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Disability Activism is in Crisis: We Need Support From Somewhere, but Who do We Turn To?

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For many disabled people, whether they actively campaign against the cuts and things like the welfare reform bill or whether they watch with a sense of fear and trepidation, the question that permeates our movement is 'what next'?

We have had the Hardest Hit campaign, for all the good it did, and we all badgered a load of Lords and Baronesses on the day of the first vote on the Welfare Reform Bill which achieved some watering down of its contents.

But in the grand scheme of things, it seems to me, we haven't advanced as a movement. We have battened down the hatches and we have weathered the storm of cuts, verbal attacks of right wing newspaper columnists moaning about the Mobility scheme and rather sick individuals challenging wheelchair users to prove they have a physical impairment - in far more uncivilised language I'm sure.

So what has our response been? A 1000-strong blockade of ATOS headquarters? A mass picket of the Whitehall and constituency offices of the so called Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller? No. We have had a litany of letters to the Guardian, a whole host of sympathetic articles highlighting the plight of disabled people in the Guardian and a complete deriding of their counterparts from the right wing press for painting disabled people as scroungers and layabouts by the journalists of the Guardian.

Now it may seem as though I am having a go at the Guardian, and it may seem as though I am having a go at fellow disabled people for being lazy (how ironic). I'm not, I promise. I am extremely glad that the Guardian continues to defend disabled people and how it will not pander to the populist and reactionary trend to pillory us.

As for the lack of action on the part of disabled people, I'm not even saying that we have failed to fight against the coalition effectively. The truth is, we haven't even been given a chance.

I have watched many of my fellow disabled activists fight against the injustices that are being doled out by the government, the right wing press and now, sadly, the general public. Groups like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign in Defence of Disabilty Rights have fought pretty much on their own with very little resources and that, in my opinion, is why our fight has failed to capture the imagination of the public and is why our movement is having very little effect on the Government. The Tories were apparently petrified at the thought of thousands of disabled people on the streets and the national outpouring of sympathy that would inspire. From what I have seen, they have little to be worried about.

The disability supercharities wouldn't and haven't touch/touched DPAC and the Black Triangle with a barge-pole and vice-versa. The supercharities don't want to support direct action and DPAC and Black Triangle still have major reservations about non-disabled people claiming to represent disabled people through the supercharities.

Now what should be happening is the entering of the Trade Unions to provide financial and organisational support and good old solidarity. The bastions of self-organisation and the resources to more than match the supercharities. But this hasn't happened either.

The reason this hasn't happened annoys me. It makes me really, really annoyed. Despite the adoption of the social model of disability into things like employment law (on the whole), the unions to me still seem to shy away from identity politics. It can be said that equal opportunities policy that is imposed by the union top brass is held up as a shining beacon of the unions commitment to the end of the oppression of disabled people, yet the self-organised campaigns of disabled people in the union movement are stymied. The conciousness that the unions operate under is that of a class conciousness, which is fine. It is necessary and it is the right sort of consciousness on which to build a labour union. But the rejection of identity politics by the unions has been immensely damaging, for both causes I might add.

Experiences of oppression and the campaigning against that oppression built on the lines of class is venerated, yet despite the politically correct dogma that the unions espouse it seems that the same experiences and campaigns built on disability is fenced off as a personal issue and not something that is linked to the wider struggle. This is dangerous on many levels. For a start it is an implicit rejection of the social model of disability and is a move towards embracing the medical model of disability which, in a worst case scenario and translated into workplace disputes, could leave disabled workers having the blame for their impairments laid at their feet.

A separatist route for the disability rights movement has achieved little in my opinion. It isn't because we lack the numbers of people, it is because we lack the resources. Organising our movement costs more; accessible venues, human resource costs etc, but the thing the unions need to realise is that, delivered properly, the message about the plight of disabled people in this country is the most powerful and is the message that is the most likely, apart from perhaps the NHS, to inspire a backlash, not just against the cuts agenda of the coalition, but capitalism itself - at least in it's current form.

Ultimately, and in a rather roundabout way, I'm saying that unions and the disability rights movement need to unite together, it will benefit both parties and together we will be a lot stronger. The time to do this is now and if it doesn't happen then I'm afraid to say that I think disabled people will be more than justified in being of the opinion that the union movement has turned its back on them.

Around the Web

Disability Rights UK - Disability Alliance

Disability and the Equality Act 2010 : Directgov - Disabled people

Radar | The disability rights people, our strength is you.

Equality and Human Rights Commission