In 2012 not long after the government passed the welfare reform Act John McDonnell MP warned the House of Commons: ““We now have a disability movement in this country of which we have not seen the equal before: Black Triangle occupied Atos offices in Scotland, DPAC – Disabled People Against Cuts – chained themselves in Trafalgar Square. These people are not going to go away. They will be in our face – and rightly so.” And we have been ever since. With Atos on the run, the bedroom tax on the ropes and the ongoing fight for the Independent Living Fund we are seeing the results of disabled people’s co-ordinated grassroots campaigning.
A model of campaigning that responds to the direct lived experience of disabled people is not popular with everyone. Too often it rocks the boat in questioning entrenched positions within the disability sector such as the need to close the Remploy factories at the earliest opportunity whatever the cost and the wisdom of local authority administered social care support. Disabled people have looked beyond disabled people’s organisations and disability ‘professionals’ to gain support for grassroots led disabled people’s campaigns, making alliances with the broader anti cuts movement and the various, often conflicted groups within that, from trade unions to UKUncut.
The model has proved successful and disabled people’s protest has succeeded in punching holes in austerity, as the Government and private companies like Atos are strongly aware. DPAC co-founder Linda Burnip remembers: “Our first protest against ATOS was January 2011 in Triton Square and few people had heard of the WCA or ATOS. Our continued national days of action against ATOS from then on helped very much to change that and bring the atrocities being inflicted on disabled people to the forefront of public awareness. After the DPAC actions against ATOS sponsorship of the paralympic games and the spontaneous booing of Osborne by 80,000 disabled spectators our campaign against ATOS gained international attention. Our early intervention in targeting protests at ATOS recruitment fares has eventually paid off and particularly after Joyce Drummond and Dr. Woods spoke out about their experiences of working for ATOS the WCAs and ATOS are now so toxic that they are unable to recruit enough staff to carry out assessments and the whole system is in melt-down. Any firm considering taking over the ATOS contract should be aware that disabled people will do the same to them as they have done to ATOS.”
While the bedroom tax is being held aloft as an example of the effectiveness of framing theory we should not forget that co-ordinated community action put the real pressure on. It may not have changed the government’s mind but the audacity of two wheelchair accessible bus-loads of disabled people turning up at Iain Duncan Smith’s mansion to serve an eviction notice and picnic in the lavish grounds last April set the tone for a determined campaign that has placed disabled people at the centre of community action on estates across the country. Disabled campaigner Robert Punton says, “Disabled people have been at the forefront of both this despicable tax and the resulting campaign. A by-product of the campaign has been that we as a disabled people’s pressure group have come into a working relationship with unions and other community campaigns strengthening everyone’s position and resolve.”
The campaign to save the independent living fund (ILF) led by ILF recipients and supported by DPAC and Inclusion London among other disabled people led groups has gained real traction despite the consensus among national charities and disability organisations that transfer to local authorities was the way forwards. Without a grassroots material basis from which to develop, theoretical rights will remain forever in the abstract. Disabled people are experiencing ever diminishing packages of support increasingly delivered on a ‘clean and feed’ model, with a rise in administration by in-house local authority services and prepayment cards. Yet, while, through continuation of the ILF, we have a layer of disabled people who regardless of their level of support need are enabled to enjoy a quality of life and level of choice and control that affords an ordinary life, we prevent a full scale roll back and the loss of aspiration for independent living for disabled people. Kevin Caulfield, disabled activist and Chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Cuts says “The campaign has been really important to draw attention to the government’s suffocation of disabled people’s right to independent living and equality. Every disabled person who needs support should have the right resources to live a full life which is why the ILF should be protected and re-opened so that everyone who needs it can apply. The campaign exposed the light touch of the government in relation to enforcing equality legislation and we can see why they are desperate to restrict disabled people’s access to justice by excluding us from legal aid and the right to take judicial review”.
It is interesting that the impact of disabled people’s campaigning at this pivotal point in history is so much better recognised outside the disability sector than within. This is for a number of reasons. Mainstream media bias means that most activity is only communicated through social and independent media and to those already linked in. Then there also seems to be a misperception in some quarters that because disabled people are allying ourselves with mainstream movements that it is not disabled people setting the agenda. This misses some really exciting developments where disabled people are influencing a wider understanding and application in practice of disability equality and inclusion. DPAC activists were for example central to last summer’s anti-fracking protest in Balcombe having worked with Reclaim the Power to build an accessible protest camp and a direct action of which disabled activists were at the forefront.
The point is not though to gain recognition, the point is to continue to effect concrete social change. Atos may be looking for an exit strategy but disabled people need abolition of the Work Capability Assessment itself, the bedroom tax may have lost all credibility but disabled people and their families are continuing to build arrears and to suffer under its implementation, the Independent Living Fund may have been at least temporarily saved for those existing recipients but the crisis in social care grows ever more desperate. What we have shown over the last few years is that we do have agency when we co-ordinate and campaign. Now there is more to do.
For more information about Disabled People Against Cuts national conference on 12th April 2014 contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note due to limited capacity places are prioritised for signed up members.