Disabled people came from all over the UK to play their part in a mass protest organised by the TUC against the government’s spending cuts.
Many were there to protest against cuts to disability benefits and other aspects of the government’s welfare reforms, while others were angry about the impact on inclusive education, and cuts to local services and support.
Leading figures in the disability movement joined representatives of the new disabled people’s anti-cuts movement, individual disabled people, trade union members and carers.
The many disabled people’s organisations represented included Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Black Triangle, People First (Self Advocacy), Disability History Month and the London Autistic Rights Movement.
Estimates for the number of protesters who took part in the march from London’s Embankment to Hyde Park ranged from 250,000 to 500,000. Although it is impossible to guess how many of them were disabled, scores of people joined a “safe” area for disabled people near the front of the march.
Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she was on the march to “tell the government that we are not going to accept the cuts that they are imposing on us or the return to the bad old days of segregation”.
She added: “People are not going to just sit back and let our services be destroyed and let disabled people’s lives be damaged beyond repair.”
Youcef Bey-Zekkoub, who was representing the accessible transport charity Transport for All, said he was on the march to show that accessible transport “is really important for disabled people like myself. My message to the government is they have to think again about these cuts. Especially about access for disabled people.”
The writer and performer Penny Pepper said she had taken part “because we have to be counted against the savage attacks against disabled people’s lives”.
She said: “We are seen as easy to target. We have to show that we are not easy and that we have a voice.”
Peter Purton, the TUC’s disability policy officer, said disabled people were the “worst affected” by the cuts, including disability benefit reforms, the loss of public sector jobs, and cuts to legal aid. He said he was “delighted” that so many disability groups had taken part in the protest.
The Labour MP Dame Anne Begg said she had taken part in the protest to show “solidarity” and that “there is an alternative and we know that the priorities of this government are wrong”.
She said: “It seems to me that those who have least seem to be losing the most and that is simply not fair. Disabled people in particular feel very strongly because they seem to be in the forefront of many of the cuts.”
There were criticisms of the TUC’s access arrangements, with some complaining that they had had to fight through crowds to reach the allocated “safe space” for disabled people near the front of the march.
The TUC had also said that the disabled people at the front would be able to set their own pace, but they were soon swamped and separated from each other by thousands of marchers who overtook them soon after the march began.
Kirsten Hearn, chair of Inclusion London and a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, blogged after the event that the experience of having to fight her way to the front had been “very frightening” and that she had been “put in danger”.
Linda Burnip, one of DPAC’s founders, said the access arrangements had been “total chaos” and had certainly put disabled people at risk.
A TUC spokeswoman said it had made “extensive efforts” to make the event as accessible as possible, but was now carrying out an assessment of the access arrangements.
She said: “We would not pretend that everything was perfect or could not be improved, but we are pretty sure that this was the most accessible demonstration of its size ever organised in London.”
She added: “Some reported issues were simply due to the greater than expected numbers.”
There was some disappointment that the Labour leader Ed Miliband failed to mention disabled people in his speech in Hyde Park, even though he mentioned maternity services, Sure Start centres, small business owners, teachers, students, “families struggling to get by”, libraries, Citizens Advice Bureaux, community centres and the NHS.
His spokeswoman said later that other groups had also not been mentioned, and that Miliband had raised the government’s plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance from people in residential care at that week’s prime minister’s questions.
She said: “It is an issue he cares about and it is an issue the Labour Party cares about. He is actually aware of the deep concerns and anxieties that disabled people have about the effect of the cuts.”
Meanwhile, DPAC’s online protest for those unable to attend the march or rally saw an estimated 200 people email messages of support, which were “pinned” to an online map of the UK. The map, embedded on the DPAC website and other sites, received more than a quarter of a million views.
31 March 2011