Disabled people must work together if they want to avoid “slipping back into the past”, the launch event of UK Disability History Month 2013 (UKDHM) has heard.
The annual month-long series of events was set up to “celebrate our lives and to explore the history of negative attitudes and their consequences”.
This year it is examining the struggle for independent living, the move away from the institutions and the danger that this could now be reversed because of the government’s austerity cuts and its attack on the welfare state, the equality agenda and the UK’s international human rights obligations.
The highlight of the launch event was Professor Mike Oliver, the disabled academic who first defined “the social model of disability”, speaking in public about disability for the first time since his retirement in 2003.
He told the event in central London that disabled people should never forget how they had escaped from segregated institutions, and to be clear that independent living was about “having choice and control in our lives” and not about “doing everything for ourselves”.
He also warned that the economic meltdown had allowed the coalition to “cut our services virtually unchallenged, because they can claim they are giving us what we have asked for: independent living”.
Richard Rieser, coordinator of UKDHM, told the audience that the month was “not just about looking backwards. We are about evaluating the things in the past. Learning lessons from that to move towards greater equality.”
Kirsten Hearn, chair of Inclusion London, described how she became a student activist and was exposed to the women’s movement before coming to the realisation that she was a disabled person.
She said: “We got angry and we began to organise. There was something so liberating about realising that it wasn’t me that was the problem, it was the world. It made it possible to look at barriers and campaign to remove them.”
But she added: “This is a different world now. Yes, we have some protection in the law, but every day a hostile government is dismantling every right we ever had, removing everything that makes it possible for us to survive, taking us back to the institutions and places of poverty, loneliness and isolation.
“The concept of ‘useless eaters’ and Nazi ideologies is alive and kicking today.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell told the panel of speakers from the audience: “One thing I have learned in my 33 years of being a campaigner in the disability movement and as a politician is that there are two vital elements to emancipation.”
One of them, she said, was the need for disabled people “to work as a very strong collective”, and the other was to take every opportunity to be visible in the media.
She said: “It is very hard work, because the minute we stop, things begin to slip back to what they were.”
She pointed to two major successes that she and other disabled peers had secured in the House of Lords, to maintain the principle of “equality, dignity and fairness” in the Equality Act, and to introduce “portability” of social care packages through the care bill.
She added: “When you think of the doom and gloom – and I know it’s there – there are also chinks of light.”
Jackie Downer, a leading self-advocate, and managing director of The Quality Company, talked about her work as an activist and now a consultant.
She said: “Everything you do on policy and procedures has to involve people with learning difficulties.
“Any policies, everything you’re doing in your organisation, you have to involve people with learning difficulties.
“If you don’t involve them from the beginning with the right support, it won’t work.”
There was also a tribute to the life and work of Mabel Cooper, a former resident of a long-stay hospital and a long-term self-advocate and campaigner, who died earlier this year.
Cooper was admitted to St Lawrence’s long-stay hospital as a teenager and spent the next 20 years there before leaving to live in the community.
Years later, she began telling her life story, which was published in the critically-acclaimed anthology Forgotten Lives.
Cooper was a former chair of London People First and a long-standing member of the Social History of Learning Disability Research Group, in which she and other people with learning difficulties worked as co-researchers.
Professor Jan Walmsley, visiting professor in the history of learning disabilities at the Open University and a founding member of the research group, said: “She taught people in this country more about life in long stays than probably anyone else.”
The launch event ended with the comedian, actor, writer and activist Liz Carr delivering a comedic take on disabled people’s progress on independent living.
She said that her own work in the BBC drama Silent Witness would not have been possible without her personal assistants.
“Independent living in all that it means enables you to be you, it’s as simple as that.”
She said the legal victory over the government over the closure of the Independent Living Fund was an “incredible achievement”, and added: “We have to keep fighting. It has shown us that we can win.”
She took a similar line to Baroness Campbell on the need for disabled people to work together, telling the audience: “We have this amazing history, but sitting here today we are the history of tomorrow. That’s what we have to remember. We are incredibly strong together.”
She also agreed with Baroness Campbell’s call to use the media in all its forms, whether it is “the BBC, The Guardian or the newspapers we don’t like”.
UKDHM events are taking place across the UK, including a disability history writing workshop in Bristol, the Together 2013! Disability History Month festival of art, film, music, performance, poetry and workshops in east London, an accessible transport symposium in Coventry, and a discussion-based workshop in Edinburgh on the creation of the principles of the welfare state.
20 November 2013