We need to reach out to disabled people in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

By Dr Peter Unwin | 15 December 2020

A report published this week Including the Missing Voices of Disabled Gypsies, Roma and Travellers is believed to be the first study into disability within Gypsy , Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities. Shame and stigma within these communities and a lack of both knowledge and outreach on the part of local authorities and disabled organisations are all seen to have combined to suppress discussion around disability.

The UK wide study was based on surveys and focus groups with over 100 GRT community members, plus meetings with disability and GRT organisations.

The research showed that a majority of people were willing to use mainstream disability services if they were genuinely welcoming rather than discriminatory. However, some, having experienced the double discrimination that comes with being both disabled and a member of the GRT community, would not, leaving them dependant on family members or neighbours.

This is exacerbated by the differences within GRT community sub-groups, which can include both culture and language.

Over 90% of participants in the research were women. The voices of men are largely missing in discussions of health and disability, despite the crisis in male suicides within GRT communities.

Knowledge of the Equality Act 2010 and its provisions was very scant, despite the recognition of GRT communities as ethnic minorities. The ‘community connectors’ working for GRT organisations were few in number and often pre-occupied with daily crises such as evictions or structural issues such as education, with disability rights far down the agenda. This was reflected in the staffing available from local councils, with limited numbers having a focus on GRT issues.

Professional presumptions of ‘they care for their own’ were still apparent.

The loss of community support via housing policies which have not invested in sites but have instead pushed Gypsies and Travellers into housing were lamented by many as contributing to policies of assimilation rather than integration. As one respondent said: ‘There doesn’t seem to be any sort of creative thinking around more culturally appropriate solutions. It seems to be just ‘the only way we can work with you is if you move into settled accommodation’.

We’ve seen decades worth of reports into the racist treatment of GRT communities around issues such as hate crime, media representation, education access and health outcomes, yet nothing changes. If anything, recent initiatives (such as government proposals to criminalise overnight stopping) are further evidence of continuing oppression of the travelling culture.

It’s not just central and local government who need to do more. Even organisations led by disabled people were seen to be lacking in their engagement with disabled people from GRT communities; they need to be more proactive to ensure all disabled people have a voice in the development of services and policy.

Central to this is more investment in ‘community connectors’ – people with an understanding and empathy to the challenges faced by people from GRT communities. This should be coupled with improving their knowledge of equality legislation around disability.

We are seeing new efforts being made – this week the British Association of Social Workers held a webinar which  explored some of these issues and highlighted the importance of GRT culture becoming part of the profession’s core curriculum. It also called for practice skill development regarding statutory interventions within GRT communities. It’s crucial now that local authorities build on this momentum.

Dr Peter Unwin is principal lecturer in social work at the University of Worcester. The project was supported by a grant from the DRILL programme (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) – the first research programme in the world led by disabled people.

Copies of the research are available here 

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