Restricted Growth (Discrimination)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 30 October 2003.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:18, 30 October 2003

I congratulate Mrs. Calton on securing this opportunity to raise this important issue and for bringing to the attention of the House—and, thereby, of the wider public—the problems faced by people of restricted growth. I do not have my diary for 12 November with me, but so long as I am around the House, I would be happy to meet a delegation during the day, at a time convenient for the hon. Lady and for delegation, so that they can tell me at first hand about their experiences.

I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to building a fair and inclusive society, in which no group of people is marginalised, harassed, discriminated against or made fun of because of stereotypical attitudes about them, in which everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and in which the individuality of people is valued. We must value people for their qualities and talents, and not hold outdated and stupid views about what they must be because of how they look, or because of a condition that they may or may not have.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, negative attitudes persist. I was particularly appalled by some of her examples of insensitive and inappropriate language. Insulting references to people of restricted growth, such as suggestions that they can only work in the entertainment business—in circus rings, for instance—have no place in 21st century society. Those who use such language ought to realise that it is offensive, and stop using it.

I hope I am right in believing—although I sometimes fear I am not—that such instances are not common, but we must challenge them when they rear their heads. Such inappropriate behaviour and attitudes can only cause hurt and humiliation to those at whom they are aimed. As I have said, people of restricted growth have the right to be recognised for their talents, for the skills they can bring to the workplace and every other aspect of life, and for their value as customers, consumers and users of services.

The Government are committed to tackling such stereotypical attitudes, and to ensuring that people of restricted growth are portrayed more positively. One of the most effective ways of changing attitudes is altering the misconceptions that still abound. There is a clear role for the media, which need to stop using stereotypical images and stop poking fun. Television and film companies must make more use of actors of restricted growth in positive and substantial roles, rather than featuring them as something quirky or amusing. Advertisers should show actors of restricted growth in the mainstream, going about everyday business.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has been following our "images of disability" initiative. The aim is to use some of the Government's power in the marketplace—we do some advertising occasionally—to encourage good practice of that kind. A recent advertisement by the Department for Work and Pensions features an actor of restricted growth visibly going about everyday life, in the background, like anyone whom one might see in the street. We should celebrate the achievements of people of restricted growth, and provide an example for those who wish to portray them in a stereotypical way.

The hon. Lady mentioned the media. She gave examples of programmes that were insensitive about people of restricted growth. Today I found a recent example on the internet. I shall read what I found, to demonstrate that I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making.

Under the headline "Man Versus Beast pulled at 11th hour", the report reads as follows.

"A UK version of a US reality show which featured 44 dwarves competing in a tug-of-war with an elephant has been pulled at the last minute."

The report says that the show was "branded sick and degrading". Good, one might think—it was branded sick and degrading for making fun of people of restricted growth—but no, it was branded sick and degrading by animal rights activists who objected to the elephant being used in such a fashion.

That, as well as the hon. Lady's examples, illustrates that we have some way to go in terms of the media. We can only work together to try and bring about improvements. As I have said, we in Government are trying to do that through our own use of advertising, and also by emphasising that more positive portrayals of disabled people in general need to be more widespread. That should apply not just to the Government, but to other advertisers. I am pleased to say that we are receiving a good response from the advertising industry, and ridding it of some of its stereotypical views and fears about using images of disabled people.

The hon. Lady referred to the insensitive remarks made in the medical profession. It is important that that profession—and all professions, because this is not just about doctors—think a little more carefully about the way in which they express themselves when they are trying, for example, to explain to new parents what a particular condition that will lead to short stature in their child means. I am sure that there are many examples of good practice, but I hope that where such insensitive language is used, the matter is taken up with the GP practice or hospital, perhaps through the patient advice and liaison service, or through an actual complaint. Only by challenging such behaviour can it truly be changed.

The hon. Lady said that some schools refuse to take on children of restricted growth, and that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies to some people of restricted growth but not others. That is indeed the situation. If a person of restricted growth meets the definition of disability in the 1995 Act, they are covered. Many would meet that definition, but some others may not. That is clearly an issue, but where they do meet that definition, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 might be used to tackle the attitude of some schools.

The law can sometimes be used to make improvements, but like the hon. Lady, I believe that education and enlightenment are the way forward. I hope that she will therefore welcome the fact that in the next year or so, the Government will embark on further awareness-raising advertising and work, to try to ensure that disabled people in general—this also applies to some people of restricted growth—are not dealt with in the old, stereotypical way, but valued as people. Some general work is going on in government, advertising and the media to change public attitudes, and to ease some of the problems that the hon. Lady has highlighted in respect of people of restricted growth, but which also apply to disabled people in general.

In the light of some of the hon. Lady's comments, it is hard to accept that attitudes are improving, but my own view is that, in general, they are. We still come across bad examples such as the ones that she referred to and that I have just related, but in general people are starting to realise that one should judge a person not on the basis of a stereotype, but on their character and talents. Indeed, tremendous progress has been made in the past few years in that regard.

I commend the hon. Lady's constituent and all those who are active in the Restricted Growth Association. They are doing a magnificent job in terms of self-advocacy and improving the image of people of restricted growth in society. I also commend the work of the Dwarf Athletic Association. The power of sport to improve self-esteem is often not recognised sufficiently. The work of organisations such as the DAA in improving the self-worth and self-esteem—and the fitness, it must be said—of its members is tremendous and no doubt unsung. It is not so unsung any more, however, because the hon. Lady has highlighted it on the Floor of the House, and I congratulate her on that.

The hon. Lady mentioned public abuse and said that people of restricted growth tend to be laughed at, joked about and compared to circus freaks or clowns. We see examples of disabled people in general—the point doubtless also applies to people of restricted growth—being picked on in what amounts to a criminal way because of their disability or condition, or because they are perceived in a stereotypical manner by those who are picking on them. Some protection is offered against harassment in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and we are considering outlawing harassment fully, in civil terms, through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. As she knows, legislation is being drafted in that regard, but she may also like to know that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would place a statutory duty on sentencers to increase sentences for offences aggravated by hostility towards the victim because of his or her disability. Once that becomes law, it will be of great assistance in the most extreme cases.

The hon. Lady may like to note that the definition of disability in regard to that offence will be

"any physical or mental impairment", which may apply more widely to people of restricted growth than the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That will help to deal with serious abuse that results in criminal charges and it also sends a strong signal that, as a society, we do not want to tolerate such abusive behaviour. At one end of the scale, such behaviour amounts to actual attack. At the lesser end, one could say, it amounts to the sort of ridicule and jokes that, as the hon. Lady showed, are routinely applied to people of restricted growth. If the House can send a strong signal that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable, it can only help to eradicate it.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Lady again on raising an issue that is not often discussed. We recognise that it is important and we believe that progress is being made in improving attitudes. In November, we will welcome the lobby to which she referred. I hope to see her, her constituents and people from the Restricted Growth Association at some stage during that day to hear more about their experiences.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Six o'clock.