by Bob Williams Findlay
It’s often said that history only remembers the victors. Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a video to, and I quote, “Celebrate twenty years since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.” For disabled people who were involved in the struggle to have the inequalities we face acknowledged and addressed, I doubt there are many of us who will be putting the flags out or popping champagne corks in celebration of the Act itself.
The bulk of us who were actively involved remain true to the belief that the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was a significant defeat for disabled people and the struggle against social oppression. This is not to say the passing of the DDA had no positive impact upon disabled people’s lives or had no influence on social change, it did, but acknowledging this shouldn’t detract us from recognising the fact the DDA restricted our progress, was of limited use to disabled people and was never likely to challenge the status quo.
It is impossible to produce a balance sheet of the DDA’s true impact because all kinds of external factors operate to mask the truth. It can be argued that the overall struggle for anti-discrimination legislation and specific actions such as the Campaign for Accessible Transport were more instrumental in bringing about organic social change. Over the last twenty years the whole of society has radically changed, and how disabled people have been both seen and treated have been part of that process whether that’s been via Tony Blair’s “rights and responsibilities” agenda or the neoliberal business case for ‘including disabled people’.
To fully appreciate our position on the DDA it is necessary to strip away the sugar coated presentation of this historic piece of legislation in order to reveal how the collective voice of disabled people and their many allies were silenced by acts of betrayal and brute force. The real story isn’t really about the twenty years since the passing of this piecemeal, ineffectual and oppressive Act, but rather it is about how the Civil Rights Bill and the ideas contained within it were buried both physically and politically by those who felt threatened by the potential impact it would’ve had on society.
The aim here is not to romanticise the campaign for full civil and human rights for disabled people, but instead to recall the major events that led up to the Tories introducing their own Disability Discrimination Bill in order to head off the Private Member’s Bill on Civil Rights Bill and why the passing of the DDA should be viewed as a significant and negative watershed in our emancipation struggle. Neither is it possible to critique the nature or merits of the Disabled People’s Movements campaign, although there’ll be signposts to various opinions on it.
Over the last twenty years we have seen various ‘interpretations’ of the struggle for our emancipation and many of these place tremendous emphasis on the fact that legislation was adopted to give disabled people ‘rights’. Here is a lengthy quotation from one such interpretation:
‘The Disabled People’s ‘Rights Now!’ campaign had a rich and diverse membership, including representation from many trade unions. It encompassed direct action, mass lobbies of parliament, petitions and awareness-raising campaigns to support civil rights for disabled people, and the issue was raised in Parliament on 14 separate occasions. The campaign won over a number of MPs and Peers, including Alf Morris, Roger Berry, Tom Clarke and Harry Barnes, who provided much needed political support and sponsored various Disabled People’s Civil Rights Private Members Bills.
The campaign reached a turning point in 1994 when the Conservative Government and the then Minister for Disabled People Nicholas Scott were found to have misled Parliament by stating that the cost of implementing civil rights legislation for disabled people would be greater than the sum previously calculated by civil servants.
In 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) became law and although it was a watered-down version of what disabled people wanted, it was nevertheless a huge victory for the Rights Now! campaign.’ (Aspis, 2011:3)
There are many aspects of this account that needs to be placed in a wider context and, as a consequence, it can then be viewed differently. Let’s begin by looking at important historical moments as a backdrop to the Rights Now campaign. Barnes and Oliver remind us that:
…the move by disabled people to form their own organisations…
fostered a growing collective consciousness amongst disabled people…. [which] began a process of reformulating the problems of disability, shifting the focus away from the functional limitations of impaired individuals towards contemporary social organisation with its plethora of disabling barriers. It also set in train a political divergence between organisations for the disabled and organisations of disabled people. (Barnes and Oliver,1991: 4)
The political divergence spoken about here between organisations for the disabled (sic) and organisations of disabled people permeates right through the history of the struggle for anti-discrimination legislation and beyond. Significantly, Barnes and Oliver go on to say:
Many of the traditional organisations for the disabled had advised the government that discrimination was not a problem for disabled people and that legislation was unnecessary. Yet in 1979, the Silver Jubilee Access Committee drew attention to a number of ‘blatant acts of discrimination against disabled people. The official committee which investigated the allegations was unequivocal in its findings: discrimination against disabled people was widespread and legislation was essential. (Barnes and Oliver,1991: 5)
Ian Bynoe picks up the story when he writes:
….1992 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People
(CORAD).This is the only report on disability and discrimination ever to have been received by a UK government. It found discrimination to be commonplace in the experience of disabled people and recommended anti-discrimination legislation. Its
proposals were dismissed by the government of the day and there has since been no evidence of a change of mind to revive hopes that the CORAD proposals might be implemented. (Bynoe, 1991: 1)
For the record the CORAD committee defined discrimination as: ‘the unjustifiable withholding whether intentional or not, of some service, facility or opportunity from a disabled person because of that person’s disability’ (Large, 1982:7)
The stark reality is that since the early 1980s there were no less than fourteen attempts to introduce anti-discrimination legislation via Private Members Bills largely introduced, but not exclusively, by backbench Labour MPs. Not only did each fail, they nearly all followed a similar pattern where in Parliament the Tory spokesperson would state that, ‘there was nothing but good will towards the disabled’, and of course, ‘education was better than legislation’ if any problems were to exist. On the other hand, the supporters of the various bills would mainly focus upon employment issues. Meanwhile outside of Parliament there was the ritualised farce of the big disability charities shipping in bus loads of disabled people to parade around Parliament Square before sending them home again.
Barnes and Oliver inform us that:
The formation of Voluntary Organisations for Anti-
Discrimination Legislation (VOADL) was a sign that many organisations for the disabled had been converted to views articulated by disabled people themselves. However, there
remain, perhaps inevitably, significant differences between the
philanthropic and liberationist elements of the disability lobby.
(Barnes and Oliver,1991: 5)
Those of us who were involved with VOADL and later, Rights Now, might take issue with the view that the “for” organisations were actually ‘converted’ to the views held by disabled people. Their practice then and since would cast a long shadow over this assumption. An alternative view is that for a long time disabled people’s organisations were only granted observer status within VOADL however the growing momentum behind the British Council for Disabled People’s campaign for anti-discrimination legislation (ADL), began to shift both the focus and the exercising of power and so this ‘conversion’ by the charities had more to do with their fear of being outflanked by BCODP than [it did to] any serious commitment to disability politics.
John Evans provides us with information on BCODP’s campaign when he says:
It was 1991 when BCODP (British Council of Disabled People) which is the national, representative and democratic organisation of disabled people in the UK launched its ADL campaign as its future main objective. (Evans, 1996: 2)
There are two important points raised here. Firstly, the fact BCODP made this their main campaign has been debated off and on within the Disabled People’s Movement ever since and it’s an issue that continues to divide opinion. This article isn’t the place to unpack the issues, however, the significance of the decision will be returned to later. Secondly, a major contribution to the launch of BCODP’s ADL campaign was the publishing of commissioned research undertaken by Colin Barnes into discrimination against disabled people in the UK. Evans points out that “Discrimination and Disabled People in Britain” was so comprehensive ‘…. it provided more than enough evidence supporting the whole case for ADL and it became a very useful tool in the campaign and a symbol for empowerment and inspiration. It was the first authoritative piece of research done in this area and was carried out by disabled researchers and disabled experts.’ (Evans, 1996: 2)
The momentum generated by BCODP’s campaign and the emergence of the Disability Action Network (DAN) made VOADL look staid and stuffy. As mentioned previously the differences between the philanthropic and liberationist elements of the disability lobby became increasingly marked. The Executive Committee of BCODP recommended that VOADL had a make-over and with a bloodless coup, Rights Now was launched under the stewardship of the Disabled People’s Movement. John Evans again broadly captures the period between 1992 and 1994 when he writes:
Direct action no doubt heightened the profile for the need for civil rights legislation in the eyes of the general public and did a lot to shake up the politicians complacency on the issue but it could never be enough by itself. Without the lobbying of parliament and meetings with politicians putting forward constructive arguments based on available evidence of discrimination and seeking their support the cause would have been lost. Any changes in the law have to be done through Parliament so you have to get some politicians fighting for your cause. At the same time disabled experts and lawyers have to work alongside other lawyers and politicians in writing up the Bill. This work was co-ordinated by a group called the Rights Now…. which was a coalition of about 50 disability organisations and charities who were formed to work together to help bring about ADL. (Evans, 1996: 3)
Two central features mark the difference between VOADL and Rights Now. Disabled people drove the agenda and increased the public profile of the ADL campaign, but at the same time worked directly with members of parliament to put together the Civil Rights Bill. Many of us believe that this displacement of the ‘big six’ disability charities resulted in them watering down their commitment to full and comprehensive legislation and a growing willingness to accept compromise as the price of regaining their power position over disabled people. This watershed moment sees the birth of what has subsequently become ‘Janus politics’ – where the charities look back towards the radical language and concepts from the Disabled People’s Movement, but actually creates ‘new meaning’ which transforms them into tools which then help maintain their status. For example, the concepts ‘independent living’ and ‘choices and rights’ now employed by organisations such as Scope and Disability Rights UK are a million miles from their original meaning.
Mike Oliver noted that:
Speaker after speaker from non-representative organisations for disabled people claimed the social model as their own in the Trafalgar Square demonstrations of 1994. Additionally, the Disability Rights Commission established in 1997 by the New Labour Government declares that it is guided in everything it does by the social model of disability. (Oliver, 2004: 28)
Caroline Gooding and Bob Findlay advised the opposition parties on behalf of Rights Now, including writing a briefing paper on the social model and the definition of disability. Once in power New Labour set up a Disability Task Force, but this body steadfastly declined to change the traditional definition of disability to one in keeping with the social model.
Stepping back a little, the first test for the new wave militancy and Parliamentary campaigning came when Harry Barnes tried to push through the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
Ian Parker, in an article called ‘SPITTING ON CHARITY’ which appeared in the Independent, wrote:
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. (Parker, 2011: unpaged)
This caused an outcry and came about because as Parker acknowledged:
Last year – another Great Leap Forward – the civil rights argument was won. At some point, legislation may follow. (Parker, 2011: unpaged)
Parliament was finally ready to pass ADL, but the Tories and big business weren’t prepared to see the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill go through. As Lorraine Gradwell states, ‘… the Tory government were so concerned about the increasing popularity of anti discrimination legislation that they brought forward this fudge of a compromise’.(2015)
Their only course of action was to head off our Bill by introducing the weaker Disability Discrimination Bill led by William Hague. This was eventually passed into law twenty years ago as the Disability Discrimination Act.
What followed was a two horse handicapped chase. Roger Berry picked up the gauntlet and re-introduced the Civil Rights Bill, but Hague had the advantage of proposing a Bill supported by the Conservative John Major government. It was under these conditions that the ‘big six’ charities made their move.
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.” (Parker, 2011: unpaged)
Evans also recalls in 1996 that:
The DDA took only 6 months from beginning to end in becoming law.
Unfortunately the DDA was flawed from the start as being a weak piece of legislation which was unenforceable and was considered a drop in the ocean, as it was certainly not going to protect disabled people from the many forms of discrimination which existed. It outraged the disability movement because it denied them the fully comprehensive civil rights legislation which they had worked so hard campaigning for and consequently they refused to have anything to do with it. (Evans, 1996: 4)
Perhaps even more forcibly Marian Corker wrote in ‘The UK Disability Discrimination Act – disabling language, justifying inequitable social participation’:
What has been ‘achieved’ is a legal instrument that has variously been described as ‘confusing, contorted and unsatisfactory’ (Gooding 1996); ‘a dissembling law not an enabling statute’ (Doyle 1997: 78); and ‘one of the most ill-conceived pieces of legislation ever to reach the statute books’ (Corker 1998: 115). This is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) (Corker, 2000)
She went on to say:
However, there is little doubt that the DDA represents a muddled combination of prohibition, justifiable discrimination and reasonable adjustment that can themselves act as a barrier to claimants who may be ‘isolated, possibly ill-informed and under-resourced’ (Gooding 1996: 6). Further, because the DDA legally justifies direct discrimination on the grounds of ‘disability’ in what Gooding (1996: 6) describes as ‘dangerously vague’ terms, and fails to incorporate a notion of the indirect discrimination experienced by disabled people, it seems an ineffective legal instrument for tackling the institutionalised oppression of disabled people. (Corker, 2000)
The DDA, unlike the Civil Rights Bill, wasn’t designed to tackle the institutionalised oppression of disabled people. Any hope of repealing and replacing the DDA with the Civil Rights Bill when New Labour came to power was quickly dashed. First, Labour’s Tom Clarke refuted BCODP’s claim that Labour in opposition had promised to do just that. Second, the Task Force already mentioned was hand-picked with more radical elements of the Disabled People’s Movement blacklisted throughout Labour’s terms in office. Margaret Hodge in 2000 when Minister for Disabled People, instructed the BBC to ‘edit out’ criticism of the DDA in its Disabled Century TV program. Third, Labour looked towards the new ‘Disability Movement’ driven by the charities and DPOs willing to buy into Blair’s ‘Third Way’ and the neoliberal market economy. Finally, it was New Labour who brought in Atos to hound sick and disabled people.
So, when we’re told the DDA was a victory, what does this mean? There has been a paradoxical development; just at the moment when inadequate legal rights were established for disabled people, the movement for emancipation was outflanked by the big disability charities and made an outcast by successive governments. Since 1995 the Disabled People’s Movement has gone into decline. Internal division and criticism followed the defeat of the Civil Rights Bill, with senior disabled activists accusing BCODP of ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’ by having ‘legislation’ as its prime focus and failing to cultivate grassroots structures and organisation.
Does this look like a victory? Merely getting legal recognition that disabled people have limited rights not to be discriminated against? Are they saying we should be celebrating being granted crumbs from their table? In 2005 the Public Interest Research Unit reported, ‘Ten years of the Disability Discrimination Act: Anniversary research indicates qualified failure.’
The DDA gave individual rights, but simply asked for employers and service providers to behave ‘reasonably’. The last five years in particular has witnessed savage attacks on both disabled people’s rights, services and lifestyles. A reverse of disabled people’s fortunes added to by the threat of legalised ‘assisted suicide’ is the reality, not this empty rhetoric of ‘equal citizenship’. Disabled people have been silenced and sidelined for the majority of the last twenty years apart from piecemeal changes in the social environment and attempts at tokenistic ‘inclusion’ here and there.
Now the whitewash begins. We see video clips from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Scope on 20 years of the DDA, producing ‘false history’ via safe narratives and the worst of all, the Heritage Lottery Fund supporting Leonard Cheshire’s empire to write ‘disability history’ (sic). Ellis’s piece for the HLF on the DDA is another example of revisionism with a dash of criticism thrown in.
Those of us who lived and fought through the 1980s and 1990s see no cause to celebrate. Politically, we were defeated in 1995; our slogan, “Nothing About Us, Without Us”, has still to be realised. Although the last twenty years has been an uphill struggle to keep the fight for emancipation alive, we are seeing yet again a new wave of determination among disabled people; people who believe in freedom and social justice. These green shoots are what we should be celebrating today, not the results of the falsification of history written by our oppressors and shameful or misguided collaborators.
Aspis, S. (2011:3) Campaigns in Action – Disabled People’s struggle for Equality
Barnes, C. and Oliver, M. (1991) ‘DISCRIMINATION, DISABILITY AND WELFARE: FROM NEEDS TO RIGHTS’ in Bynoe, I. et al.,
Equal Rights for Disabled People: A Case for a new law – IPPR.
Bynoe, I. (1991) THE CASE FOR ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LEGISLATION in Bynoe, I. et al., Equal Rights for Disabled People: A Case for a new law – IPPR.
Large, P., (1982) Report of the Committee on Restrictions
Against Disabled People
Evans, J. (1996) ‘THE U.K. CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGN AND THE DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION ACT’
Oliver, M. (2004) ‘The Social Model in Action: if I had a hammer’, in Implementing the Social Model of Disability: Theory and Research edited by Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer (2004); Leeds: The Disability Press, pp. 18-31
Parker, I. (2011) ‘SPITTING ON CHARITY’ from the Independent,
Gradwell, L. (2015) Comment on her Facebook page, 4th November.
Corker, M. (2000) ‘The UK Disability Discrimination Act – disabling language, justifying inequitable social participation’, in: The 10tk Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, edited by Anita Silvers and Leslie Francis, Routledge
Additional material used as research:
Corker, M. (1998) Deaf and Disabled or Deafness Disabled? Buckingham: Open University Press
Doyle, B. (1997) Enabling legislation or dissembling law? -The Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Modern Law Review, 64
Gooding, C. (1996) Blackstone’s guide to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, London: Blackstone, in association with RADAR
Public Interest Research Unit (2005) ‘Ten years of the Disability Discrimination Act: Anniversary research indicates qualified failure’
Ellis, L. (2015) ’20 Years of the DDA’, Heritage Lottery Fund