Disability and Labour Movement Soliarity

Note: This is from a talk I wrote for earlier this week. I do have references and they will be added at some point today. Also, the language of disabled persons and people with disabilities are both used because of different preferences between the UK and Canada

We are seeing an increase in disability activism in the last few months, but there is history behind it.

The years of explosive strikes and growth in trade unions also saw the formation of the British Deaf Association and the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD). Founded as a trade union in 1899, the NLBD affiliated to the Trades Union Congress three years later. Its members included blind war veterans, mainly working in sheltered workshops, who campaigned for better working conditions and state pensions. The league organized a national march of blind people on Trafalgar Square in 1920, carrying banners with a new slogan—”Rights Not Charity”. Despite the small numbers, its aims were widely supported. The first legislation specifically for blind people was passed in the same year, followed by more in 1938.

The long economic boom created space to challenge institutionalization and the patronage of charities, with significant numbers of disabled people joining the workforce. By the 1960s some had begun to reject their labelling by the professions as deviants or patients, and to speak out against discrimination. Inspired in particular by the black civil rights struggle, the disability movement began in the US.

An example of this shift was the “Rolling Quads”, a group of student wheelchair users at the University of California, who established the first Independent Living Centre in 1971. Within a few years hundreds more were created across the US and other countries including Britain, Canada and Brazil. Its opposition to institutionalization and stress on the self-reliance of disabled people was to give the independent living movement a lasting influence.

These days the movement has shifted again, with the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, many organizations that were once active advocates, are now relying on government legislation to provide their next steps, while they fight each other for funding scraps. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class.

Some of you have heard me talk before about the connections made between the disability movement and the occupy movement, and the marches of thousands in the UK, fighting back against austerity and cuts to benefits. While these events are important to celebrate, it is also important to acknowledge the environment in which they happen.

The recession in the UK has already hit disabled people hard. The government’s huge public spending cuts include further attacks on inadequate but vital disability benefits. Their aim is to roll-back hard-won ‘social reforms’ affecting all sections of the working class. Understanding disability discrimination can therefore play a part in defending these reforms and uniting resistance to the attacks which lie ahead.

A recent report by Glasgow University Media Group found an increase in media articles on disability benefit fraud, comparing benefit cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers. Terms such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” were used in 18 percent of articles in 2010/11 compared to 12 percent in 2004/5. Focus groups believed up to 70 percent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by saying they had read it in newspapers. A survey last week found two-thirds of Britons actively avoid disabled people because they have no idea how to act around them.

The DWP admits fraudulent claims for sickness benefits are less than 1 percent of the total

Years of rhetoric about benefit fraud and “dependency on the state” have helped legitimize and reinforce prejudice and ignorance. And it’s not just the media. Tory MP Philip Davies recently claimed that disabled workers are “by definition” less productive, so could work for less than the minimum wage.

It’s hard not to read this without being reminded of the Harris years, and knowing that similar attacks could happen here.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which Canada was one of the last to sign) creates a paradigm shift from viewing people with disabilities from a charitable perspective to the one of rights and inclusion. There is a very real fear that the austerity measures have the potential to infringe on the specific, or practical rights contained in the CRPD. These rights include the right to social protection (Article 28), the right to live independently in the community (Article 19) the right to mobility (Article 20).

The European Disability Forum Observatory is currently compiling data from across Europe on the impact of the cutbacks. The data they have collected could be argued demonstrates how the specific rights outlined above face an uphill battle to be implemented and in some cases are under threat of elimination. It outlines a variety of ways the austerity cuts are affecting people with disabilities, including cuts in social protection, being obliged to massive reassessments of disability status and an overall reduction in services.

The report gives examples of how countries such as the UK and the Netherlands have cut their supports for day-to-day living and personal budget schemes, which enable people with disabilities to live independently. Additionally, it pointed out how a recent decision by Spain to reduce supported employment for those with intellectual disabilities in could see up to 12,000 such jobs being lost.

Negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. While, the austerity measures are creating real hardship in the lives of people with disabilities. It could also be argued that they are also contributing to negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. The language and subtle messaging of describing disabled citizens as ‘expenditure items’ or as a ‘drain on economic efforts’ further contributes to the stigmatization of disabled persons.

In many countries people with disabilities remain locked in a state of virtual apartheid. They are forced to the fringes of society, ostracized from things that many of us take for granted such as getting a job or going on public transport.

So what can we do as a movement? BUILD CONNECTIONS. Reach out to people we see doing activist work, and connect them with related struggles. One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities faced is isolation. Even when groups of people with disabilities do become active, it is rare for allies to reach out.

I am still very encouraged by the theme for IDPD 2011 is “Together a better world for all”. As actions took place across the world last weekend, social media gave me a sense of international solidarity I hadn’t felt before, from wheelchair square dancing in Vancouver to a flash mob in Vienna.

Like I said before, IDPD 2011 has come and gone, but our struggles and resolve remain as ever.

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