Trailblazers – a disability rights organisation. Another one, you may be thinking. However I would like to share with you my experience of this very new project, which was set up by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign to act independently in giving a platform to young campaigners.
Although the Disability Discrimination Act has been in force since 1995, disabled people still have to struggle for equal access in most aspects of society. Despite what the law says, not all businesses and educational institutions are prepared to address the needs of disabled people.
Launched in July of 08, Trailblazers began with the very distinct principle – it would be young disabled people themselves who would be leading this campaign for equal access and opportunities. This approach appealed to me instantly, as it put me, and others like me, in control. We would have a powerful platform from which to make our opinions heard, our voices count when it comes to the provision of disability services. And why is this important? Well, who could know better what the issues are, and what possible solutions could work when it comes to disabled services, than disabled people themselves.
However it has often been the case that disabled people have not had the opportunity to say what they want and need when services are being planned. That is why I joined, because I feel that not only is there a need for improvements in services and accessibility, but also a significant shift in the perception of disability in society as a whole. Trailblazers follow the social model of disability, which is an alternative way of thinking about disability. Developed by academics and campaigners, a key concept of the social model is that, it is society disables people. Instead of focusing on the disability, as in the medical viewpoint, the social model puts the person at the forefront. This theory was very new to me, but I found it really interesting and inspired me further.
In a short space of time, much progress has been made; within just one year Trailblazers has accomplished a great deal. The very first campaign involved over 100 Trailblazers throughout the UK taking part in a ‘mystery commuter’ style surveying of the public transport system for 3 months. Along with other information this data was used to combine a report of the issues faced. This campaign received extensive media coverage with members, including myself, taking part in radio, newspaper and TV interviews on both a local and national level. The final report, called ‘End of the Line’ was launched at Parliament, and has led to both MPs and Transport companies to take our opinions into consideration.
The second campaign was on Access to Higher Education, and is an assessment of the state of university’s facilities for disabled students – During July/August Trailblazers contacted student union disability officers and asked them to answer 15 set questions about their university as well as rating the usefulness of each university’s website. We also all contributed to a ‘top tips’ guide, sharing experiences of applying for and/or going to university with other students in the hope that it will be easier for them to prepare. The results of the investigation are published in the form of a report and ‘top tips guide’, called ‘University Challenge.’ Trailblazers operated a HOTLINE on Thursday 20 August (A-Level results day) so other disabled students could ring and ask advice.
The third campaign was on Access to Leisure Facilities and is the final investigation report in the Inclusion Now! series of reports. This campaign focused on leisure facilities across the UK and aimed to highlight the issues that young disabled people face when visiting cinemas, restaurants, museums etc, and called for both companies and the government to work to ensure disability laws are implemented properly. The final report called ‘Calling Time’ was launched and once again Trailblazers received extensive media coverage including reports on GMTV and Five News, which included undercover video footage recorded by Trailblazers.
To mark the completion of these reports, Trailblazers went to Downing Street on 15th December 2009 to hand in a petition calling for equal access for disabled people. This was followed by a lobby in the House of Commons where Trailblazers met Ministers and MPs from across the parties.
Trailblazers has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to campaign on the issues that are important to me as a young person living with a disability. I have been given a platform from which I can voice my opinion and work positively to promote a positive change in society. In just a short space of time I have gained many valuable skills, worked with the media, conducted undercover surveys, contributed to website content, and much more. Through Trailblazers I have received the West Midlands regional Shout Award from Vinspired and also the Young Persons Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign giving me a great sense of achievement. I feel the greatest benefit has been meeting and working with like-minded people who have become great friends, many of whom have all experienced similar issues as me, which makes the Trailblazers network all the more important to me. Being able to easily discuss things without having to explain yourself, and just knowing that the other person understands you, is a real support. I have gained a valuable network that I can turn to for information, and a new, fresh viewpoint on how to tackle and deal with issues that affect me.
I am looking forward to taking part in all future tasks/campaigns, and doing my bit to reach the Trailblazers vision:
‘A world where having muscle disease or a related condition is not a barrier to someone accessing mainstream opportunities, facilities and services.’
For more information about Trailblazers, please visit www.mdctrailblazers.org
Jagdeep Kaur Sehmbi
West Midlands Trailblazers Ambassador