For our last part in UNITElive’s series for Disability History Month this, we speak to Marsha de Cordova who explains how people with disabilities are being shortchanged by employers and the government.
Marsha de Cordova’s mum expected her bright daughter to have exactly the same opportunities as other children. There was just one problem – Marsha’s headteacher didn’t think a regular primary school was a suitable environment for a visually impaired child.
“The headteacher didn’t have a good understanding of visual impairment and she wanted me removed,” Marsha explained. “My mum had to fight both the school and the Department of Education to ensure I stayed. The outcome was, that with the right support, which I did have, as I was able to stay in mainstream education.
Marsha, who was born with the eye-condition Nystagmus, says that things have improved over the years, as provisions for disabled people have increased. For instance, she was able to attend university with the help of the disabled student allowance. However, Marsha has still had to fight to maintain her rights.
“Employers will always try it on with you,” Marsha said. “At one company I worked for, it came to the point where I couldn’t perform the function I was employed to do. They were like ‘well if you can’t do this job we’ll have to consider your role.’ I pointed out to them that they would be contravening the Disabilities Discrimination Act, so they found me another role.”
As chief executive of the South East Vision charity, which helps those with visual impairments, Marsha is familiar with the wide ranging impingements to normal life that disabled people face.
Ignorance and discrimination is widespread, says the Unite national disabilities committee member, and at the same time services are being cut and promises to deliver on much needed changes are being pushed back.
Nearly 50 percent of disabled people are unemployed, Marsha points out, not because they’d don’t want to work but because many employers refuse to make reasonable adjustments for them. Transport is another area where disabled people are suffering.
“It’s an injustice that disabled people still can’t travel on public transport properly in the 21st Century,” Marsha said. “Although some things have changed for the better, it’s still not good.”
“Another thing is that I was able to go to university with the support of the disabled student allowance and the Tories are cutting that,” she added. “Without that support, how is a disabled person supposed to access further education?
“In the end, it’s politicians who are responsible for ensuring frameworks are in place to protect and enable disabled people in areas such as education, employment, access to goods and services and transport. The Tories are failing in their responsibility to do that and are even fostering the demonisation of disabled people when it comes to things like social security benefits.”
That’s one of the reasons why Marsha decided to run for office as a Labour councillor in the borough of Lambeth, in London. She was elected in 2014, but even then had to work to make sure adjustments were made that would allow her to perform the role. The realm of politics is just another area where barriers exist for disabled people — barriers that Marsha is intent on breaking.
“I know many disabled people that would love to enter politics, but all parties of all colours and the whole system just needs to be more accessible,” she said. “In many respects we can’t even get into the House of Commons, can we?”
“This year it’s the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Disabilities Discrimination Act and we’re still talking about access. We should be further along the journey.”
Marsha, along with Unite, is working hard to pave the way towards completing that journey.