From the Independent newspaper 9th April 1995 with thanks to Steve G- A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same:
Disabled people aren’t going to take it any more: for today’s new militants, patient progress is not enough. They chain wheelchairs to buses, court arrest, scorn their gradualist brethren as “Tiny Tims” – and “piss on pity”
On a freezing morning two weeks ago, 20 or 30 disabled people met outside Parliament to protest. One man was blind, most of the others used wheelchairs. They spoke to Japanese television reporters and were photographed by teenage tourists from France and Germany. And they explained their unswerving opposition to the Government’s Disability Discrimination Bill – which was that day starting its Report Stage in the House of Commons. With the wind rushing across Westminster Bridge, the protesters made their way from Parliament Square to Downing Street, where the ambition was to present John Major with the means to provide a ramp to his residence: cement, a cement mixer, a shovel. Or rather, the ambition was to have these items photographed by the press. A demonstration organiser – a wheelchair user – kept in touch with his office and with the media by mobile telephone, but also kept up the cry: “What do we want? Civil rights! When do we want them? Now!”
Stuck into the cement mixer was a life-size, floppy model of John Major. And on its lapel was a badge that might have been taken wrongly by the shivering spectators – it might have been thought a satirical prcis of Mr Major’s position on disability. But the badge carried one of the rallying cries of the organisation that had set up this demonstration: the badge said, “Piss On Pity”.
Things are happening in the world of disability that never used to happen. There used to be charities called the Royal this and the Royal that, and there used to be Jimmy Savile, and bring-and-buys, and hard-won concessions from British Rail or Parliament – a ramp here, a statute there. Now, although the old system is still partly in place, and still bringing improvements to people’s lives, it has to seek an accommodation with a new, modern, radical politics: press stunts, mobile telephones, Piss On Pity badges, anger. (If you want to check the radicals’ progress against other liberation movements, it is useful to note that the word “crip” – like “nigger” and “queer” before it – is already being put to work by at least some of those once oppressed by it.)
But any accommodation – between the old and the new, between the organisations “for” disabled people, and those clearly “of” – has not yet been made, which leaves room for conflict. Today, inside the politics of disabled people (not – it is generally agreed – “the disabled”, not “people with disabilities”, not “the differently-abled”) there are bitter interdenominational battles, there are left and right wings, vanguards and rear-guards. Today, a conversation with a person who works at the political end of disability issues is likely to feature quick and robust abuse of a man or woman in the same business – someone is an “Uncle Tom” – or, better, a “Tiny Tim” – or “a sound bite expert” – or just “an arsehole”. Disabled politics are in something of a heightened state, and this is because the question has not yet been settled: which will work best – patience or impatience?
ALAN HOLDSWORTH, who is impatient, is a leading light – if not exactly the leader – of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN). DAN is the most radical, visible, publicity-accruing part of Britain’s disability movement, and it was DAN that was responsible for the event at Westminster.
Holdsworth lives in a comfortable, cluttered suburban house in Wood Green, north London. Although he uses a wheelchair over longer distances and during demonstrations, he walks to open his own door: a big, muscly, long- haired, youngish man. He unclicks a leg brace after he has sat down. He will not tell me the nature of his disability – the cause of his impairment – because, he says, that would then get stuck to his name in my article: and that would be no less unsound, he says, than attaching a woman’s name to the colour of her hair. “So no comment. We’re trying to move the press off that. It would be `Alan Holdsworth, polio victim’. They’d know that before they knew anything else.”
Holdsworth speaks with the well-practised passion – turbo-charged, now and then, with hyperbole – of any other single-issue campaigner. (“What’s the difference between the treatment of disabled people in Britain, and apartheid?” he asks me. He sees none.) His slogans are “Piss On Pity”, and “We Will Ride” and “Rights Not Charity”; Jimmy Savile is a “patronising old git”. Other campaigns will follow, but DAN’s immediate stated ambition is to end the discrimination represented by inaccessible transport – DAN has a banner that reads: “To boldly go where all others have gone before”. If you ask Holdsworth what he wants, he says: “All new buses accessible by law by a certain date, all buses under 15 years old accessible by the next refit, all national coaches and buses accessible within seven years … the Tube within 15 years…” Critics have alleged that the “disabled lobby” is in an impossible hurry. But even Alan Holdsworth is not absurdly unrealistic: he is impatient to see change, but he seems more impatient to see change started; for this is he would be willing to go to prison.
And here disability politics divides. Holdsworth has no time for the old “for” organisations that have seemed willing to wait. Indeed, Holdsworth sells a T-shirt that is specifically scornful of the long-established and relatively conservative umbrella group Radar (the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation). The T-shirt reads “Rights Not Radar”. Holdsworth says: “I got a letter from Bert Massie [director of Radar], saying, `I thought we were working together, is this thing really helpful?’ I haven’t written back, it’s not a priority for me, but when I do I’ll say, `Dear Bert, it sold 40 shirts; and that means that two people can get to one of our actions. If he wants to put `Fuck Alan Holdsworth’ on a T-shirt and it gets two people to an action, I don’t mind.”
In his living-room, Holdsworth gently interrupts his young daughter’s Pingu video to play a compilation tape of news coverage of DAN actions: the demonstrations at Parliament, the chainings to buses, the giant letter delivered to Downing Street last summer – the gestures that have suddenly become a part of the British political landscape. Now and then he corrects the screen – “Victoria Scott wasn’t a `protest leader’!” – or he remembers: “That was a slick demo, that was great fun…” Holdsworth’s daughter echoes the marchers on the tape. “What do we want?” she says. “Civil rights! When do we want them? Now!” Then her concentration wanders: “What do we want?” she says, “Pingu!”
It depends a little on definitions, but it seems that the history of disabled direct action goes back no further than the late Eighties. There were demonstrations before then, but no concerted efforts to break the law – and none of today’s focused, flamboyant, therapeutic, photogenic gestures. In 1989, Holdsworth and others protested in Chesterfield against the decision to pedestrianise the town centre without making allowance for cars with disabled orange badges. In that action, disabled people parked, were given tickets, and refused to pay the fines. Either this event, or one of the actions carried out at around the same time by the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) can probably be regarded as the start of disabled direct action in this country.
In 1990, Holdsworth and colleagues targeted the ITV Telethon, by then a decade old. “It was showing disabled people leading horrible lives,” he says, “very tragic – `Isn’t it a shame?’, all that – getting the public to pity us rather than feel angry, with us, for the situation we were in.” Holdsworth started ringing disabled friends, proposing some sort of demonstration, and he was taken aback by the vehemence of the response. “I thought, well, this is going to work, people are so angry about it. That was the explosion in direct action terms.” Five hundred people turned up to demonstrate at the LWT studios on the South Bank. “That was the Great Leap Forward,” says another disabled man on the demonstration, Michael Oliver. “It was a street party, but we won all the arguments.” The next Telethon, which drew 2,000 demonstrators, was the last.
The direct action movement now had momentum. DAN was officially formed, and, since then, has made its presence felt at the Christchurch by-election in 1993, at the Tate Gallery in London, at Kenneth Clarke’s surgery, at Harrods… Last spring, DAN held an action at Leeds City railway station. “The local authority had spent £40,000 on disabled people. But what they’d done is build a garden at the end of the platform, which was being opened by Jimmy Savile, who is one of the most hated figures in the movement. A hated figure. He drew at least half the people to the demo – because it was him who was opening the garden. So we all went down there, a little farty garden. We camped on it. We just covered it with wheelchair-users.”
In his office in his front room, Holdsworth laughs, and flicks a cigarette butt out of the window. His daughter comes in with a small globe and asks where we are.
DISABLED direct action – and “Piss on Pity” – are part of a broader British disability “movement” that has still not come of age. It is a movement whose history is written differently depending on what position you take in the current debate – the debate between “ofs” and “fors”; most ofs would not regard the fors as any part of their history. Michael Oliver, quoted above, is a radical, the Professor of Disability Studies at Greenwich University; he passes over the histories of the grand old “for” institutions, “the dead hand of charity”, and concentrates instead on such milestones as members of the National League of the Blind and Disabled taking their place in the Jarrow March.
But, as Oliver acknowledges, much of this history is unwritten, unclaimed. The modern disability movement is too young to have done what other liberation movements have done – restore lost heroes, find Mary Wollstonecrafts and Nat Turners. And besides its youth, the movement has a problem those other movements never had: “Not that long ago,” says one activist, “if you had spina bifida you died two hours after birth; it’s hard to get much of a reputation in two hours.”
In Oliver’s view, the modern disability movement grew out the prosperity of the Sixties, and the failure of disabled people, among other disadvantaged groups, to share in that prosperity. In the Seventies and Eighties, as feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, animal rights began to find a place in national politics, disabled people started to understand their plight in political terms. Disabled people began to “come out”: this is a metaphor used fairly commonly in the movement. Oliver’s own experience is a useful guide: son of working-class parents, he broke his neck in a holiday camp swimming-pool as a teenager; he spent a year at Stoke Mandeville. In 1972, now a wheelchair user, he started a sociology degree at the University of Kent. “I became involved in student politics and other radical left organisations. But I hadn’t become part of disability politics. I thought the Socialist revolution was going to solve everybody’s problems.”
As a postgraduate, Oliver started to consider how hopelessly flawed most thinking and writing on disability was – it was produced by able-bodied academics working on the assumption that illness and disability were the same thing. Oliver “came out” academically. It dawned on him that there was a sociology of disability to be constructed; he could study himself. Twenty years on, Oliver can take much credit for setting the academic agenda. His great contribution to disability studies has been in getting the “social model” of disability understood as a serious challenge to the medical model. That is to say: in the medical model, a man in a wheelchair cannot get where he wants to get because his body is not up to it. The social model acknowledges that the man has an “impairment”, but sees the obstacle as the cause of disablement. “The fact that I have polio,” one disabled man told me, in classic social model fashion, “is nothing to do with the fact that there are 17 steps to the Town Hall. It’s the 17 steps to the Town Hall that I see as the problem.” This does not mean – except, perhaps, in the minds of those who are stratospherically extreme – that Ben Nevis should be wheelchair-accessible, but it does aim to put the ball back in the court of those whose job it is to organise the world – and its buildings and its transport.
It was against this background – and the examples of other single-issue political movements and of America’s disability politics – that the disability movement began to take shape in Britain. Institutions were established; individuals came out.
For example: Adam Thomas is a young man – dark glasses and headscarf, a former interior designer – who has to use a wheelchair following a motorcycle accident 15 years ago. Right up until last year, he was in a state that might be called denial. “I denied that I was being segregated. I blocked the fact that I couldn’t get into certain buildings.” The turning point was the kindness of his best friend, who told Thomas that, obviously, he wouldn’t move into anything but a ground-floor flat. Thomas, while touched, was struck for the first time how other friends had not done the same. And last year, for the first time, Thomas became aware of the “movement”. As soon as he was aware of it, he became a part of it. This is now his life.
Another example: Eddy Hardy is 29, a Liverpool-born artist with a fashion- beard. He uses a wheelchair, and is now active in DAN. “I’ve had my impairment from birth. It was only about six years ago that I came to accept my identity as a disabled person. I didn’t particularly like disabled people. But one day I was watching the TV news, and it was these militant crips in the road in the USA. I thought, yeah, I can have some of that.”
A DECADE ahead of DAN’s direct action, the first real institutional sign of the disability movement’s arrival in Britain was the setting up of an umbrella organisation – the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) – in 1981. It was democratic, it was run by disabled people, it subscribed to the social model. It started with six affiliate members, and it is a sign of widespread individual comings out that it now has more than 100 affiliates – mostly local coalitions of disabled people. BCODP regards itself as having very little in common with, say, Radar, Mind, Mencap, RNIB, Cheshire Homes. “There is a degree of antagonism,” says Richard Wood, Executive Director of BCODP. “There is bound to be, isn’t there? Because traditional power bases are now being threatened by disabled people.”
To some in the old guard, BCODP unfairly underestimates the changes that are now taking place and that have already taken place in the traditional organisations. (The RNID has just appointed its first-ever deaf chief executive, for example, and the Spastics Society, under pressure from disabled people, has changed its name to Scope.) And more conservative disabled campaigners argue that the radical position unfairly underplays those institutions and techniques that – in a process that may now look painfully gradual – have so improved the lives of disabled people since the Sixties. “Improved by 100 per cent – improved attitudes, awareness,” says Sir Peter Large, an influential disabled man of an earlier generation, who has sat on many committees, helped draft legislation, argued with MPs. He talks of mobility allowance, attendance allowance: “These have benefited millions… BCODP have done very little in practical terms.” According to Sir Peter, the radicals are wrong to neglect the significance of, say, Alf Morris’s Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act of 1970: “He put disabled people on the map. He really started the whole move to improve things.” Piss on Pity? “I know exactly what they mean, but if you go up to an MP with that on I don’t think he’s or she’s likely to be warm to you – if they’re not already interested. But I know exactly what they mean.”
Bert Massie, who runs Radar, and is a wheelchair user, is a bte noir of the radicals. You get the impression of a man who accepted a job as a charity worker but who has found himself, suddenly, a politician. “In the past,” he says, “there was a greater acceptance of an incremental approach. People never rowed about disability.” The effect of the “fundamentalists”, he accepts, has been partly good. “I don’t know,” he says, “how Radar would have evolved if there hadn’t been fundamentalist pressure…” But he says that Radar cannot run too far ahead of its constituents. While the stereotype of a disabled person is probably a middle-aged man in a wheelchair, the most representative type, in truth, would be a elderly woman with arthritis, who might feel – along with many other of Britain’s 6.5 million disabled people – that she has little in common with, say, the members of DAN. There are disabled people, says Massie, who don’t regard themselves as disabled; there are disabled people who are Conservatives: “I’ve had people in here saying, wouldn’t it be better if you abolished social security, and had disabled people sponsored by private companies.”
Thanks to his position at the head of a fairly well-funded “for” organisation, and thanks to his support for incremental methods, and thanks to his recent claim to see some (flawed) virtue in the Government’s Disability Discrimination Bill, Massie is regarded with great hostility by many “fundamentalists”. Rachel Hurst, a radical with a sharp political sense, says, “Our voice has been shut out by the established charities. Some staff at Radar I’ve got more time for than I can say. [But] I wouldn’t mind shooting the man at the top. He is an Uncle Tom, Mr Massie… He actually doesn’t care a toss about the rights of disabled people.”
THIS, today, is the kind of observation one disability worker tends to make of another. But in this newly complex and sometimes hostile world of disabled politics, there is a miraculous and rather precarious piece of common ground – it’s a coalition called Rights Now! At Rights Now!, weapons are left at the door, and most of the important disabled organisations – both “of” and “for” – meet to promote civil rights legislation. Last year – another Great Leap Forward – the civil rights argument was won. At some point, legislation may follow.
The battle has been for legislation that, like its racial and sexual equivalents, would outlaw discrimination against disabled people (in employment, education, transport). The cost of implementing such a law has always been at the heart of resistance to it, but the Government’s figure of £17bn over five years has been widely disputed, and it has been shown how similar legislation in the USA has not, in fact, been as alarming to small businesses as was feared. The conversion of disabled people into employees and into more promiscuous consumers has had its economic benefits.
In May 1994, however, a private member’s bill, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, was killed messily by the Government, and the minister for disabled people, Nicholas Scott, eventually had to resign. But before his resignation in July, it became known that Scott had a daughter called Victoria Scott – young, non-disabled – who works for Radar. And, to the delight of the media, she was happy to give interviews on the subject of her father’s political shortcomings. To a great extent, it was due to this well-reported Antigone sub-plot that discrimination against disabled people became something of a hot media issue last year – the subject, for example, of a supportive Sun editorial. And because the press was now interested, demonstrations held by disabled people were widely reported. “I’d been trying get some coverage,” says one campaigner, “I was ringing the TV – the Big Breakfast, whatever – they weren’t interested. When the Vicky Scott story broke, they were ringing us.”
The penny seemed to drop. “People saw it,” says Rachel Hurst, “as a civil rights movement. Not just those poor sods can’t get on the bus.” Thanks to the failure of a bill about civil rights, the idea of disabled civil rights seemed to take hold. You could feel an earlier model of pity and passivity slipping away. MPs began to get many more letters and have disabled issues raised more frequently at surgeries. Consciousnesses were raised, not only among able-bodied people (“people with abilities” as one disabled radical has mockingly put it) but among sceptical disabled people who had remained politically “in” ; demonstrations swelled in numbers; individual (rather than institutional) membership of Rights Now! increased eight- fold in one year. And it was a mark of what had happened that articles scornful of “the disabled lobby” started to appear in national newspapers and magazines: as most campaigners would want it, sympathy – pity – had been removed from the equation.
THE FRIDAY night before last, DAN’s “Piss on Pity” mugs were selling fast in a rather overlit bar in the centre of Cardiff. After two days of a three-day series of actions in the city, DAN members had hired a room to have a drink, to contemplate the previous days’ events (an action each day, six arrests, the first ever actual charges, some fairly thorough TV coverage), and to consider the Big Action the next day, when they were hitting the bus station.
By 9pm the bar was filled with disabled people, full of solidarity and good humour and Carling Black Label. Inevitably, perhaps, DAN members are disproportionately young, articulate, mobile; although one regular protester, Sharon Mace, lies on a kind of horizontal wheelchair. (It is one of the brakes on the direct action movement that many people cannot get to actions, and once there, they cannot just sleep on someone’s floor – as they would have done, say, on a CND demonstration; the accessible hotel in a town is likely to be the most expensive.) In the bar, there was talk of “hip crips” and “crips with chips”. There were several radical- left cropped hair cuts (worn with the standard, tipped-back wool hats), there were copies of Militant on the tables (DAN’s treasurer, among others, is a Militant member). People who had never met before this week were testing new friendships by the use of exaggerated abuse, or hands left on shoulders. There was something of a chair-jam at the bar. A woman who imports the handcuffs that DAN members use to attach themselves to buses and trains was describing the problems she has with HM Customs and Excise. This is disabled politics at its most uncompromising, its most underground and – although this is not quite the point – at its grooviest.
As much as anger, the bar in Cardiff seemed full of people’s extraordinary sense of their own place at the start of a political process; people seemed light-headed not only with lager, but with the thought of making history. A DAN action – there have been about 60 – has an effect on several levels: it draws press attention to a particular, local issue; it keeps disabled civil rights on the agenda; it projects, through the media, images of disabled people looking rather less than pitiful or vulnerable; and for those on the action, it can be an experience of almost overwhelming personal empowerment. “There are disabled people,” says Eddy Hardy, “who watch us on TV and think [with disapproval]: `Oh God.’ But for every five or six of them, there’s one going, `Yes!’, thinking about it for the first time, coming out.” Once out, once on the street, “The feeling of pride and power is unbelievable. We’re told we’re weak; but today we stopped the traffic. We had an effect. It’s amazing… Today, I was lifted by the police, and everybody, all the others, were waiting for me. And cheering. And for a moment you’re a hero of the movement.” He checks himself. “But we’re all heroes. All heroes.”
In the bar in Cardiff, there was a lot of talk about pride (“We have our own culture”), a commodity which has been at the heart of other liberation movements, but you might have thought it was less accessible to disabled people. How far can you take the idea of disability pride if you would not wish your child, say, to have the same impairment as yourself? In more conservative disabled circles, people tend to say that a disabled child “would be no tragedy at all”. But in DAN, there are those who go the whole way: “If I have any kids,” says Hardy, “I hope they’re disabled. Then they’ll be militant bastards like me. If they’re crips, they’re going to learn what handcuffs are…”
The next day, shortly before he was arrested for his part in blocking Cardiff’s bus station, and inconveniencing its many passengers, Eddy Hardy joined the chant of 100 disabled people: “We’re DAN, you’re trapped, get used to it.” !
Where are they now?
Alan Holdsworth aka Johnny Crescendo still active in the US
Sharon Mace changed her name to Rowen Jade became chair of Equality 2025 rumoured to have helped in the DANing of Equality 2025, died in 2010
Richard Wood now an uncompromising disability consultant last we heard
Rachel Hurst founded Disability Awareness in Action and also worked to make significant changes with DPI and the UN, retired
Mike Oliver retired, spoke at last Disability History month on independent living, writes for Disability Now
RADAR-Now part of Disability Rights UK ( DRUK) merged with National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance in 2012, thanks to NCIL promotes itself as an ‘of’ disabled people organisation. It also runs the All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) and Disability Action Alliance an off shoot from the Disability Strategy
Bert Massey previously chair of the Disability Rights Committee, most recently chair of Labour’s Disability Taskforce commissioned by Liam Byrne MP. The taskforce also included Roger Berry, Neil Crowther, Agnes Fletcher, Kaliya Franklin and Ian Greaves
BCODP became UKDPC
Disability Discrimination Act replaced by the Equality Act (2010) became more diluted when the Condems removed Economic and Social impacts. Condems failed to have it removed as what they called ‘red tape’
Mind, Mencap, RNIB, Cheshire Homes and SCOPE still going and still speaking for us
“Rights Not Charity” more relevant now than ever
Jimmy Saville- we all know what happened there
Let us know the ones we’ve missed