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The history of the Disabled People's Movement for equality and inclusion

Celebrating International Day of People with Disabilities 2022

I have to confess, this day brings mixed emotions for me. 

The principle that disabled lives have equal value is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is celebrated every year on 3rd December. More and more businesses join in the celebrations by inviting disabled speakers, turning on purple lights and renewing their pledge to disability inclusion. And that's a good thing.

But I'm always a bit uncomfortable about how little awareness or recognition there is about the background to this day. The principle that disabled people should have equal opportunities to participate in society wasn't handed to us on a plate. It was fought for, and the fight was bitter. Having had the honour to meet, and work with, some of those leaders, and indeed victors, of the Disability Rights movement, I want to play my part in keeping their fight on the record.

Since IDPWD falls in Disability History Month, here's a short history lesson.


Photo of a member of the disabled people's Direct Action Network chaining himself to a London bus
The Disabled People's Direct Action Network in the early 1990s.

The Disabled People's Movement in the UK (and elsewhere) is one of the big 20th century social justice movements. 


It's equivalent to the Suffragettes' campaign for women's right to vote, or the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the US. But we barely hear about it (although see this year's BBC drama Then Barbara Met Alan for an exception.) 


Our movement for equality and inclusion in the UK began in the 1960s among a group of young disabled care home residents led by Paul Hunt. Hunt and others lived in the LeCourt residential institution, not out of choice, but because it was decided by authorities that this was the cheapest and most convenient way of meeting their care needs. They had no control over what time they got up or what they ate. They had little contact with the outside world and no opportunity to work or participate in society. It was incarceration in the name of care.

By forming a campaign group and taking on the authorities, they fought for, and eventually won, the right to freedom from this segregated existence, by living in the community. The Right to Independent Living is to this day, enshrined in Human Rights law. What Independent Living means is not doing everything ourselves with no help. It means having the right to live in our own homes as equal citizens, with choice and control over the support we need with daily living tasks. And with this, the right to participate in society and work.  


Then in the 1980s and 1990s we had the Disabled People's Direct Action Network. Disabled people, led by Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth, protested their exclusion from public spaces and transport. They stopped traffic and chained themselves and their wheelchairs to buses and demanded the simple right to travel on a bus to get from A to B.   


The Disability Discrimination Act, later incorporated into the Equality Act 2010, was a direct outcome of these struggles. The DDA enshrined the right to equal access by placing a duty on certain businesses and authorities to make 'reasonable adjustments' such as installing a ramp onto a bus.

The big slogan to emerge from this movement was Rights, Not Charity. Because they challenged the stereotype of disabled people as pitiful victims of misfortune and showed how our exclusion from society was not inevitable but was a social and political choice.

The first formally constituted Disabled People's Organisation to emerge from these struggles was the Union for the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) around 1975.

But, as the name suggests, this organisation had a narrower understanding of disability than we hold today. Its members were mostly wheelchair users with visible disabilities or people with visual impairments. UPIAS explicitly excluded people living with mental distress and people with learning disabilities from their organisation.

And that is the subject of another history lesson I like to give: The history of changing understandings of disability and of who disabled people are. Because my own story is directly connected with this. It is the story of gradually coming to identify as disabled myself, after living with severe ME for two decades. It was my experience of not seeing myself represented in the Disabled People's Movement that led me to found Chronic Illness Inclusion.

But that's another blog post for another day...





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