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INSIDE TRACK: Problems facing disabled charities highlight sector's challenges

W ho speaks up for disabled people?

The current positions of some of Scotland's main disability charities make it a question worth asking.

Capability Scotland, which describes itself as Scotland's leading disability organisation, has recently reined in its campaigning activity, and cut back on staff who had dealt with external communications to focus on the provision of services, which is more or less where it began as a charity. Meanwhile Enable Scotland, which works on behalf of people with learning disabilities, remains embroiled in a controversy over the closure of day centres in Glasgow.

Carers and some service users, in dispute with the council over the loss of services, might normally look to Enable to support their protests. But they can't: Enable is a key participant in the group set up to help look for alternatives to the lost services. Carers accuse them of having a commercial interest in the outcome while the charity itself insists that closing day centres is right, and that it wants carers and service users to help influence and shape what comes next.

This is an interesting example of the awkward tightrope some charities are having to negotiate, especially at a time when changes to services go hand in hand with cuts. There has arguably never been a greater need for a strong voice for people with disabilities. The combination of welfare and service cuts has led many people to feel simply under siege.

Meanwhile other factors have had a damping effect on disabled people's direct campaigning. Scapegoating of benefit "skivers" in parts of the media allied to the fact people living close to the poverty line are often too distracted for public campaigning, has silenced some. One insider told me organisations providing services themselves can be scared about complaining about the services of others - because it might come back to haunt them if their own practices are later found not to be up to scratch.

Meanwhile, smaller organisations lack punch, I have been told. Another senior figure told me a lot of disabled people's organisations are "small, underfunded, and need support".

That's not entirely true, I think. Disabled people represent themselves through Inclusion Scotland, which provides no services and is headed by Sally Witcher, a former civil servant with a strong background in campaigning with the Child Poverty Action Group. Meanwhile, the Glasgow Disability Alliance represents its disabled members with some panache on a limited income.

In some ways the sector is a microcosm of wider questions affecting charities at present. With the reliance some of the bigger names have on contracts with the public sector, there can often be tensions around campaigning.

It can also be better to work within the tent, when policy is going in a direction you are happy with. Self-directed support, widely supported by disabled people, is a case in point. But, is there a danger that charities can become too close to policy-makers and lose sight of their true constituency?

One activist told me this week: "Sometimes they can find themselves implicated in what happens, even if they don't have power over it."

That seems to be the worst of all possible worlds.

Contextual targeting label: 
Charity

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