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Disabled people are suffering as a result of government neglect. It's time we united for justice

Disabled people are suffering as a result of austerity and neglect. That's why disabled people's organisations are uniting for justice, write Mikey Erhardt and Bethany Bale

disabled people protesting

Disabled people have had to fight for their rights time and again. Image: Flickr/ Sean_hickin

There are 14 million disabled people in the UK, and we make up a fifth of the population. We are not a homogenous group, but we all want to live in an inclusive society where everyone has a fulfilling life and feels connected and valued.

Last month, the government refused to show up to the United Nations meeting called to scrutinise the violation of disabled people’s rights happening under their administration. Such a display of contempt for our lives comes as little surprise to those of us who have seen and experienced first-hand the erosion of our rights under this and previous governments.

In the UK, we seem content to leave disabled people silenced on the margins, with the government refusing to size up to public scrutiny and the inhumane policies we regularly face barely making the news. This rising tide of ableism, which has come with deep cuts to services, is working hand-in-hand with the government’s anti-migrant, anti-trans and racist policies and has left ever-increasing numbers of us in poverty, homeless, incarcerated or killed by state neglect.

Earlier this year, it was leaked that Bristol City Council are considering a policy that would place disabled people in care homes if it was cheaper than providing the social care we deserve in our homes.

This could be a frightening return to institutionalisation, the era of locking up disabled people in institutions so we were segregated from society and less ‘burdensome’. The 19th-century lunatic asylums like the Bethlem still stand and are still used to detain disabled people against their will. It’s clear that these systems never completely disappeared but were merely reformed with a more palatable veneer for the conscience of a wider, non-disabled society. But we still face the same dehumanisation.

The Conservative government is ramping up policies to force disabled people who are too unwell to work back into employment, a cynical attempt to impose conditionality and cut our social security to the bone.

Over the past decade, budget cuts and austerity have left local authorities with a 29% real-term cut in spending power – is it any wonder 2.6 million people aged 50 and over in England are living with some form of unmet care need? 

And of those who do receive social care support in their homes, between April 2020 and March 2021, deaths increased by nearly 50%. More than 600,000 disabled people in the UK are estimated to have £10 or less per week to pay for food and other costs. When we are not experiencing state violence, we are suffering as a result of state neglect.

Our community knows how to fight back. Wherever there has been oppression, there is resistance. Our collective movement is built on the tireless work of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), which came about in the late 1980s and early 1990s before any laws protected against discrimination due to disability.

With a network spanning the whole of the UK, DAN campaigned for justice over more than a decade for our right to live as independent equals in society, rallying against the pity and paternalistic politics of the past – their tactics included high-profile street demonstrations, road-blocking, protests and civil disobedience.

In one example, DAN targeted Telethon studios after broadcasting particularly grim and paternalistic portrayals of disabled people. Gathering around 1,500 people, the street outside the studio turned into a carnival with musicians and a PA system, ensuring everyone knows we refuse to be silenced.

DAN’s collective, grassroots work led to a sea-change for disabled people, with disability becoming a protected category under the law in 1995 – but more importantly, DAN proved that disabled people don’t need saviours. We will take to the streets until you hear our demands!

One thing we must learn from the successes of radical disabled resistance is that we are always stronger together. Together, as part of the DPO Forum England, a collective of Disabled People’s Organisations in England, we want to join the work we’re doing nationwide and unify our demands.

That’s why we have developed a Disabled People’s Manifesto, full of radical policy demands calling for systemic overhaul and transformation. We want to create a movement behind this change, which will build the power needed to ensure the next UK government institutes a radical reform programme, to tackle disablist policy making and systemic oppression and injustice, to create a society where everyone has equal life chances and is valued and treated as equal citizens.

Mikey Erhardt and Bethany Bale are campaigns and policy officers at Disability Rights UK.

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