This is the speech I gave at the fringe meeting at Labour Party conference on 25 September 2018 about the draft Labour Party Autism / Neurodiversity Manifesto.
A lot has happened since I said to John McDonnell at a book launch two-and-a-half years ago that it would be a good idea for the Labour Party to have a specific manifesto on autism and neurodiversity.
We have now drafted that manifesto, and it is based on five main principles:
The first is the social model of disability.
It is not our brain wiring that disables us, it is barriers and hostility in society. We identify those barriers and take action to remove them.
For example, we identify the unfairness in the benefits system, so our manifesto includes a commitment to scrap the Work Capability Assessment.
We identify the barriers to work, so our manifesto commits to introducing a Workplace Accessibility Assessment – because while ‘reasonable adjustments’ are useful, they are Plan B: an accessible workplace would not need adjusting.
When our manifesto says we will replace the Work Capability Assessment with a Workplace Accessibility Assessment, we are applying the social model in practice. We stop looking for what is wrong with people and start looking at what is wrong with workplaces.
Moreover, the legal definition of disability is very much a medical model definition, and it does not automatically cover neurodivergent people. So our manifesto includes a policy to make ‘neurological status’ a separate, tenth protected characteristic under the Equality Act.
The second key principle is the neurodiversity approach. We are different not faulty, part of the natural variation in human neurology, and we want to be accepted, not pitied, suppressed or cured.
Take dyslexia, for example. Dyslexia is far more common in English speakers than in speakers of other languages. There is an interesting case of a guy who was born to English parents and grew up in Japan: he was fluent in both English and Japanese, severely dyslexic in English and not at all dyslexic in Japanese. Dyslexia is four times as prevalent in English than in Chinese. Why? Because English is an unusually complicated and irregular language, with hundreds of ‘rules’ and lots of odd spellings. So the fault is in the language, not in dyslexic people’s brains.
Take another example. Kids get diagnosed with ADHD when they can’t sit still through double maths. But who decided that it was normal to be able to sit still through double maths? Why can’t we accept that different people have different concentration spans and that this is not necessary a disorder?
Our manifesto wants schools to be not the exam factories that the Tories have made them, but to have smaller classes, flexible assessment, staff training, and to take the stress out of studying. (See the TSOS campaign for more on this.)
Our third key principle is opposition to austerity.
Government cuts have left us with long waiting lists for diagnosis (or identification as some of us prefer to call it): you can wait up to three years for an autism assessment, and where I live – Hackney – there is no diagnostic provision for dyspraxia in adults at all. A guy I met recently has only just got a dyscalculia diagnosis after years of waiting.
Social care cuts have meant that people who need residential care have been placed in institutions hundreds of miles from their families, friends and support networks.
Cuts to the funding of local government and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities provision (SEND) are having a devastating impact on the services we rely on.
Over the last three years, Labour has become an anti-austerity party. That is very welcome. Opposing austerity is crucial to providing rights and support for neurodivergent people.
That said, I would like to see Labour councils doing a bit more to resist the funding cuts and a bit less to implement them.
Our manifesto says: stop and reverse the cuts.
The fourth key principle is three-in-one: socialism, democracy and solidarity.
Importantly, this is not a generic manifesto for anyone to sign up to. We won’t be running a fringe meeting at Tory party conference next week! It is a Labour manifesto, and based on labour movement politics. It challenges the social roots of the discrimination and distress that neurodivergent people experience.
170 years ago, Karl Marx wrote about the political economy of the working class. He was calling on the labour movement to fight to impose policies that benefit people on a capitalist system that cares only about profit. That’s what we want to do now. Some of the policies in our manifesto might cost money, but so what? The system can find money for capital’s interests, so it can find the money for ours.
The working class is a neurologically diverse class. And our people are not just wage slaves but diverse, creative, human beings.
Our fifth key principle is ‘nothing about us without us’.
Neurodivergent people need more control over our lives and our workplaces. Our society regiments work processes, despite the fact that people naturally work in different ways and at different paces. Our manifesto promises more rights and more control for workers.
Our manifesto also commits to research about us to be democratically guided by and accountable to us. We love science! We want scientific enquiry, but we want it to look for insights that improve understanding in order to improve support and equality – we don’t want people going looking for what is ‘wrong’ with us.
We also apply the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ to this manifesto: it has been drawn up by a steering group of people who between us have all the neurodivergent conditions, it includes men and women, people from all around the UK, with the oldest in their 70s and the youngest a teenager.
Perhaps the most important thing about this manifesto is that it is a manifesto!
It is not an awareness-raising event, a ribbon, a puzzle piece, a sponsored walk or a one-day-a-year status update.
It is a manifesto we can organise around, and unite around: not because it will win us votes – although it will, as millions of people are affected by these issues – but because it is a set of radical, progressive, socialist policies that will tackle discrimination head on.