Since its inception in late 1940s post-war Britain, the welfare state has produced some great strides for disabled people. Under the increasing growth of the state, the late 1940s to the mid-1960s marked a fundamental shift from the squalor of the workhouses – in which the destitute disabled were abandoned – to the belief that disabled people’s living standards were increasingly a responsibility of the government.
This also marked progress in cultural understandings of disability, as disabled people – throughout history said to be cursed, insane or simply lazy – began to be seen, at least in part, as members of society. Yet by the 1990s, while race and sex discrimination had long become illegal, disabled people in Britain were still the only group not to have basic rights enshrined in law. There was still no guaranteed access to work, transport or education.
Gains that did occur during this period were not handed down by a benevolent government, but were the result of long-term lobbying and grass-roots campaigners. As I was at school in the summer of 1992, disabled activists with wheelchairs and placards filled the streets and descended en masse to the television headquarters of Telethon ’92 – ITV’s then annual twenty-eight-hour fundraiser.
The protesters were not simply challenging what they saw to be the programme’s damaging depiction of disabled people – pitiable and tragic – but a country that, however well-intentioned, was willing to grant charity handouts to disabled people, but not equality.
Regular protests followed: from wheelchair users kettled by police outside Westminster, to disabled people handcuffing themselves to buses. By the mid-1990s, disabled campaigners had successfully pushed for the Disability Discrimination Act – for the first time in Britain the law provided disabled citizens with access to the workplace, and with it a wage, as well as rights to public transport and schooling.
Twenty-five years later, it would be natural to feel disheartened at the progress. A widespread austerity programme has seen people with disabilities, chronic illness and mental health problems routinely driven into destitution, pushed from the workplace and stripped of the right to live in their own homes.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has brought further strain onto disabled people: millions have been shut inside their homes shielding, whilst many have struggled to access food, medicine, work, or social care. The gains that generations of disabled campaigners fought for have been rapidly rolled back, and the promise that the Great British welfare state would always protect disabled people shown to be little more than a fantasy.
What is both bleak and a source of hope is that it is entirely within Britain’s power to fix this. Far from being inevitable, inequality for disabled people is avoidable. The transformation in disability rights over the latter half of the twentieth century came about as a result of concerted efforts to improve the lives of disabled citizens. On the other side of the coin, the increase in hardship for disabled people over the past decade is a direct result of political choices. Britain can stop disabled people going hungry, if we have the will.
The kind of history that seems to dominate our culture is too often centred on the concept of a benevolent ruling class bestowing rights upon marginalised groups. This has been particularly prevalent when it comes to disabled people – a group who have long been viewed as passive, weak, as infants in need of ‘looking after’.
But as my book, Crippled, seeks to show, disabled people are the ones who know their own lives, and it is their voices that should be amplified in a society that so often tries to speak for us. Disabled people, like the working class, have organised throughout the decades to gain our rights and – as these rights are threatened afresh – it is disabled people who are front and centre of the fight back.
Progress is not a straight line. It ebbs and flows; it flourishes and strains. Despite decades of progress, the intricate threads that make up disabled people’s safety net are always vulnerable to those in power who wish to cut them away.
As successive generations, it is up to each of us to remake the case for state support for disabled people as a fundamental right. It is not hyperbole to say that the stakes have rarely been higher than now.
This is an edited extract from Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People by Frances Ryan, out now on Verso Books and audiobook.
In 2022 People’s History Museum, the national museum of democracy, will explore disabled people’s rights and activism as its headline theme.
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