In celebrating the passing of the DDA, it’s the message that matters

The significance of the Disability Discrimination Act was and remains largely symbolic. Saying this is not to denigrate its actual effect as a piece of law, which is frequently overlooked. Rather is it to say that in marking its passing and understanding its relevance and importance two decades on, our attention should be drawn to the message that its passing reflected and sent to society regarding the status of disabled people, more so than its direct effect.

Fundamentally the message was this: disabled people deserve equal rights to participation, not society’s charity, and what stands in the way are socially constructed barriers that must be removed, not disabled people’s bodies or minds.

It is this message that matters – that we need to remind ourselves of – today.

From the original Disability Discrimination Act, which was narrow in scope and weak in enforcement, the decade to 2005 witnessed huge policy and legislative advances in relation to the rights of disabled people, all of which stemmed from that core message.   Yet it sometimes feels today that people view this period as having been full of false hope and potentially having paved the way for the damaging reforms and public spending reductions we are witnessing today.

Certainly many of these advances – anti-discrimination law, direct payments, individual budgets – were driven as much if not more by economic policy as any concern for human rights. This is the same broad economic policy that promoted the transition from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ welfare states and the increased marketization of public services across the European Union and developed nations.

Yet there was at the same time always what I have called previously a ‘structural deficit’ in the evolution of disability rights in Britain, reflecting the historic division between those who focused primarily on securing a ‘disability income’ and those engaged in wider battles for inclusion – a division that remains today.

While the message of disability rights activists drove the development of equality law, it failed to penetrate the conception of disability that had guided developments in social security and social care since the Second World War:

  • While disability rights focuses on socially constructed barriers, social security and social care has focused on the impact of impairments and health conditions on functioning.
  • Disability rights regards the notion that impairments or health conditions predict what an individual can be or do as a form or prejudice. Social security and social care have typically required people to demonstrate that their impairment or health condition predicts what they are unable to be or do as a condition of entitlement.
  • Disability rights seeks to generate higher expectations among people with impairments and health conditions and wider society regarding what is possible. Social security and social care typically encourage a lowering of expectation, for it is only by demonstrating a lack of productive potential that people can secure and maintain entitlements.

This tension plays out in deeply problematic ways. In relation to employment and social security for example, disability rights has been concerned with the right to work and focused on removing labour market barriers including prejudice and discrimination, while welfare reform has concerned itself with extending the obligation to work, distinguishing on the basis of abstract tests of functional capacity who should or should not be the object of conditionality. This has resulted in disability campaigners appearing simultaneously to campaign for the right to work by challenging prejudicial assumptions about their employability, while at the same time seeking to safeguard people against expectations to work, based on blanket assertions regarding the impact of impairments and health conditions on their capabilities.

While the energy behind the DDA and disability rights more generally had been on the slide since the closure of the Disability Rights Commission in 2007, it was the emergency budget following the election of the coalition government in 2010 that seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the very pursuit of disability rights itself, for it was here that the core message itself was largely abandoned.

State charity, not equal rights and inclusion have been the focus of campaigns, with the impact of impairments and health conditions on functioning the principal battleground.   Where equality and human rights law and standards have been invoked it is to defend state charity – the very idea disability rights activists once opposed and a major reason why such laws and standards now exist. The language and images of vulnerability and dependency have been rehabilitated to fight these battles, where once disabled people wore t-shirts with the slogan ‘piss on pity.’ Campaigners promote low expectations to shield people from punitive welfare reforms.

Of course, people cannot participate equally when they lack of the resources to leave their home or do not know whether they will be able to afford their next meal.   It is perfectly understandable when faced with such unprecedented cuts that people have prioritized challenging them.   I am always reminded of what Albie Sachs has said of the inclusion of economic and social rights in the South African Constitution: ‘it would have been ironical indeed if all the victory over Apartheid had secured was the right of people to curse the government freely with their last breath.’   Human rights are indivisible and interdependent. Disability rights makes no sense without a focus on both civil and political rights and economic and social rights.  But this indivisibility equally means that the price of protecting and securing material wellbeing must not be the loss of dignity, freedom and social status. This is I believe where the message that drove disability rights campaigners in the 1980s and 1990s can inform and reinvigorate campaigners again today.

How can the message behind the DDA shape today’s campaigns? Campaigners could reframe their demands, not as challenging ‘spending cuts’ or as opposing welfare reform – both of which act to reinforce the framing of those who wish to continue cutting spending to the bone – but as pursuing investment of public resources in the support and opportunities that enable disabled people to contribute to society.

This should promote at least as much focus on how public resources are invested as on how much money is spent: on the case for investment, on how resources should be targeted, on what is required of people to demonstrate eligibility, on who is in control of the money and how value for money can be demonstrated.

Just as campaigners advanced a model of anti discrimination legislation in the early 1990’s, so now campaigners might advance a new way to invest public resources effectively and in a way that realigns to the pursuit of equal rights and inclusion – as enabling supports rather than allowing them to be cast as inherently undesirable and ideally avoidable areas of ‘welfare spending.’

The DDA itself did not change the world, but it was a watershed moment in terms of how the world was coming to view the status and rights of disabled people – one which has since begun to spread across the globe.   The best way to celebrate this important anniversary is to recall, embrace and be guided once again by the message that lay behind it.


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