The head of Disability Rights UK on how the organisation is campaigning to remove the kind of discrimination he faced.
As a child, Kamran Mallick was subjected to racist taunts in the playground. As a teenager, his school’s physics lab was inaccessible so he had to travel to a neighbouring college for physics lessons. In his first full-time job, his boss used to pat him on the head when she stood next to his wheelchair.
Now 45, and almost a year into his role as chief executive of Disability Rights UK, Mallick’s experience of racial and disability discrimination is shaping the charity’s future. “I want to change the experience of disabled people younger than me, so they don’t experience the same barriers,” he says. “I want to make sure that we are as loud a voice for disabled people from our country as possible.” Mallick is contacting local black and minority ethnic, faith-based and youth groups for disabled people in order to understand issues “from the grassroots”. In the coming months, he will appoint additional ambassadors reflecting “a diverse range of people”.
Disability Rights UK, the UK’s largest user-led organisation for disabled people, has faced criticism for being closer to the government than to the 13.9 million people with disabilities whose rights it seeks to champion. This stems partly from Mallick’s predecessor, Liz Sayce, who led a controversial government review into disability employment, resulting in the closure of sheltered factories. Mallick says he received social media messages accusing him of “leaving the movement” when he was appointed, But he believes that a dialogue with authority does not preclude links with the grassroots. He says he often disagrees with the ideology of organisations he talks to, but his approach is “I need to work with you to convince you to make changes to benefit local disabled people”. With activists, his message is “our end goal is the same – rights and equality for all disabled people”.
That’s why DRUK is part of a charity coalition to highlight “the deteriorating quality of life” among disabled people that was exposed by a United Nations’ damning inquiry last year into the UK government’s failure to fulfil its commitments to disability rights. It found that the government was failing to uphold disabled people’s rights across a range of areas from work to housing, social security and health.
A recent NHS review into the deaths of people with learning disabilities found that poor care had contributed to the deaths of 13 people. Mallick says the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are “uninterested in tackling the systemic discrimination that learning-disabled people face”.
Mallick developed polio as a child in Karachi, Pakistan. The family moved to the UK with his father’s job in banking. His special school – where he was racially abused by a classmate – lacked “academic drive”, so he moved to mainstream education. At secondary school, the labs and PE facilities were inaccessible but Mallick says he was too young to challenge the status quo. After A-levels, he spent a fruitless year visiting recruitment agencies for office-based roles. At a couple of agencies his wheelchair was too wide for the entrance so staff lifted him inside. He never got an interview, despite decent grades. Through a friend, he finally got a job as a development officer at Hounslow council in west London. (This is where his patronising boss patted his head and he was automatically handed any projects about disability.) Motivated by leaving the council rather than working in disability issues, he did a secondment at a local disability charity and never looked back.
Given his own experiences, he is sceptical about the government’s plan to get a million more disabled people into work by 2027. “It’s good to have that target, but where’s the mechanism to make that happen? It’s all about sanctioning disabled people, but there’s no evidence to say if you reduce someone’s income they will naturally think ‘I need to get a job’,” he says.
Mallick believes that the barriers to getting more disabled people into jobs “lie not with the person, but the world around them that prevents them from working”. But a report released today by the charity Scope and the National Centre for Social Research, shows the prevalence of outdated public attitudes towards disabled people: with 75% of 4,000 respondents questioned thinking that disabled people need care for some or most of the time. What is needed to change perceptions, he believes, is “good, inclusive education … If disabled people are part of society and have support to enable them to contribute to society, then over time this starts to change perceptions.”
Mallick says the government should have an overarching policy for addressing disabled people’s needs: “There’s no joined-up thinking between departments,” he points outs.
For him the priority is always about “protecting and securing the rights of people with disabilities”.
Lives: North London.
Education: Ethel Davis School, Redbridge, Essex; Caterham High School, Barkingside, Redbridge; Hendon College: A-Level Politics; Hounslow Manor Community School (now Kingsley Academy): City and Guilds in teaching; teacher training adult education course; University of Hertfordshire: business studies degree.
Career: 2017-present: chief executive, Disability Rights UK; 2004-2017: chief executive, Action on Disability; 2000-2004: head of training and IT, Aspire (spinal cord injury charity); 1999-2000: director (on secondment) Hounslow Borough Association of Disabled People; 1994-2000: project development officer, Hounslow council social services; 1995-2002: self-employed IT trainer.
Public life: 2018-present: trustee, Wheels for Wellbeing; 2017-present: trustee, Lyric Hammersmith, 2015-2018: member of the independent Disability Advisory Group, Transport for London; 2014-2017: trustee, Inclusion London; 2014-2018: trustee (2016-2018 chair), Candoco Dance Company.
Awards and honours: Civic honour award (for celebrating diversity), Hammersmith and Fulham council 2018; shortlisted Campaigner of the Year, European Diversity Awards 2017.
Interests: Retro gaming, new technology, classic cars.