Penny Mordaunt is Secretary of State for International Development, and is MP for Portsmouth North.
We Conservatives believe in freedom. The freedom that enables every human being to reach their full potential. The freedom for every human being to be able to make a difference to the world. We believe in freedom because we value every human life. That is why we keep taxes low, why we devolve power, why we believe in meritocracy and democracy.
So what is the challenge for our generation of Conservatives? Where doesn’t freedom’s light shine? Where is there injustice? Who are the most discriminated against? Who have the least opportunity?
As we grapple with the many social injustices in our society and around the world, the outrageous inequality faced by disabled people stands out above all else.
In the U.K, the spotlight occasionally turns on to issues of inaccessible high streets and lack of toilet provision; or the extra costs of disability, the employment gap, the lack of access to suitable services or products; or the bureaucratic obstacles in accessing various support, the struggle of parents or carers, or the prevalence of hate crime. My fantastic colleague Sarah Newton and others are working hard on these issues, and we know there is much to do.
We also know that when disabled people are given the support and services they need, great things happen for their communities. In the U.K, the employment rate for someone with a learning disability is six per cent, but given independent living support and training that rises to 86 per cent. A quarter of our funding for start ups has gone to disabled people: they are the most entrepreneurial people in society. Fail to include them, fail to economically empower them, and the nation loses out.
The lack of inclusion, plus discrimination, stigma and their human and economic toll are evident across the globe. And in many places, it manifests in the cruellest ways.
Currently half of all disabled children living in developing nations – about 33 million kids – don’t go to school. Hardly surprising, then, that many struggle to find an income, and so stand little chance of achieving any ambitions that a livelihood might afford them.
Nine in ten people who need assistive devices such as mobility aids, or glasses, don’t have access to them. Discrimination and hate crime are widespread. People are locked in the same room for their whole life. Or institutionalised. Or kept in chains. Or abducted or murdered because of superstition.
The personal stories of suffering injustice, cruelty and ignorance are heartbreaking. And there are many. But they are equalled in number by examples of courage, resilience, ingenuity and humanity.
When I ask leaders from other nations why they haven’t done more to help their disabled citizens, many reply that they were ashamed of starting from such a low base. But this week, people have set aside such concerns, and have come together in the first-ever Global Disability Summit. The agenda for this groundbreaking event has been set by disabled people’s organisations, and it is concerned with every type of disability, including learning and hidden disabilities. It’s focus is on the necessary conditions for freedom: access to education, employment, ending stigma and assistive technology – the basic things a person needs to reach their potential.
Profound commitments will be made by all nations and organisation attending: from developed and developing nations, from the World Bank to UN agencies, from civil society to the private sector. With new technology and production methods, we have a great opportunity to meet those needs. We want to galvanise the international community into action.
There will be some who object to the U.K. initiating this event, because we still have much to do to meet the needs and support the ambitions of disabled people. We do, and we must – but, in addition, we can do much to help other nations to improve the lives of their citizens. We can all learn from each other. And I hope that the summit will also help raise awareness and inspire further change in the U.K.
In cohosting the summit, I know that we Conservatives will get stick. We are doing it anyway. In highlighting the chasm between unmet need and provision, the Corbynistas will give us a kicking. But we are going to focus on that unmet need. In working with Disabled Peoples Organisations to create this profound platform, we will be accused of a lowbrow attempt at a rebrand.
So be it. In thinking big, so all can assess education and assistive devices, small minds will say we are unrealistic. We are going to think big anyway. Because we are Conservatives. Because we believe in freedom. Because unless all our citizens can reach their full potential, our nations and humanity won’t.