Disabled people must “keep fighting back” and “politicise” so they can battle the impact of a decade of austerity, a series of leading disabled figures have urged.
They spoke about the importance of working together to fight back against the impact of 12 years of austerity, at the launch of this year’s UK Disability History Month.
The month-long event, which runs between 16 November and 16 December, is focused this year on disability, health and wellbeing.
Professor Colin Barnes, founder of both the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds and The Disability Press, told the launch event: “For the future, disabled people must come together and become politicised.”
He said it was a “sad state of affairs” that anti-discrimination legislation had “never been put fully into practice”.
He said: “Without political action against discrimination against disabled people there will be a continuation of the sad state of affairs, and unfortunately the way the world is moving at the moment, it seems that the politicisation of disablement is more important than it has been for the past 20 years.”
He added: “One of the things that is so terrible about the last 20 years, and particularly the last 10 years, 12 years, is that in Britain, poverty is increasing, and poverty generates impairment and ill-health.
“The modern world is not geared to generating wealth for equality, it’s generating wealth for inequality, and that’s something that we all must fight against.”
Disabled activist Ellen Clifford, author of The War On Disabled People, spoke of the importance of peer support as a way to protect disabled people’s health and wellbeing with a new wave of austerity on the horizon.
She said: “From my experience as a disabled person, it is our peer support networks that play a vitally important role in our lives.
“It’s where we share information about how to survive, we are able to share resources, we are able to keep each other going.”
But she also pointed to the importance of campaigning.
Research she has been involved in with the University of Essex has shown that “an attitude of resistance” can help disabled people “maintain a sense of positive identity during the worst times of cuts”.
She said: “It can give us a sense of empowerment that can make us want to keep going.
“That kind of anger can be much better to experience than a feeling that you just want to give up, but it also puts you in contact with other people and it is social networks which are really, really important to the wellbeing of many of us.”
Linda Burnip, a founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told the launch event: “Disabled people really can’t cut back any more. They’ve already cut back and cut back and cut back for the past 12 years.
“There’s just nothing left to cut. I’m really worried about the levels of malnutrition people face and how the levels of malnutrition have increased massively.
“Access to healthcare has got much worse. Social care is in crisis, incomes are totally inadequate, and all of that is before the cost-of-living crisis kicks in.
“It’s really important that we have to keep fighting back because I honestly believe it will result in massive numbers of deaths if we don’t try and stop these attacks.”
Richard Rieser, founder of UK Disability History Month, said he saw a theme developing during the launch event.
He said: “We have to collectivise our issues. We cannot allow ourselves to be isolated and individualised and social media and the internet have helped with that.”
But he added: “There’s no alternative, really, to meeting with other disabled people on actions, and events, and in meetings, and discussing.”
Deborah Williams, executive director of the Creative Diversity Network, which works to enable broadcasters to improve diversity and inclusion, spoke of how disabled people were still seen in the industry – both on-screen and off-screen – as “the patient” and as non-sexual, and were “pitied”, with much of the approach still “very disablist”.
But she said she had come that day from a meeting with the industry regulator Ofcom, and she said she was encouraged that it would soon start improving the way it monitors disability and ethnicity, and issues such as sex and disability on screen.
She said: “So there are droplets [of progress] all over the place; the thing is: how do we connect them together and how do we make sure that we are changing structures and changing systems and… changing the way people think about disability and disabled people?”
She said Ofcom was also examining how it could challenge the criteria for how programmes are commissioned and ensure that that process was “appropriate in terms of disability”, and she said the regulator wanted “to start moving towards” a social model of disability approach.
Disabled artist-activist Dolly Sen spoke at the launch of the distressing abuse she experienced as a child, how she first began to hear voices, and how she began writing in her late 20s “as a way of expressing really painful things… writing about loneliness made me less lonely”, and how she found her creative work “soulful”.
She also described her art-activist project in which she filmed herself and others protesting the abuses of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), spoke of the campaigning work of the COVID-19 Support and Action Group of self-advocates during the pandemic.
He said the pandemic had left many people with learning difficulties frightened to leave their homes, with self-advocacy groups having to adapt how they operate.
He said: “For society generally, it has finished, it’s over, but for a lot of people with learning difficulties, and other people with pre-existing conditions, our minds are still stuck in the Covid mindset.”
Others who spoke included Jon Luxton, a disability equality adviser to the Welsh government, who spoke about his work and the ground-breaking, disabled-led Locked Out report, which analysed the impact of the pandemic on disabled people in Wales.
The report described how the pandemic led to medical discrimination, restricted access to public services and social support, exclusion from public spaces and public life, restrictions on independent living and an erosion of basic human rights.
Luxton said the work carried out by the disabled people who produced the report was “staggering”.
He said: “I think it is probably the first time disabled people have been allowed to go into government, with the full support of government, and say what they truly believed about the situation of their life, and that was an incredibly empowering thing for all those involved, including myself, and I was there as an adviser.”
Three disabled community curators described their work on Manchester People’s History Museum’s disabled-led Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition*, which runs from 6 November 2022 to 16 October 2023.
Anis Akhtar, one of the curators, said: “I think it’s really important, as disability advocates, that we learn about our history.
“The tagline for the exhibition is ‘disability activism: past, present and future’ so we’re trying to look at our history, what’s going on currently, and what’s going to happen in the future, and how all these tie together.”
The meeting was also addressed by Louise Regan, national officer for membership and equality for the National Education Union, which sponsors UKDHM.
Picture: (From left to right) Colin Barnes, Deborah Williams (from www.inclusivecompanies.co.uk) and Ellen Clifford (from @SWP_TV)
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