Many of the country’s leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and disabled activists have agreed to set up a new campaigning network in a bid to unite the disability movement.
They hope their new network will bring together the traditional disability movement and the grassroots organisations of activists that have been fighting government cuts, often through the use of social media.
About 100 disabled activists attended the event in London today, including many of the leading figures in the disability and anti-cuts movements.
They agreed to the call to set up the network from Inclusion London’s chief executive, Tracey Lazard, as well as to develop a new manifesto to be used as a campaigning tool in the run-up to the next general election.
Lazard said she wanted to see a “unified movement” and for activists and DPOs to “come together and clarify the priority issues, and the priority threats and challenges to our rights and our movement”.
The Rethinking Disability Equality Policy and Practice in a Hostile Climate event heard from chief executives of DPOs, researchers, grassroots activists, and both left-wing and non-party political campaigners.
Jenny Morris, the disabled researcher and former government adviser, told the meeting that the coalition was responsible for “unprecedented attacks” on the achievements of the disability movement.
But she said: “Disabled people are mounting the strongest resistance amongst all the groups to government policies and we are gaining more and more public support. Our movement is actually more vibrant and is growing faster than at any time in its history.”
She warned that both Labour and coalition governments had used the language of the disability movement to “create policies that are actually creating significant disadvantages for us”.
She said social model campaigning by the disability movement had ignored those who were too ill to work, while the movement needed to push for the same “co-production” input into welfare reform that it had put into social care policy.
She warned also that the move towards direct payments and the personalisation of support had led to the “privatisation of social care”, with an under-funded system that was “too reliant on organisations motivated by profit and answerable to their share-holders”.
Debbie Jolly, a co-founder of the grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told the meeting that DPAC was receiving emails from disabled people who have been left with “no income whatsoever”.
Jolly described how the social model had been used to develop disabled people’s rights and support.
But she contrasted this with the “biopsychosocial model”, which had been developed by the insurance industry and used by the government and private sector – for example in devising the government’s “fitness for work” test – to “stop disabled people’s rights and support and to develop a denial of disability”, and to remove disabled people’s benefits.
She suggested the disability movement had “taken their eyes off the ball”, and called for more alliances with mainstream anti-cuts groups as well as “a new coalition or network of active disabled people and active user-led groups”.
Linda Burnip, another DPAC co-founder, suggested that many DPOs had become service-providers with local authority contracts, dependent on council funding and unwilling to campaign.
She said DPAC had “empowered disabled people to take control of their lives and feel able to protest”, had provided them with peer support, and had “raised awareness of disability within the wider anti-cuts movement”.
Eleanor Lisney, a leading disabled activist, questioned whether black and minority ethnic disabled people were being “left behind” and even abandoned as DPOs struggled with “dwindling resources”.
She said: “When you get double discrimination, who do you go to for help? Positive and real change can only be achieved with connection for everybody.”
Geraldine O’Halloran, a strategic development officer with Inclusion London, which hosted the event, said the Deaf community was “facing a crisis” because of the closure of services, with people facing “growing isolation”, and Deaf organisations becoming service-providers rather than campaigners.
Although the Deaf community was a “cultural and linguistic group”, she said: “We share a lot of experiences, a lot of oppression, a lot of discrimination, just the same as everyone else in this room.”
Andrew Lee, director of People First Self Advocacy, called for more disabled people to become councillors and MPs, and suggested launching a new political party of disabled activists.
He said: “I am fed up with consultation after consultation, and they go ahead and do what they wanted to do in the first place anyway. It is our experiences that make us the experts and not the politicians.”
Rob Murthwaite, a member of DPAC’s steering group, called for “more militancy” and more direct action.
He said: “We need to occupy more buildings, block more roads. We need to not just lobby politicians, we need to harass them.”
Lorraine Gradwell, chief executive of Breakthrough UK, said there were “lots and lots of pockets of very strong and good” campaigning activity, but she questioned whether there was currently a “disability movement”.
She backed the idea of a new network and said: “The time is right for us to pull them together into a strong whole.”
Andy Greene, another member of DPAC’s steering group, called for DPOs to do more to spread information about “the threat we are under, which comes from being undervalued in society.
The veteran disabled activist Micheline Mason said she believed the problems faced by disabled people were caused by capitalism, and she called for closer links with the trade union movement.
And another disabled activist, Merry Cross, called for a campaign to turn companies like Atos and Unum, heavily criticised for profiting from welfare reform, into “toxic brands”.
The event was supported by Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, the Alliance for Inclusive Education and DPAC, with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Many of the activists and organisations that took part in the event will be protesting against cuts to disabled people’s benefits and services as part of the TUC’s anti-austerity A Future That Works march and rally in London on 20 October.
Disabled people will be at the front of the march, which will also act as the launchpad for a national week of action to “speak out against the cuts”, by the disabled people’s Hardest Hit campaign.
Meanwhile, Inclusion London has warned that there is less than two weeks left to respond to a consultation on the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF).
Protesters believe plans to close ILF – a government-funded trust which helps about 19,700 disabled people with the highest support needs – are a huge threat to their right to independent living.
The consultation closes on 10 October. For more information, read Inclusion London’s information paper on the consultation.