Disabled people will only end the oppression they have experienced over the last decade by getting involved in grassroots activism, according to one of the most significant figures in the development of the social model of disability.
Professor Colin Barnes, founder of both the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds and The Disability Press, said this week that disabled people had faced a “decade of oppression”.
He said: “The problems of disabled people have been compounded by the austerity process and now, particularly, with COVID-19 and the treatment of disabled and elderly people by this apology for a government.”
But he added: “The evidence of history shows that history can be changed through disabled people and their allies, and this is why ongoing activism is fundamental.
“Grassroots activism and involvement is the only way we will change this appalling situation.”
Barnes was speaking at the online launch of a new book by a leading disabled activist, Ellen Clifford, which describes a “pivotal” moment in the history of the disabled people’s movement: the decade since the election of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in May 2010.
He said that disability was “essentially a capitalist creation”, as described in Clifford’s book, The War on Disabled People.
He said Clifford’s “accessible” book covered these issues with “comprehension” and “authority”.
He said: “It is in my view essential reading for everyone committed to and involved in the struggle for a change, a political change or shift towards a social and economic environment which includes all people and not [just] those at the top of the social hierarchy.”
Clifford (pictured), a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told the online launch event that she had wanted to put down in her book “what had actually happened” over the last decade from an activist’s point of view.
She said: “Disabled people are very used to other people talking for us and writing our history for us. I wanted to make sure that people know how change actually happens.
“It’s convenient for the ruling class to present history as changes that are handed down to us from above. That’s not how things happen.
“We only get progressive change when we unite and we demand that change.”
John McDonnell, until recently Labour’s shadow chancellor, and a key ally of DPAC over the last decade, said Clifford’s book provided “a narrative that we can use really effectively” in campaigning.
He said the book made the key point that “nothing has been given to disabled people. Nothing. It has had to be taken.
“It has had to be taken as a result of years and years of struggle.”
He added: “We will never obtain our desire for equality, our desire for a decent life, within this economic system.
“It isn’t just disabled people, it is everybody.
“A society based on an economy which is simply motivated by profit will never be able to satisfy the needs of people.
“We want to build a society which is based upon satisfying people’s needs, and to do that, you have to ensure that there’s equality, both in terms of the way people are treated, but also equality in what people can contribute.”
Disabled actor and activist Liz Carr, who was credited by Clifford for first introducing her to the social model of disability – which is key to the book – was another who spoke at the launch.
She said the social model “changes everything. It brings us together as disabled people, it unites us and it frees us.”
She said Clifford “burns so brightly” at a time when disabled people were “fighting pretty much for our very existence”.
Linda Burnip, DPAC’s co-founder – one of two disabled activists the book is dedicated to, alongside another co-founder, the late Debbie Jolly – said DPAC was “still here and we are still fighting”.
She spoke of the many people in care homes who were “basically left to die” during the coronavirus pandemic.
She said: “We can’t accept the deaths of so many of our people, and segregation into care homes like this and into adult treatment units where so many disabled people are incarcerated for years and years is not acceptable.”
Burnip said the “imprisonment” of so many disabled people in their own homes due to a lack of care and support was “equally unacceptable”.
Ann Galpin, co-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee and chair of the disabled members’ council of the National Union of Journalists, said all disabled people would “find passages in Ellen’s book that speak to our own lived experience”.
Others speaking at the launch included Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the service-user and disabled people’s network Shaping Our Lives; Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary; the Daily Mirror’s Ros Wynne-Jones, who writes its Real Britain column; and former Labour MP and shadow employment rights secretary Laura Pidcock, who is now People’s Assembly’s national secretary.
*The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe, by Ellen Clifford, published by Zed Books, is available in paperback at £12.99. ISBN: 978-1-78699-664-0
Photograph by R N Clifford
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…