New research released this month reveals never before seen behaviour in a species of sub-Saharan ant. Bear with us, we’re not going all David Attenborough without good reason. Megaponera analis (Matabele Ants to non-Attenborough types) raid termite nests, a dangerous endeavour that comes with considerable risk to the ants themselves. And when the inevitable happens, and the ants start losing limbs, antennae and generally succumbing to injury in the battle, the soldiers go to the rescue of their injured brethren and carry them back to the colony. For a species we generally think of as being all about the greater good and nothing about the individual, it’s a behaviour that has surprised the researchers.

And here’s where we stop being Attenborough and get back to being Aspire. Because those ants aren’t rescuing their comrades out of empathy or the goodness of their hearts, they are acting for the greater good. Most of those injured ants that are carried to the colony go on to recover. As the study’s lead says, “There is a clear benefit for the colony. These injured ants are able to participate again in future raids and remain a functioning part of the colony.” Indeed, it’s estimated that the colonies are 30 percent larger than they would be if they left the injured ants to die and that utilising the disabled ants is a far more effective survival strategy than replacing them.

These little ants recognise the value of their disabled peers being active contributors to the colony – it’s something that our own society is falling behind on. A week before the ants research, another piece of research was released that made for uncomfortable reading; the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) report, Being disabled in Britain; a life less equal shows not just that disabled people are facing persistent and damaging barriers to inclusion, but also that the situation is actually getting worse.

In recent years, employment levels have increased across the UK. But the EHRC works shows that less than half of disabled adults were in employment (47.6%) compared with almost 80% of the non-disabled adult population. The gap between the two groups has actually widened since 2010/11. We’ve long-heard excuses for this gap – usually based on misguided and pre-conceived ideas about what disabled people are capable of doing or where they are able to go – but it’s time to call those excuses for what they almost always are; blatant discrimination. And yet the failures go much deeper than employer discrimination or inaccessible buildings. Every year, hundreds of spinally injured people are discharged from hospital into totally unsuitable accommodation that robs them of their independence. They are given NHS wheelchairs that are too heavy and bulky to spend a day out and about in. Essential care and support that they need is reduced or provided in such an inflexible way that it’s impossible to live a full life. And the welfare benefits that they are entitled to are wrongly withheld, directly robbing them of the chance to get out and participate. How can we expect disabled people to challenge employers’ naive opinions when they are being routinely failed by the NHS, social care, the welfare benefits system and local authorities?

Charities like Aspire exist to challenge many of the barriers faced by disabled people, and to provide solutions that tear them down or bypass them totally. But charities can only do so much and, in the face of overwhelming prejudice, negativity and discrimination, we are clearly not able to do all that is needed.  It’s time we learnt from the insects and understood that a society that values the contribution of all within it is more robust, stronger and valuable than one that doesn’t. 

Image: Carry Me Home, Erik Frank