On Thursday, Spectrum CIL (previously Southampton Centre for Independent Living) will celebrate its 30th anniversary, and I am delighted to be one of the guest speakers. This has given me an opportunity to ponder the achievements within independent living over the last 30 years.
30 years ago I was just 10 years old and a pupil at the nearest 'physically handicapped' unit attached to a mainstream school. My natural ambition had been duly recognised and I did a lot of studying at my own higher pace to other pupils, oddly from American textbooks and Maths questions from Countdown! The foundations to go to mainstream school were being laid down, which was a very big thing for everyone at this time.
It can be argued that over my next 30 years, I directly benefited from the advances in the liberation of disabled people and the growth of independent living in terms of all 12 of my needs. Independent Living is far more than not living in residential care or having a personal assistant, although it is indeed helpful. For me, independent living is about inclusion, self-autonomy and the ability to take responsibility as a true citizen.
I fear the last point is not taken seriously by a lot of disabled people, especially in the last few years, which has empowered a welfare lobby to frame disabled people as vulnerable recipients of state charity. This is clearly not helpful and while independent living is strong as ever on the ground, the politicians with influence have lost the message. I feel the older generation of disabled people in terms of experience have a duty to be a beacon in supporting the newer generation about the social model and the power of independent living, so it can continue to grow.
I always been an optimist, probably a coping mechanism I have always needed, and so I feel emotionally rich when I see what has been achieved over the last 30 years. I can now use every bus in my home city of Coventry as a wheelchair user, where 30 years ago this was impossible. I am now holding technology in my hand that can do more than what could ever be imagined possible in 1984. With the internet, my lifelong semi-serious ambition of world domination is actually possible in many ways, even if it is not obvious, but my point is technology has given me a voice, one of many voices, in a way we now take for granted.
While I was too young to be at the start of the independent living movement, I am proud to know many of those who were there like John Evans and Jane Campbell, and hopefully consider them friends, even when we don't always agree on issues. I have been a part of the generation of change, opening doors and fighting battles in the hope those who come after me will not have to. Sadly this is not always how it works, and I feel the current problems myself and others are experiencing with Access to Work shows sometimes we can risk going backwards.
I have found securing independent living, with all the organisations an individual may need to work with to do this, is very much like a game of Snakes and Ladders. For years you may have a great support system in place and then suddenly something goes wrong and you end up back down at the start because of a change of circumstances, a changeover of organisation's staff, or a policy change. When for many of us, our independent living is a lifetime commitment without pay or holidays, and I have hopefully another 40 years to go, we need to make it future proof, and government policy is currently a long way from being that.
In conclusion, it is great to be celebrating what the independent living movement has achieved in the last 30 years, and I look forward to talking in 2044 about what has been achieved in the last 60 years.