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Disability rights in the UK: a 50-year fight for independent living

Some things change. Some don’t. On other occasions events move but seem to return to the starting point. Over the last 50 years disabled people have experienced all of this, writes Bert Massie.

The major pieces of legislation that influenced the lives of disabled people after World War II were both heavily influenced by the war. The creation of the National Health Service in 1948 and the passing of the National Assistance Act of the same year underpinned the welfare state that gave at least some support to disabled people in the UK. The only other significant piece of legislation was the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944, which required larger employers to ensure that 3% of the workforce were registered as disabled. This law was widely ignored but at least it demonstrated intention.

By 1964 nothing had changed. Disabled people received education and health provision but social care support was scant. Disabled people tended to live in conditions of relative poverty and apart from basic Social Security there were no financial benefits specifically aimed at meeting the needs of disabled people. But things were moving. The Central Council for the Disabled appointed the first Access Officer to promote the idea that buildings should be accessible to wheelchair users. It was a start. Disabled people were not visible on our streets and public policy took no account of their needs. Public consciousness was awakened when newspapers, and in particular the UK Sunday Times, promoted the cause of people had been affected by the drug Thalidomide. Parliamentarians took notice and for the first time many MPs could remember, disability was talked about in the two chambers of Parliament. Outside disabled people were getting together and campaigning for a disability costs allowance, better social service provision, access to buildings and public transport and to education and work.

The 1970s saw considerable improvements. The Manchester MP, Alf Morris, guided his Private Members Bill through Parliament just before the 1970 general election. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act required local authorities to establish a register of disabled people and to provide a range of services to enable disabled people to remain at home rather than live in institutions. The Act required public buildings to be accessible “insofar as was practical and reasonable”. It also introduced what is now the Blue Badge to enable disabled people to park more easily. The celebrations were muted when it became apparent that the Act lack enforcement mechanisms.

Many of the disability benefits available today were originally introduced in the mid-1970s. It was recognised that being disabled is expensive as disabled people have many costs non-disabled people are spared. The mobility and attendance allowances are now incorporated into the Disability Living Allowance. The charity Motability was formed to enable people to turn their mobility allowance into a car. Motability currently provides vehicles to over 600,000 disabled people in the UK. Social services provision increased as disability charities found ways of enforcing part of the 1970 Act.

The 1980s saw retrenchment. A legal case ruled that local authorities could take their resources into account when deciding what services to provide for disabled people, regardless of the needs of those people. The consequence was that services were judged too costly and quickly rationed. At this time another major development took place. Disabled people became more militant and formed organisations that only disabled people were permitted to join that challenging the traditional disability charities that were largely run by people who have no personal experience of disability. From 1981 onwards disabled people demanded anti-discrimination legislation to give them the same rights as non-disabled people. Legislation had already been passed granting protection on grounds of gender or race. A coalition of disabled people, disability organisations, parliamentarians and others came together to demand legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act was eventually passed in 1995 after 18 Bills had been presented to Parliament and failed. But in the 14 years of Parliamentary activity many concessions had been won. Building regulations in 1985 required all new buildings to be accessible to wheelchair users. Later changes required facilities for blind people and those with other impairments. Employers who discriminated against disabled people could be held to account in an employment tribunal. But the DDA had no enforcement mechanism and a campaign started to create a Disability Rights Commission. This succeeded in 2000.

Despite all this activity, unemployment amongst working age disabled people was around 50% in 1964 and it remains at that level today. Social care is today provided for only those with the most severe impairments. The disability benefits that were so hard-won in the 1970s are subject to ever tighter eligibility criteria and up to a third of current recipients could lose their benefits upon review. Disabled people still live disproportionately in poverty and this is likely to increase. On the positive side much of public transport is accessible to disabled people, including buses, trains and taxis although air travel is still problematic for some. The Disability Rights Commission was incorporated into the Equality and Human Rights Commission which most disabled people think was a very retrograde step.  Disabled actors, athletes and presenters appear regularly on our TV screens. Disabled people are seen in our shops and streets. In many ways there have been great improvements in the last 50 years but all the progress is vulnerable.

There has been huge improvements designed to allow disabled people to enable to live independently. But, as was discovered 50 years ago, there remains a need for one-off pieces of equipment to be designed and made to meet the needs of a particular person. Fifty years ago, Remap, a national charity working through local groups of skilled volunteers to help people with disabilities achieve independence, was created to bring together engineers, therapists and disabled people to meet this need. Today Remap is operating through 80 panels of volunteers around the country,  supporting disabled people who want to be more independent – as their predecessors were doing half a century ago. Everything Remap does is given free to the people it helps.

 Sir Bert Massie is long time disability campaigner and ex-chairman of the Disability Rights Commission



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