It’s a pleasure to be here to speak to you today.
In particular I want to say thank you to the many groups represented here for the amazing work you do supporting people with sensory impairments and ensuring that deaf issues are kept at the fore of our agenda.
I know many of you have fed into the consultation on DLA reform and a number of you have kept us informed by preparing briefing notes for MPs and the Lords on the Welfare Reform Bill.
I welcome your ongoing engagement to ensure we deliver the best possible support for people with sensory impairments.
To be clear from the start, our priority is to change attitudes towards disabled people and people with sensory impairments.
The aspirations of young disabled people are the same as young non-disabled people.
But too often the expectations of the people around them, families, teachers, support workers, society as a whole, are too low. It is our role to support these young people to overcome the lack of aspiration that surrounds them.
The role of society should be to inspire young people, that includes young disabled people and people with sensory impairments, to achieve their full potential in life.
There is no better argument for reform than this.
Early intervention will of course be key, and one of the main reasons I have formed a new cross-government ministerial group to ensure young disabled people and people with sensory impairments have the support they need to identify their path in life, achieve in education and move on into work and be the best they can be.
Because at the moment working age people with a sensory impairment are around twice as likely to be out of work as non-disabled people.*
Having a job doesn’t just improve our financial income; it can also improve well-being, friendships and a sense of purpose and our mental health.
To enable deaf people and disabled people to achieve their full potential we must deliver effective support from the earliest stage.
We must encourage positive attitudes towards deaf people and disabled people.
And we must challenge prejudice and change perceptions.
The welfare system is an important part of that but as we all it is not the only part.
I want more for deaf people and disabled people than a life of welfare dependency and I’m sure everyone will agree with me on that.
Welfare reform is just one aspect of the improvements we are making to provision for disabled people.
The impact of these changes must be taken alongside the wider reforms we are making.
This includes the changes we are making to educational support, the work we are doing with employers and broader activities designed to collectively transform aspirations, attitudes and achievements.
We know that the experience of deaf people and disabled young people at school and beyond has an enormous impact on their ability to fulfil their potential.
In the right environment, and with the right aspirations and the right encouragement, young disabled people flourish.
But the situation is, at best, patchy.
Deaf and hearing impaired people are as likely as non-deaf people to have a degree level qualification.
However, blind and visually impaired people are only around half as likely to hold a degree level qualification as non-disabled people.
This is not because of a lack of ability.
It is because the system fails them.
We want to support people with sensory impairments to achieve their full educational potential.
The Department for Education has recently consulted on how to support young disabled people better.
The Special Educational Needs Green Paper set out far reaching proposals to improve support for young disabled people and people with sensory impairments from birth to adulthood.
It made clear our ambition to develop a programme of action so that disabled people and people with sensory impairments have access to a comprehensive range of support through education and into work.
Proposals included a single assessment process and combined education, health and care plan for under 25s who have got more severe or complex needs.
The Green Paper set out a range of measures to increase support for children with sensory impairments.
This included providing a greater role for the voluntary and community sector.
The National Deaf Children’s Society, the National Sensory Impairment Partnership and the Royal National Institute of Blind People have all recently successfully bid for a Voluntary and Community Sector Grant to provide services for children with sensory impairments, an improvement which is long overdue.
There will be a further pot of funding available to enable voluntary sector organisations to help us put in to practice the reforms outlined in the Green Paper.
Supporting disabled people and people with sensory impairments to excel in education is a really important part of the Government’s reform.
Achieving good qualifications is often the first step towards gaining good employment and building a career.
But we know too many deaf people and disabled people are simply not translating those qualifications into jobs.
One of the things I am particularly interested in is developing a really clear route for disabled people and people with sensory impairments through the education system and into work.
Education reform will ensure that support is consistent and effective throughout school, college and university.
Reforming employment support will ensure that this doesn’t break down when someone leaves the education system and moves into work, which unfortunately at the moment can too often be the case.
This is a really important issue for Government. As I have mentioned we have established an inter-ministerial group, bringing together Ministers from a number of different departments to discuss how we can improve that further.
We are looking at what is already working well as well as where we can make improvements.
One of the most successful programmes of support for disabled people and people with sensory impairments at work is Access to Work.
We are spending more money on Access to Work than ever before.
The latest figures show nearly 36,000 people are supported by Access to Work.
Almost a third of the people supported by Access to Work have a sensory impairment.
Last year, around 5,300 deaf and hearing impaired people were supported by Access to Work, which provided communication support, specialist equipment and support workers.
And a further 5,290 blind and visually impaired people accessed support, including workplace adaptations, special aids and equipment, and help with travel to work.
In a recent review of employment support Liz Sayce, Chief Executive of Radar, found there was overwhelming support for Access to Work.
The review examined how the numbers of people using Access to Work could be doubled by releasing funding from reforms to Remploy and Residential Training Colleges.
We agree that Access to Work has the potential to help more people and to be delivered more effectively.
We are currently consulting on these proposals. If you haven’t already done so I’d urge you to contribute before the consultation ends next Monday.
The Sayce Review crucially found that we could support an additional 35,000 people if the existing funding for specialist employment programmes was better targeted.
The budget for employment support for disabled people and people with sensory impairments has been protected, at a time when other budgets are being squeezed and this is an important Government commitment.
But we must make sure that money is spent effectively.
We have to deliver support that is shaped around the needs of the individual.
Too often disabled people do not have their individual needs met.
Access to Work is valued because the support it provides is built around the needs of the individual person and their individual workplace. However, there is still room for improvement.
We need to carry that personalisation of support into other areas, and we are:
Work Choice and the new Work Programme will deliver tailored help for unemployed people with sensory impairments, supporting them to find sustainable work.
The new Personal Independence Payment, which will replace DLA, will be based around the person and on a more accurate and consistent assessment of need, determining who will benefit most from support.
Or indeed the new combined health, education and care plan for those with more complex needs, will provide consistent support for the under 25s, shaped around the individual.
But real personalisation means listening to deaf people and disabled people and involving them in the decision making processes and involving them in the policies that affect them.
Government is serious about this involvement we want to ensure it is meaningful and representative.
That is why we are putting our money where our mouth is and investing £3 million in User Led Organisations (ULO) - groups that are run by disabled people, for disabled people.
These organisations have a unique and powerful insight for the deaf people and disabled people.
We want to secure their continued involvement by developing their skills and building their experience. And ensuring there is good coverage across the country, too often it is a post code lottery as to whether there is a good ULO representing disabled people in their area.
We also want to see more blind, deaf and disabled people in positions of influence.
We want to support deaf people and disabled people to access elected office, to become MPs, councillors, other elected officials. To put them at the heart of the decision making process.
Our Access to elected office strategy includes practical measures and funding to deliver that support.
Taken together our reforms will bring social change, breaking down those barriers to inclusion too many people with sensory impairments still face today, and continue to challenge those prejudices.
They will provide consistent, comprehensive support to enable deaf people and disabled people to fulfil their educational ambitions.
They will provide personalised support to find work and tailored adjustments to enable people to do their job.
They will deliver independence, transform attitudes and increase aspiration.
Practical, personalised support is the most effective way to enable people with sensory impairments to live independent lives.
The current system does not deliver this support; it is not effective and fails to support disabled people properly.
Let me remind you again - disabled people are more than twice as likely to be out of work as non-disabled people.
The current system is in urgent need of reform.
The wider agenda here is not one of welfare. It’s one of aspiration, achievement and changing attitudes.
We can transform support for people with sensory impairments so that they have greater independence and autonomy.
And with that we can support the aspirations of blind people, deaf people and disabled people.
We can transform attitudes and we can support anyone with an impairment to fully achieve their potential in life.
This is absolutely at the heart of the welfare reform agenda.