OPINION: Ability counts, not disability

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

You have to feel sorry for those who have been recruiting new chief executives at Mencap and Scope. Not only have they had to find exceptional candidates, they also know what awaits if they fail to appoint a disabled person.

Last week's announcement that RNID had selected a non-disabled person to be its new chief executive was certainly greeted with less than a cheer.

RNID's decision was seen by some as a reflection of a lack of confidence in the ability of disabled people to run their own organisations.

No doubt RNID would have preferred that the best person for the job had had a hearing impairment. Such an appointment would have conveyed the right message about the absence of a link between aural capability and proficiency in running a high-profile organisation. But RNID was right to place leadership competencies ahead of disability status when choosing its chief.

And the frustration provoked by the decision was misdirected at disability charities. While disability organisations are inevitably expected to blaze the trail for disabled people, the biggest impediment to change is our failure to remove the barriers that prevent disabled people entering the general labour market.

Rather than castigate disability charities, there is much that public, private and other voluntary organisations could learn from them. Several charities have fast-track manager schemes for disabled graduates and most have an above-average percentage of disabled employees.

And policy makers ought to take a closer look. The New Deal for Disabled has not delivered enough; disabled people are still seven times more likely than others to be out of work. There are many lessons to be learned about how to support those with disabilities beyond simply getting them into a job. Ensuring that people with disabilities are represented at all levels of organisations will require a better understanding of the current barriers to career progression. Until we face up to these issues, we can expect top jobs in all sectors to continue to go to the non-disabled.

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