Last month, I wrote an article for my Labour branch newsletter about the fight for disability rights and our Party’s role. It was published prior to 18th March, hence some some references to time are no longer accurate.
The fight for disability rights has come so far, but there is still far to go. As a proud disability rights activist, I’m excited to share with you the history of our fight and the change we need to see in the future.
For much of the last century, disabled people lived without any formal rights or recognition.
It wasn’t until 1970 that Alf Morris, then the MP for Manchester Wythenshawe, successfully introduced the world’s first piece of disability rights legislation. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act gave local authorities specific duties and responsibilities towards disabled people, such as equal access to education and the provision of practical support in the home. Four years later, Harold Wilson appointed Morris as the first Minister for Disabled People.
Alf Morris spent his entire career fighting for disabled people. In 1991, he attempted to introduce further legislation but was sadly unsuccessful. In 1995, John Major’s government introduced the first Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). While lauded by the Conservatives, the Act was seen as a disappointment for its weak approach. After giving disabled people the right to access train stations but not trains, it was dubbed the ‘trainspotters’ charter’ by some.
The election of Tony Blair in 1997 saw the introduction of several pieces of legislation which sought to improve the lives of disabled people.
The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, known as SENDA, was introduced in 2001 and established enforceable rights for disabled students in pre- and post-16 education by amending the DDA to include education.
Later this month, on 18th March, Deaf people who use British Sign Language and their allies will celebrate 15 years since BSL was recognised as one of our official languages, after it was given similar status to Welsh in 2003
In 2005, a second Disability Discrimination Act was introduced, covering more areas of discrimination and protecting all disabled employees from discrimination, regardless of the size of their employer. Five years later, the DDA and other pieces of anti-discrimination law were combined together into the Equality Act.
Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen a great change in attitudes towards disabled people and secured victories in Parliament, but there is still much more to be done.
Half of people living in poverty in the UK are either disabled or live with a disabled person, and while the disability employment gap (under 50% of disabled people are in work compared to around 80% of abled people) and changes to welfare benefits continue, this can only get worse. Reports of disability hate crime are at the highest since records began, having started to rise after the beginning of the scrounger rhetoric we saw in the media from 2010 onwards.
Many disabled people have intersecting identities and these alter disabled peoples’ experiences. For example, if you are a disabled woman, you are more likely to experience sexual violence than an abled woman. Furthermore, disabled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people can face additional challenges in safely coming out and accessing queer culture.
Everyone has an important part to play in seeking positive change and a future where disabled people are valued, celebrated and included without exception. 19% of the UK’s population is disabled and everyone reading this will either be, know or love a disabled person.
So, what can Labour comrades do? Overall, remember to think about how your actions will impact on disabled people: Is the venue for your meeting accessible? Have you made sure everyone can access your meeting’s documents? How will the motion you’re discussing at your next meeting impact on disabled people? Have you engaged with disabled members and local disability groups to find out their view? Finally, 19% of the UK population is disabled, but what are you doing to ensure that Parliaments, Assemblies and council chambers represent this?
Thank you reading this. I hope you’ve found it interesting. If you ever have any questions about the representation and inclusion of disabled people, I’d love to hear from you.