Disabled campaigners this week celebrated the activists whose efforts helped lead to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), while highlighting the continuing flaws in equality legislation and the need to continue the fight for comprehensive civil rights.
They were speaking out on this week’s 25th anniversary of the introduction of the DDA, which was later replaced by the Equality Act 2010.
But many leading disabled figures spoke this week of the fundamental flaws in the DDA and the Equality Act, and of the need for a new push for rights, including through a new wave of peaceful civil disobedience.
Many of them accepted that the DDA was a “milestone” but pointed out that – a quarter of a century on – the UK was far from having equality and inclusion legislation that complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Many also criticised the Equality Act for its reliance on individual disabled people taking legal action to enforce their rights.
And some highlighted the failure of the disabled people’s movement to recognise the intersectional discrimination faced by its own members, including black disabled people.
Disabled activists also said the 25th anniversary was a time to highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic had “starkly highlighted” the “deep structural inequalities in society”, and the government’s repeated failure to address the needs and rights of disabled people.
The disabled-led campaigning organisation Reasonable Access, which aims to empower disabled people to enforce their right to access, praised the “phenomenal” campaigners who helped secure the DDA with their direct action protests.
But Reasonable Access said the DDA and the Equality Act were not the “civil rights legislation disabled people campaigned for, need, and are entitled to”, and that the Equality Act remained “fundamentally flawed”.
A Reasonable Access spokesperson said: “Relying on individual disabled people to enforce the act through individual legal action against multinational and government organisations was always going to fail.
“There are too many ways an organisation can avoid legal liability and leave the disabled complainant with tens of thousands of pounds of costs for nothing. As a result, it hasn’t delivered equality.”
They highlighted how the pandemic had exposed the “wholesale disregard” of many public bodies for their Equality Act duty to promote disability equality.
The spokesperson said: “Enforcement has become more difficult, with less [legal] costs protection, closure of law centres and severe curbs on legal aid.
“This historic and historical piece of legislation isn’t fit for purpose and should be replaced with something more far-reaching and better enforced.
“Progress has stalled, and we believe there does need to be a fresh push for legal rights 25 years on.
“In the meantime, however, we’re intent on supporting people to enforce their rights as best as possible in the current flawed system.”
Disabled campaigner and access consultant Tracey Proudlock, who was involved in the direct action and other protests that called for disability discrimination legislation (particularly around accessible transport) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said the DDA was “a milestone in our history”.
But she said she was disappointed that, a quarter of a century later, “so little has changed for disabled people when it comes to some goods and services”.
She said that “many coffee shops, gyms, clubs and their toilets do not provide an inclusive welcome” while “considerable numbers of small to medium-sized businesses still have physical barriers at their premises and operators provide no other reasonable adjustments, leaving ordinary, everyday activities beyond the reach of many disabled people”.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, was deeply critical of the DDA and the Equality Act, and the concept of “reasonable adjustments” that was key to both pieces of legislation.
She said: “Disabled campaigners should never have accepted anything less than a full bill of rights, as doing so has led to two useless pieces of legislation that can be ignored simply by the use and misinterpretation of the word reasonable.
“It seems the only way we will ever get our rights enshrined in law will be through more peaceful civil disobedience.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the DDA was a high-water mark in “shifting society’s perception of disability from a medicalised and individual issue to an issue of human rights, discrimination and exclusion”.
But she said it was “far from the full human and civil rights our movement demanded”.
And she said that, during the years of austerity, “all these advances in our inclusion and equality have been undermined, hollowed out or dismantled.
“We now have a mountain of evidence that shows retrogression across all our rights and areas of life.
“The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly highlighted once again the government’s apparent complete disregard of the needs and rights of our community and the deep structural inequalities that have directly resulted in the huge number of disabled people dying from COVID.
“The silver lining is that this time of retrogression and targeted marginalisation has also been the time when our community has re-discovered campaigning and protest inspired by the direct action that brought about the DDA 25 years ago.
“We simply need to continue this necessary fight because we owe it not only to ourselves, but to those that we have sadly lost along the way.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said the DDA had led to some “practical changes to the physical environment”.
She said: “Public transport has improved its physical accessibility but there is still a long way to go.
“The accessibility of public buildings is a pick and mix.
“There is still a massive lack of on-the-ground awareness about what reasonable adjustments mean.”
She added: “Business still fails to employ disabled people equally as a default, fearing extended sick leave, rather than recognising the benefits of employing a diverse workforce which reflects its audiences and markets.
“Our government and justice systems and buildings are too often inaccessible.
“Information services do not take into account people who need information in plainer language or different formats.”
She said there was a need for a “new push on rights” and that the government’s forthcoming national disability strategy must “extend rights and make them easier to enforce”, and ensure the UNCRPD was incorporated into UK law.
Laura Welti, manager of Bristol Disability Equality Forum, said the DDA had initially supported disabled people and their organisations “to take some great strides forward in disability equality and human rights”.
But she said the situation over the last 12 years, since the Disability Rights Commission was replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, had seen “one step forward, two steps back”, including cuts to funding for disabled people’s organisations, cuts to social care, and the portrayal of disabled people as “benefit scroungers”,
Michelle Daley, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), was another to praise the activists who took to the streets in the 1980s and early 1990s.
She said: “I am thankful for the disability movement and every disabled person that joined in the protests and campaigned tirelessly for an equality act, the DDA.”
But she said: “While the act has brought about many changes, for example, placing duties on public services such as education around access, disabled people continue to be disproportionately under-represented in all areas of live.
“We have to continue the campaigning for equality law that is based on human rights. We need the UNCRPD and intersectionality in our laws.”
She said that government reports such as the Timpson Review of School Exclusion (PDF) found multiple intersectional issues, with the report finding that a disabled black boy from a disadvantaged family with an education health and care plan had a 58 per cent chance of receiving a fixed period exclusion at some point in his secondary school career.
Daley said: “These deep levels of inequalities in education experienced by disabled people will continue to be repeated until our laws address the injustice and inequality.”
Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi, a member of ALLFIE’s Disabled Black Lives Matter group, said: “It is great to be able to celebrate the anniversary [of the] Disability Discrimination Act, especially all the disabled people that fought to make it happen.
“However, the disability rights movement needs to acknowledge that black disabled people can also experience discrimination based on race. Both inside and outside the movement.”
Dr Armineh Soorenian, another member of the group, added: “As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the DDA, it is paramount for the disability movement to recognise the silent and intersectional voices of its members.”
Andrew Lee, on behalf of the COVID-19 Support and Action Group, which is co-run by People First (Self Advocacy), said the DDA had been “a ground breaking piece of legislation and campaigning by self advocates with learning difficulties made sure our rights were included and recognised within it”.
But he added: “We were an after-thought then, and sometimes we feel like we are an after-thought now.
“It boils down to stigma and how we‘re perceived. Too often society doesn’t see us as having the same rights as others.
“People with learning difficulties often feel isolated and forgotten about, and cut off from society.
“Although our rights are enshrined in law, the law is inaccessible and unaffordable for us to use. We are also concerned that it isn’t always enforced.
“It’s about human rights and we are human beings. We will continue to fight for our rights to live full and independent lives in the way that we choose for the next 25 years and beyond.”
Dorothy Gould, co-founder of the new user-led, rights-based organisation Liberation*, said: “It was a huge tribute to unremitting efforts by disabled people that disability discrimination was finally recognised legally in the DDA.
“The act also contained important, if slowly implemented provisions. However, even then, there were specific issues for those of us given mental health diagnoses; to have our rights met under the act, we had to accept these diagnoses, that is accept the medical model on which they draw.
“Large numbers of us find this model totally inadequate for understanding mental distress and trauma which we experience.
“It is also closely linked with stereotypes of us as ‘out of our minds’ and so incapable, a risk to ourselves and others, and with mental health law which authorises detention in psychiatric hospitals and forced treatment, contrary to our rights under the UNCRPD.
“The situation remains unresolved even now; the Mental Health Act review recommendations themselves fall well short of the UNCRPD.”
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said the DDA and the Equality Act “did not change the basic political situation which faces disabled people when they want to speak for themselves instead of having others always speaking for them”.
She said the government needed to change the law to achieve greater equality for disabled people and grant candidates the right to stand as job share candidates for parliament.
George Baker, founder of The Disability Union, said the DDA was “an incredible milestone in the quest for equality and inclusion”, although that quest was “still ongoing”.
He said: “Every day, The Disability Union is contacted by disabled people whose rights are being ignored, or are simply not covered by existing legislation.
“Due to the cutbacks on legal aid, it is now much harder to access justice.
“In many situations, people find the law becomes near irrelevant because it is so difficult to get it respected or enforced.
“The next steps in disability rights are to make access to justice under existing legislation available to all by ensuring compliance and redress, and to add needed legislation on key areas including independent living.”
*Liberation can be contacted via email at: [email protected]
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