Disabled campaigners and their organisations have sent a strong message to the new Conservative government that they will regroup and find new ways to fight for their rights.
Grassroots groups and user-led organisations this week suggested ways in which disabled people could “protect and advance” their rights and equality, despite an election result that left many alarmed at the possibility of further cuts and attacks on their rights and support.
The groups were responding to questions from Disability News Service about the future direction of the disabled people’s movement, following nearly a decade of Tory-led governments that have been repeatedly and heavily criticised for serious breaches of their international disability rights obligations.
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said the Tory government could expect DPAC to “continue the resistance against them” and to be “visible on the streets fighting back”.
She said it was “really important that DPAC remains a ray of hope in this dark political time, that we regroup after this horrendous general election result and come together to continue to fight.”
Peters (pictured) said: “We must build our campaigns in our communities, support one another [and] give vital assistance to disabled people to fight for the support they need.
“So here’s a message to Boris Johnson: We will not bow down to you. We will take the fight to you. Expect to see DPAC out on the streets in 2020.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the disabled people’s movement needed to build on its work to protect and advance rights and equality “using all the tools in our toolbox”.
She said: “We know Deaf and disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by government policies over the last decade, and considering that Boris Johnson is insistent that he will reach out to ‘left behind communities’, it is essential that his new government understands Deaf and disabled people make up a significant part of the left behind communities he must reach out to and start supporting”.
George Ayres, from Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), said disabled people’s groups needed to work with migrant and refugee rights organisations, homeless and travellers’ rights groups, trade unions and others.
He said: “The Tory strategy is divide and conquer: we must counter this strategy.”
BRIL will be hosting a meeting of disabled people and allies in Bristol on 25 January, which will aim to build a “broader movement of solidarity in the light of the new government”*.
Activists are also planning a relaunch of the mental health survivor movement group Mad Pride, and a fresh emphasis on Mad Culture.
Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network, which grew out of Mad Pride, said there would be “proper anti-stigma campaigns” that would emphasise that “anti-stigma is being able to accept people whoever and however they present to the world” and was not about forcing people with mental health problems to “conform to the free market demands made on us”.
Michelle Maher, from WOWcampaign, said disabled people would need to “fight back” and “hound” their MPs, and join forces with other groups, including charities, and “make ourselves as visible as possible even if that means direct action… we have nothing to lose”.
Laura Stringhetti, also from WOW, said there was a need to build a coalition “of all people affected by all hostile environments”.
She said: “Fighting our little corner, whatever it is, is no longer effective. We need to expand and fight for social justice, inclusion, diversity and a country that works for all people.”
Disabled activist Dennis Queen said she believed that disabled people needed to “stop waiting for somebody else to hand us our rights” and “stop pumping energy into other well-resourced movements and non-DPOs” who do not return those “precious work hours”.
She said disabled people should “redirect our energies into community organising to create the world we want regardless of government”.
Queen said there was a need to strengthen disabled people’s organisations, grow a peer advocacy network “so that more of us can support each other to speak up for ourselves and fight back”, and continue to “learn and make connections with other grassroots movements and campaigns who are dealing with the same or related issues”.
Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), said the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was “so important for people with learning difficulties”, even though the UN “seems like a dirty word” to the UK government.
He said politicians needed to listen to disabled people, and suggested that a campaign to help disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) learn how parliament works would be “a good place to start”, while disabled people should challenge MPs on how they engage with their constituents and “ask them how they are going to stand up for people with learning difficulties and disabilities”.
He also called for new laws to ensure there is a self-advocacy organisation that is recognised and core-funded by the local authority in every town and city.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said many user-led groups might have to return to working without funding, and that this could have a “liberatory effect” because they would “no longer be tied to funders’ agendas and pressures”, despite the extra burden.
Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said there was a need to create space and opportunities for the voices of disabled children and young people, who are “the future of the movement”.
She also called for more focus on opposition political parties as well as the government, and for those parties “to get better in engaging with disabled people on policy at a strategic level”.
Sue Bott, head of policy and research at Disability Rights UK, said her organisation would work “with all political parties to bring about a positive narrative about disabled people that recognises our right to be equal citizens and will argue for policies that will achieve that” and would “continue to remind the government of its treaty obligations, including the UNCRPD”.
Mel Close, chief executive of Disability Equality North West, said that DPOs like hers would “do what they’ve always tried to do” and “try to get disabled people’s voices heard at every opportunity”, using the “strength in numbers” they have from working with other DPOs across the region.
*For more details of the meeting, email [email protected]
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