At one time within the Disabled People’s Movement there was the belief that disabled people ought not to “wash their dirty linen in public” and to always show unity at all times just in case those that oppress us attempt to use the divisions against us. This was utterly unhealthy and helped to restrict the voice of minority opinion. Personally, I have no problem with acknowledging that disabled people, just as with our non-disabled counter parts, come from a variety of social and political backgrounds and as a result don’t always share the same opinions on issues affecting disabled people. There are political differences among disabled people and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Often these differences influence our take on mainstream politics, but they also impact upon people’s views on disability politics too. The debates around the social model, inclusion and the right-to-die, for example, reveal differing ‘world-views’ and I would argue the current struggle against the cuts is now throwing up alternative political perspectives as well.
Over recent weeks there has been much discussion in some quarters as to Disabled People Against Cuts’ (DPAC’s) decision to withdraw support for The Hardest Hit campaign. Here I want to discuss some of the differences that have emerged since we took the stance we have. Before anyone else says it for me, I recognise the irony behind the fact that a campaign group called Disabled People Against Cuts has turned it back upon a campaign that has a focus on disabled people and the cuts – however things aren’t always as simple as they seem. How did DPAC become involved in The Hardest Hit campaign in the first place?
The Hardest Hit campaign
The United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) finally took the decision to voice its opposition to the Government’s attack upon disabled people and DPAC had continued to urge UKDPC to come out make a stand. UKDPC took the initiative to invite the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) to work in partnership with them to establish a campaign. DPAC isn’t a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) and therefore had no expectations as to being invited to participate however when an invite to attend a meeting arrived, we accepted. Prior to the meeting the co-founders of DPAC discussed how we felt about working in partnership with DBC because it contains some of the major disability charities. The Disability Benefits Consortium involves many different types of organisations who have had differing types of relationships with disabled people and their organisations and DPAC therefore wants to make it absolutely clear that there is no intention on our part to tar DBC all of its members with the same brush. We do assert however that the major disability charities have had historically very distinctive relationships – often socially oppressive – with disabled people and their organisations.
In all honesty, we were concerned about working with the major disability charities because unlike Tom Shakespeare for example we do not believe these major charities have completely broken with their past practices or have acknowledged their role in disabled people’s social oppression. Many DPOs remain critical of how they behaved during the Rights Now campaign and believe some of them colluded with New Labour to marginalise and undermine the Disabled People’s Movement. The big question for DPAC was: could they be trusted? What we concluded was:
An organisation should not be judged by its stated aims
and objectives, the ‘PC’ language it employs or the friends
it seeks to make alone; an organisation should be judged by
In our opinion this can be applied equally to DPOs as it can be to major disability charities. Using this as our principled position we were prepared to consider the nature of The Hardest Hit campaign in terms of whether or not it would be a genuine partnership and we could only do this if we were round the table with them. During the meeting I attended I did state that DPAC wasn’t refusing to work with all disability charities but we did reserve the right not to work with any organisation that had been questioned again and again for abusing disabled people’s human rights; I didn’t directly name Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD). After the meeting a senior disability activist expressed the view that LCD was unlikely to be involved in The Hardest Hit campaign therefore there was no need to worry about them. It was only days after this meeting that DPAC learnt that UKDPC had agreed to work with LCD to organise the rally on the 11th of May. People may be asking themselves the question, does DPAC seriously believe LCD is any worse than the other disability charities and our answer is that this is exactly our opinion based on evidence obtained by us. In our opinion LCD continue to undermine disabled people’s rights and engage in oppressive activities.
Given the dominant role being played within The Hardest Hit campaign
by LCD, the co-founders of DPAC felt that it would be unprincipled of us to remain involved and in support of this campaign. We agreed to explain our position, however, we would not seek to actively discourage disabled people from participating on the 11th of May. This said, I feel justified in also stating that the early promotion of The Hardest Hit campaign by a number of the Disability Benefits Consortium members failed to mention the partnership with UKDPC or include any DPOs.
This website for example: http://thehardesthit.wordpress.com/ contains the statement that:
The Hardest Hit campaign, organised jointly by the
Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled
People’s Council, brings together individuals and
organisations to send a clear message to the
Government: stop these cuts.
however around its edge there are no logos belonging to DPOs (as checked today 13th April) including the absence of UKDPC’s logo. Was this agreed with UKDPC? For a number of disability activists this brought a flashback to the Rights Now days. Having outlined the background, I now want to move on to examine some of the issues involved.
Different perspectives: what are the issues?
One criticism aimed at DPAC is that principles are all well and good, but with the situation being as terrible as it is, shouldn’t we cut the charities a bit of slack? I call this the principles versus pragmatism debate. What are principles and why do we have them? There are many definitions of what principles are and I believe DPAC employs “principles” as being: “a specific basis of conduct and management”.
In our opinion it is vital to establish a framework for ourselves – are we prepared to work with people who are knowingly racist, disablist, sexist or homophobic? Do we ignore the fact that organisations might be viewing disabled people as ‘helpless cripples’ so long as they are prepared to come out and oppose the cuts? We believe it is precisely because we are facing severe attacks upon our rights and lives at this moment in time that there is even more reason than ever to ensure that the messages we’re sending out and the actions we take are clear and work in the long term best interest of all disabled people. I make no apology for saying that DPAC refuses to “turn a blind eye” and betray certain groups of disabled people for some mythical “greater good”. Some may accuse us of cutting off our noses to spite our face or needlessly creating barriers where none exist, however, it is our view that it would be hypocritical of DPAC to speak of defending people’s rights, including the right to independent living and self-determination, if we gave a nod and a wink to anyone who is engaged in activity undermining these rights. How many Catholics are proud of their Church’s record on addressing child abuse?
This leads onto a simple definition of pragmatism where it is seen as being: “a practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems”. Here I’m talking about a common sense understanding of pragmatism which implies ‘ends justify means’. It has been argued by some DPOs that major disability charities have resources, influence and power; areas where DPOs are lacking, so we need to be practical and hitch our wagon to their horses. Forgive me for pointing this out, but wagons don’t lead! What kind of “partnership” is this when the inequality between UKDPC and the major disability charities is so vast? ‘Ah, so you are anti-working with the charities?’ And again our answer remains, not necessarily. The Hardest Hit campaign, in our opinion, by applying a pragmatic approach to this ‘partnership’ has resulted in UKDPC allowing itself to be held as a hostage to fortune and this means disabled people are being asked to accept their historical role of going ‘cap-in-hand’ to the charities. The message coming from UKDPC and some others is that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ (sic). We could debate the reasons behind the inequalities between the ‘of’ and ‘for’ organisations but these are well documented elsewhere and our central concern here is to note the failure of UKDPC to provide political leadership for disabled people in order to mitigate against the unequal partnership they formed. This partnership or ‘united front’ reminds me of the bankrupt politics during the 1930s when sections of the Left surrendered their principles in order to form a ‘popular front’ based upon the lowest common features. This decision proved extremely costly and I hope UKDPC hasn’t made the same type of error.
Throwing ‘principles’ out with the bathwater has led to a situation where UKDPC can argue:
We fully understand the feelings expressed by DPOs
and individuals towards some of the ‘for’ charities in this campaign, however, at a time when disabled people are facing harsh cuts and breaches of rights, we have to
campaign with organisations whose policy and/or practice
is not in keeping with the DPO philosophy.
What exactly does this mean? Where are the boundaries drawn and by whom? UKDPC, mistakenly in my view, believe they have things covered when they state:
The charities ‘for’ recognise that we are working from
human rights framework, and that our agenda forindependent living is not negotiable.
Within the context of The Hardest Hit campaign, what is there to negotiate? UKDPC are not going to influence how LCD operate; so this ‘recognition’ is utterly meaningless. However from a disability equality perspective, UKDPC claiming it works from a human rights framework but is prepared to ignore allegations of human rights abuse against one of its partners ‘beggars belief’ (sic). In our view this simplistic pragmatic approach discredits the Disabled People’s Movement.
Another issue raised is that of allies and the justification of working towards a ‘common good’. UKDPC state:
In common with other liberation movements, we are
having to find a common way forward with those who
are not immediately obvious allies
DPAC know from our own experience that there has been a great deal of time and energy discussing our relationships with disabled and non-disabled organisations and much of this activity has centred upon how best to work with people outside our traditions. This requires an understanding of what an ally is.
Over the last few weeks a few disabled people have asked DPAC to remember that: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It’s a saying DPAC is very familiar with and believe that both British and American governments have adopted this opportunist approach with disastrous consequences in Iraq and Libya for example. What actually determines who is a ‘friend’ or an ally. According to Webster’s, an ally is someone who is “joined with another for a common purpose.” It is reasonable therefore for both UKDPC and DBC to claim they are allies, but what are we supposed to understand by this term ‘common purpose’? In UKDPC’s statement they assert:
We cannot turn organisations away from the Hardest
Hit Alliance as long as they are prepared to fight the fightwith us and sign up to our leadership and mission of this
particular campaign. (emphasis added – BWF)
Again, these are fine words but, why is it so hard to take them seriously? At no time have DPAC questioned the view that the big disability charities are opposed to cuts aimed at disabled people, but this is not the same as accepting that idea that these charities share the same agenda as the majority of DPOs. DPAC sees no evidence to suggest that DBC is taking its leadership from UKDPC; as I have already stated, this remains a concern and a criticism of UKDPC’s role. There is however clear evidence to show that some charities have priorities which place certain disabled people’s interests (and in doing so, their own interests) above those of other disabled people. In addition, there are times when the criticism levelled at the cuts or reforms by particular charities are couched in terms which accept at least in part the ideological agenda being forwarded by the Government.
Call us cynical, but this again has echoes of the early 1990s and Rights Now, therefore we can’t help but question whether or not there is a possibility that some of the forces within the Hardest Hit alliance have their own hidden agendas. Are some charities using it as a bargaining ploy; we ask this because as things stand, along with the bankers, particular charities and third sector organisations could end up benefiting from the Government’s restructuring of the State.
The Disabled People’s Movement has campaigned for many years to obtain independent living for disabled people and DPAC believes Government policy is undermining disabled people’s ability to achieve or maintain independent living. Against this backdrop we can’t help but note that LCD makes a vast amount of money from ‘social care’. This area of service provision is their biggest earner as shown by the increase in revenue (8%) for the 2009/2010 year. Elsewhere on our website DPAC has written about the proposed change from DLA to PIP and how this will impact right across sections of the disabled community. We oppose the Government removing the mobility element from disabled people in residential care, however we believe this move has been aided by oppressive and questionable practices within residential care management. We pour scorn on Cameron’s claim that, “we’re all in this together”, but how should we interpret the decision of disability charities such as LCD to create a specific campaign around the residential care mobility issue? Just looking after their clients best interests?
For DPAC, being an ally should mean more than sharing a common purpose; disabled people are subjected to social oppression, therefore we want to work with people who want to further disabled people’s collective interests as well as their own. We would subscribe to this definition used by a section of the LGBT community: “An ally is someone who works as an advocate for an oppressed population to which he or she may or may not belong.” Given the historical social relationships between disabled people and major disability charities, many disabled people remain distrustful of these charities motives and use of power.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a body of opinion among disabled activists that holds the view that a leopard doesn’t change its spots by stealing another animal’s skin or by imitating its victims. If charities are changing and will work in true partnership with disabled people and their organisations, then it would be counter productive to stand in the way of progress. However as things currently stand the promised ‘cultural shift’ and changes in practice are hard to notice and in some cases are clearly ‘masks’ to hide the traditional roles charities play in disabled people’s lives.
The Fight Goes On
Disabled People Against Cuts only exists to protect the interests of disabled people against unjust and damaging policies and practices arising from the present and the previous government’s actions. As our own mission statement said:
We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people.
We attended the UKDPC meeting to see if members of DBC were serious in their commitment to ‘fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people’ – we would’ve supported the Hardest Hit campaign if this commitment had been visible; instead, they have elected to work with an agent of disabled people’s social oppression and in so doing forced DPAC’s hand. From our perspective our non-involvement in the Hardest Hit campaign will be judged not by what we or others say about the decision we took, it will be judged by our ability to continue the fight against the cuts and to work tirelessly to assist in the creation of meaningful and principled alliances involving disabled and non-disabled people. DPAC took no pleasure or comfort in our withdrawal and we don’t consider ourselves to have staked a claim to the moral high ground. We took the decision did because each and every one of us believes it was the right thing to do in order to best further the interests of our community.