Understanding the historical context
Sections of the disabled community, as with other groups within society, were radicalised by events such as the Vietnam War, May 68 and the growth of global liberation movements. In the USA, disabled people attending university demanded ‘independent living’ instead of being warehoused in hospitals over night; people in the UK began to question why it was that simply by having a significant impairment one was subjected to ‘unequal and differential treatment’ and often forced into residential care. Here was the awakening of a new worldwide social movement that began to challenge the ways in which disabled people were both seen and treated.
The history of the Disabled People’s Movement is well documented, through the establishment of self-organised groups, the forging of distinct cultural representation and the articulation of ‘disability’ as a form of social oppression. The 80s and early 90s saw disabled activists and academics challenge the dominant view that ‘disability’ was a personalised, individual tragedy. Crudely speaking, ‘the less an individual functioned like a “normal person” (sic) the more “disabled” they
were judged to be’. Any “social handicap” was put down to the person with the impairment’s inability to conform to accepted or expected norms
as a result of their dysfunction. The disabled person was “the problem” and viewed as a burden on society. In sharp contrast, disabled people began to argue ‘disability’ was socially created by the nature of given societies which took little or no account of the needs and interests of people with impairments. Disability is therefore imposed on top of our impairments through dominant ideologies and social practices.
Disabled academic, Michael Oliver, using a historical materialist approach contrasted the two approaches via ‘the individual’ and ‘the social’ models of disability. Using the social model, it is possible to evaluate how, for example, capitalist western society has at a macro level produced structures, systems, and cultural formations which either socially exclude or marginalise people with significant impairments from mainstream activities. The social consequences at a micro level can be understood through the negative interactions that take place between a person with an impairment and their social environment. In other words the unnecessary disabling barriers they encounter. The Disabled People’s Movement therefore viewed disability as a form of social oppression.
Using this socio-political approach to understanding disability the Disabled People’s Movement demanded an end to social policy which encouraged dependency rather than self-determination. It saw the birth of the Independent Living Movement and a decade and a half struggle for anti-discrimination legislation. As a social moment it peaked in the early 90s when the Tories were forced to introduce the Disability
Discrimination Act to head off a social model inspired Civil Rights Bill that had popular support.
The Labour Party up until this time had been a firm supporter of disabled people’s civil rights, but the emergence of New Labour saw a public face and a more sinister one lurking in the corridors of power. Many disabled activists were marginalised by the Blairites in favour of representation from the more traditional disability charities. Many of these charities were involved in the initial welfare reform agendas and were too busy with projects such as Workstep to notice the pre-Election Labour promises go out the window or the arrival of men like James Purnell and merchant banker David Freud who were about to launch a witchhunt against people on benefits via the Tory mass media. By the end of the decade and into the noughties the Blair project and sectarian in-fighting had badly damaged the Disabled People’s Movement.
As with many other social movements of the oppressed, it was considered inappropriate by Disabled People Movement to ‘wash dirty linen in public’ therefore alternative political discourses rarely ventured beyond the ‘gatekeepers’. However there was disquiet expressed during the 1990s by leading disabled academics who felt too much emphasis was being placed upon the value of “rights” and anti-discrimination legislation. Events would suggest this was a valid criticism as over time the old radical leadership was replaced by people who were prepared to take up places on Government committees and water down the Movement’s key demands. Fragmented, and with many pronouncing the
Disabled People’s Movement dead, disabled people were left largely to defend for themselves or keep disabled people’s organisations alive the best they could.
The new wave of attacks
New Labour had used mainly external forces to attack disabled people who were claiming benefits, however the arrival of the ConDem Government saw this attack increased and now reaching out to cover all aspects of disabled people’s lives via the Spending Review.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) was formed by a small group of disabled people after the first mass protest against the austerity cuts and their impact on disabled people held on October 3 in Birmingham, England. The march was led by disabled people under the name of The Disabled Peoples’ Protest. DPAC isn’t a formal organisation but rather a collective of individuals seeking to campaign alongside those who believe that disabled people should have full human rights and equality. It is one of a number of self organised groups that have recently emerged alongside the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign in Defence of Disabilty Rights and Broken of Britain. DPAC and Black Triangle both work clearly within the social model approach.
Four months after the October march and a request for action from disabled activists, the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) issued an announcement that they planned to organise a joint campaign with the Disability Benefits Consortium which includes the major disability charities. Within the ranks of disability activists there
were mixed feelings about UKDPC working with DBC, especially by those of us who believe the “Big Six” disability charities undermined the Rights Now campaign during the early 90s, however the consensus was
that DPAC should attend the planning meeting to hear the proposal to establish a new disability related campaign.
DPAC took the position that disability charities have historically helped to maintain ‘disability as “personal tragedy”’ however there has been some small move away from this, therefore for the time being they were prepared to give the majority of the charities an opportunity to demonstrate a “change agenda”. DPAC said it would not however be prepared to work alongside one international charity in particular who had been found guilty of human rights violations. Despite being told that this charity was marginal to the plans of “The Hardest Hit Campaign” within days it was discovered that they were helping to organise the event!
DPAC had to decide principles over taking a pragmatic approach and decided it was not prepared to work with people who were exploiting disabled people. It was a difficult decision and DPAC was criticised in some quarters for not looking “at the bigger picture” however it is precisely because they took that approach that led to their collective decision. DPAC’ s argument can be seen at:
April 13th, 2011 – What unites and what divides us?
On May 11th under the banner of ‘The Hardest Hit Campaign’ up to 7,000 disabled people, carers, family members and charity workers marched and lobbied MPs in relation to the welfare reforms and cuts to services. As a disabled socialists I watched the events unfold with mixed emotions; part of me understood why the disabled community had come
out in such numbers to vent their anger at the continued ideological attack being waged against them, the other part of me was saddened by the fact that this genuine mood of anger was being hijacked by a campaign which lacked serious political leadership and as a result pandered to dominant views of disabled people as ‘dependent upon charity’ and incapable to taking control over their own lives.
It is true that there were disabled people on the march with banners and placards that made the arguments that DPAC and Black Triangle would fully support, the problem was that these arguments were margalisesd by messages constructed by the charities which employed oppressive stereotyped imagery. The Government’s attack upon disabled people cuts across the diversity of the disabled community however ‘the Hardest Hit’ campaign is in danger of reinforcing the Government’s ideological restructuring of who is and who is not ‘a genuine’ disabled person. A full page spread within the Daily Mirror on 16th May was based on material and quotations from the charities involved. The language used spoke of disabled people as “weak and vulnerable” and focused on specific types of impairments and needs. This approach is dangerous because it isolates disabled people who are not viewed as ‘hapless cripples’ (sic) but are nevertheless at risk of having their independence removed or those with hidden conditions who are rarely accepted as being disabled people.
If disabled people are going to be supported in their struggle for dignity and respect, maintain independence and fight for full participation within mainstream society, then the opposition to the Government’s attacks must be led by disabled people and from within a perspective which
sees disability as a political issue rather than a “tragedy”. If the anti-cuts movements fails in this task they will become part of “the problem” for disabled people and not allies in the search for real lasting solutions.