A new independent user-led organisation – modelled on a trade union – is hoping to provide disabled people with a collective voice powerful enough to influence policy at a national level, while also offering them solutions to their disability-related problems.
The Disability Union, which launches officially on Monday, will concentrate at first on providing a problem-solving service for disabled members who face issues in areas such as housing, benefits or social care.
But the hope is that the union will eventually provide an “authoritative voice” for disabled people that is capable of influencing policy-making at a local, regional and national level.
The plan is to occupy a space that is not currently filled by grassroots organisations of disabled activists like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and WOWcampaign on the one hand, and national disabled people’s organisations like Disability Rights UK (DR UK), The Alliance for Inclusive Education and Shaping Our Lives on the other.
The union is the idea of disabled campaigner George Baker (pictured), whose ambition is to create “the first democratic and campaigning union which fights for disabled people in the workplace, in the social care system and in society at large”.
He stressed that he did not want to replace organisations like DPAC and DR UK, but to provide something different and new.
Baker told Disability News Service: “What it’s about is building power for disabled people, giving us an influential voice to make sure we are not marginalised.”
He wants The Disability Union to be “the connective tissue that will bring the disability community together”, connecting disabled people “to all the support that is out there”.
Members and backers of the union already include prominent disabled figures, including Martyn Sibley, co-founder of Disability Horizons, campaigners Fleur Perry and Ellie Tait, and Jane Hatton, director of the user-led disability employment social enterprise Evenbreak.
Union membership – £4.99 a month for those who are on a low income or are unemployed or retired, or £12.99 for those in work on a stable income – is open to all those who self-identify as a disabled person, with the union’s work funded through these membership fees and funding for specific projects.
The long-term aim is to run the organisation democratically, like a union or political party, with meetings and decisions taken by members.
But in the early stages, as it builds membership, the union will focus on helping members with their disability-related problems – using peer support and advice – through its website and its Facebook page, and by phone*.
Baker said: “Disabled people share an awful lot in common. We share the same struggles and deal with the same people all the time.”
He said the union believed that nearly every disability-related issue “boils down to one of three things”.
The first is that disabled people “are not made aware of existing solutions because they are not connected enough to each other, or those solutions are not publicised enough”.
The second is that “where solutions are available, disabled people are not supported to access them effectively”.
Baker said: “This is particularly true with the benefits system, where applications are deliberately complex and are therefore only accessible to people who are particularly good at explaining their needs.”
The third is that, when social change is necessary, “there is no voice of authority that truly represents disabled people and can apply the pressure necessary to change policy or attitudes”.
He said: “The Disability Union exists to address all three problems so that we can finally have the power to secure the respect, influence and change we need.”
But he added: “We are not interested in replicating the work everybody else is doing. We just want to build on it and spread the word.”
The union is also working towards creating a “universal statement of disability”, which will provide a single document that asks a series of questions about how a person’s impairment affects them day-to-day, and what their needs are in different areas of their lives.
The long-term hope is that the government and other public bodies will accept this document instead of asking disabled people to repeatedly fill in complicated forms to secure the support they need.
Baker said the union “has to improve lives” because disabled people are often “treated in the most awful way for no reason”.
He said: “Campaigning is important, but actually people need help now. I want us to make a real difference as quickly as possible.
“I am confident that if somebody comes to us with a disability problem, we can find a way to resolve it.”
He added: “One of the criminal things is that there is tonnes of knowledge, but it is just not in one place. It is impossible to find it.”
The aim is for the union to have 500 members by the end of the year, and between 3,000 and 5,000 by the end of 2021.
Baker said: “After that, the sky is the limit. I want us to be the voice of change. The more members we have, the stronger the union is.
“My goal is to have an enormous number of members so we can start affecting policy decisions.”
*The Disability Union’s phone number is 0333 050 8046