People First: ensuring that voices are heard

Gary Bourlet has been active with People First since its foundation in 1984. Having a learning disability has never prevented him from expressing an opinion.

Gary Bourlet has been active with People First since its foundation in 1984. Having a learning disability has never prevented him from expressing an opinion.

At various times in his life Gary Bourlet has been confused, angry and disappointed. He has been required to fight hard and argue for his rights and has often been patronised or ignored by those with whom he has been in dispute. However, he has never given up his determined effort to find justice for himself and his peers, and continues to represent their views and stand up for what he believes to be right. His story is not unlike that of many others who have a learning disability, but demonstrates a resilience and fortitude that many of his friends have been unable to sustain.

Over the years Gary has often made the news as a campaigner and particularly in his role as an advocate within the People First movement, an organisation that fights for the voices of individuals with learning disabilities to be heard. People First have been prominent as a campaigning organisation over many years, but have recently returned to the news with a focus upon encouraging people with learning disabilities to use their vote, particularly in next year’s UK general election through which Members of Parliament will be selected. Gary Bourlet is quoted as stating that:-

“Politicians get upset if they don’t get anyone from the grey vote, the black and minority ethnic vote, or young people. But when it comes to people with learning disabilities, it’s not an area they’re worried about.”

This statement may well be timely as increasing numbers of individuals in Europe become concerned for the impact that actions by politicians may be having upon their lives. In the UK the government’s welfare reforms have, as part of an austerity approach to addressing a national financial crisis, had a devastating effect upon many disabled people.

Scope, a leading charity representing the interests of people with disabilities in the UK commissioned research by Demos to examine the impact of welfare cuts upon the lives of individuals and families with a disabled member and concluded that disabled people were “bearing the brunt” of the government’s welfare cuts. Claudia Wood, an experienced researcher who undertook this study asserted:-

“What’s shocking is that the government doesn’t assess the likely combined impact of these changes, only the impact of each change individually…However, many disabled families are being affected by combinations of four, five and even six changes.”

Similar reports on the impact of reducing support for people with disabilities are emerging from across Europe and wider afield.

Changes in the funding of support for students with disabilities at UK universities means that many who were considering beginning studies in the coming academic year are now wondering whether they will be able to cope. In the past, students who have a disability were able to apply for additional support and were assessed against a well-established criteria to determine their need for specialist equipment or additional personal support. Recent announcements indicate that for many students this support will no longer be available and this is likely to deter some potential students from applying for a university place.

Gary Bourlet and many of his peers recognise that in the past individuals who do not have disabilities have campaigned in an effort to represent minority groups and ensure better living, working and study conditions. He asserts that now is the time for more people with Learning disabilities to stand up for their own rights and that ensuring they use their vote is one critical element of this process.

The People First website that: “There is an election coming and the rights of people with learning difficulties have been under attack. It’s time for action.”

At a time when Europeans are reflecting upon the implications of apathy amongst voters and the rise of right wing political groups and individuals, many of whom have made inflammatory remarks about people from minority groups, including those with disabilities, the concerns of Gary Bourlet and his peers need to be heard. These are people who have previously been denied a voice and have lacked opportunities to effect change in their lives. In the twenty first century we would be well advised to hear their concerns.