On Saturday (4th November 2017) I attended the National Disabled People’s Summit in London, organised by the National Education Union, Reclaiming our Futures Alliance (ROFA) and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
Bob Williams-Findlay introduced the summit with a great speech putting the present conditions faced by disabled people in historical context, warning against “reinventing the wheel” caused by a lack of knowledge of our movement’s history. Bob also spoke about the tension between reformist and revolutionary approaches to capitalist society in the Disabled People’s Movement, pointing out the contradictions inherent in the idea of ‘inclusion’, i.e. that it is possible to end oppression by entering into a society that rejects us at every turn. While Disabled People’s Organisations in the past took different positions on whether benefits or inclusion in paid work are the best solution to disabled people’s poverty and social exclusion, both are problematic in different ways and neither is a perfect solution. Previous DPOs, such as the British Council of Disabled People’s Organisations (BCODP), chose to focus on barriers and anti-discrimination laws, which Bob described as “politically naive”; a “rights” approach to disability activism identifies individual characteristics and demands concessions from capitalist society rather than seeking to change its fundamental basis. While many DPOs got sucked into service delivery rather than activism, DPAC builds on the tradition of earlier direct action groups including the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) and the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), but there is still not necessarily enough continuity of struggle.
Ellen Clifford followed this by saying that we need spaces for debate, but also to support one another, and acknowledging the fact that many DPOs are currently overwhelmed by demands for support from disabled people in crisis that they have nowhere near the funding or resources available to meet, and the sad loss of many prominent disabled activists in the last year, including Debbie Jolly, Sophie Partridge, Robert Dellar and Eleanor Firman (a list to which I would add Lorraine Gradwell and Keith Armstrong). She pointed out that “getting Corbyn in” is not enough to reverse the damage done by the years of Tory austerity, as even the Labour leadership that many disabled people have pinned all their hopes on do not necessarily fully “get it” on disability issues.
There were then one round of workshops, followed by lunch, a second round of workshops, and feedback from all the workshops at the end. Both of the workshops I went to – Independent Living in the morning and Direct Action in the afternoon – were attended by large numbers of enthusiastic people with a lot to say, but didn’t necessarily come to solid conclusions and were really more about noting down the most important issues identified by the the participants and their ideas for how to deal with them (from what I heard of the feedback at the end, most of the other workshops were probably similar).
In the workshop on Independent Living, the issues raised included:
– cuts to ‘social care’ (including that provided by LAs and by the NHS) everywhere in the UK
– people being evicted from care homes (with no other accessible accommodation to go to)
– people being forced to break the law by paying PAs below minimum wage
– ongoing court cases to try to get councils to keep giving people the funding they had promised to ‘ring-fence’ after the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF)
– people who get health funding for personal assistance having that stopped when they go into hospital
– postcode lotteries regarding care charges
– tightening of eligibility criteria for direct payments by LAs
– difficulty recruiting and retaining good PAs
– CILs and other ULOs in crisis because of lack of funding (and councils “taking back in-house” services that CILs/DPOs had been contracted to deliver, such as payroll support)
– imposition of ‘pre-payment cards’ by LAs instead of Direct Payment bank accounts
It was recognised that Independent Living is not just about personal assistance, but on the other hand personal assistance is crucial to IL – as one participant said “access to things like workplaces and public transport doesn’t matter if you don’t have the assistance to get out of bed”.
While most people present had physical impairments (and most of those were themselves personal assistance users), a notable exception was Simone Aspis from ALLFIE, who spoke passionately about people with learning difficulties, autism and/or mental health diagnoses being increasingly institutionalised in privately-run facilities such as Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs), making the important point that “opposing all cuts” is not good enough for the DPM when there are some ‘services’ that actually oppress disabled people and deserve to be cut. Similarly, Claire Glasman from WinVisible raised the issue that councils “always have money to take children away from disabled mothers, but not to support disabled mothers to raise their children”.
The closure of day centres was also controversial, with some people reporting disabled people in their areas campaigning to keep day centres open because the alternative was social isolation in an inaccessible society. The divide between those who are fighting to defend the formal support they are getting and those who are not getting any was also brought up as something we need to be careful is not exploited for “divide and rule” politics.
Several things that we need to keep on the agenda of campaigns for independent living were agreed on, including:
– the need for advocacy for individuals struggling against bureaucratic systems to get what they need
– the need for ‘propaganda’ to get the word out to wider society about what it means to live disabled and unfairly restrictive lives
– the need to get back to the ‘core concepts’ of IL, such as the right to choice and control and the “Seven Needs” established by Derbyshire CIL in the 1990s
– the need for a strong law to give disabled people a right to IL (as opposed to the insufficient existing laws such as the Care Act 2014)
– the need to focus our campaigns on what we are for, rather than merely what we are opposing (e.g. “cuts”)
Many activists present argued forcefully that the system of payments for personal assistance needs to be national rather than local in scale, for fairness and to allow disabled people the freedom to move between different LA areas without risk of losing their support packages – a “national PA service” as one person suggested calling it. One PA spoke saying that PAs need secure jobs and thus have common interests with disabled people who need secure support, raising the question (unanswered in this workshop) of whether PAs should also be involved in working groups on Independent Living.
Mark Harrison from Equal Lives in Norfolk argued that personal assistance needs to be resourced nationally but delivered locally, through DPOs, co-operatives and social enterprises run and controlled by disabled people, under the principle of “nothing about us without us”, and that we need to have “professionals on tap, not on top” (a phrase that reminded me of Vic Finkelstein’s concept of “professionals allied to the community”). He also advertised the forthcoming Independent Living Campaigns Conference in London on Saturday 25th November, which I am also hoping to attend.
I wasn’t making such comprehensive notes in the Direct Action workshop, but it was attended by a wide range of veterans of direct actions old and new, including DAN and more recently DPAC, and a few people who were new to direct action but eager to get involved. There was discussion of differences between past and present conditions, including the fact that the disabled community arguably no longer has the resources that it once had to enable sustained direct action campaigns to happen, and of the tensions (not necessarily either/or) between locally and nationally focused action (I argued that, while national actions are important, local action is going to become increasingly necessary as LA-provided services are likely to be the ‘next frontier’ of cuts affecting disabled people’s daily lives). The role of unions was also discussed, in particular the question of what kind of relationship the DPM should have with unions representing workers in the ‘care’ industry, the DWP, the NHS, etc. I was pleased to see that most of those present accepted a wider definition of “direct action” and did not reduce it to a narrow range of tactics, and that it was recognised that direct action needs to be part of a wider strategy and can be complemented by other forms of activism. One thing that emerged from the workshop was a plan to produce an up-to-date disabled people’s direct action toolkit, potentially based on that used by ADAPT in the US as well as the old DAN handbook.
I must admit that I was pretty overloaded and losing the ability to concentrate when the feedback from the other workshops was given at the end, so I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember (presumably coming from the “social security” workshop) talk about the need to oppose the rollout of Universal Credit, with someone (possibly Paula Peters of DPAC?) saying that the Labour Party’s promise to “pause and fix” UC was not enough, and that instead we need an uncompromising demand to “stop and scrap” it; there was a mention of a planned national day of action on this, but I’m not sure if a date had been set for it.
Overall, I felt like there was a positive atmosphere and good and important discussions happening at the Summit, with some disagreements (inevitable in such a diverse movement) but a general feeling that, despite many barriers, there is hope for the DPM to be revitalised. However, I was left feeling like it wasn’t at all clear what was going to come out of this summit beyond the day itself. I have since heard that a report from the Summit is going to be released, which hopefully will have some pointers for co-ordinated future action…