was planning that weekend with my wife and daughters.

Several months later, as the Minister for Local Government I was pleased to announce the first step towards changes which will make Changing Places for severely disabled people mandatory in new large public buildings.

In doing so I am very conscious of the work of my predecessor as MP for Richmond, William Hague, who set such a fine example. As Minister for Disabled People, he was instrumental in bringing the Disability Discrimination Act into law under John Major in 1995.

The legislation, which William often speaks of as his proudest achievement in Government, enshrined in law the principle that institutions had to make “reasonable adjustments” to improve the equality of opportunities open to the disabled. Twenty years on, we need to renew that spirit for today’s issue of Changing Places.

The consultation on the necessary changes, including amending the building regulations which currently describe fully accessible Changing Places facilities only as “desirable”, will be launched shortly.

I would like to thank the Dales School parents, the Changing Places campaign group, my constituency neighbour Kevin Hollinrake MP – whose Thirsk and Malton constituents also have pupils at the Dales School – and MPs from across the House – including Labour’s Paula Sherriff and the SNP’s John McNally for both working with me and also helping to raise the profile of this important issue.