Why Access is a Political Issue

Bob Williams-Findlay writes: Since 2010, disabled people – through campaign networks such as Disabled People Against Cuts – have been at the forefront of the fight against Austerity, yet the experience of disabled activists within the political arena still mirrors that of disabled people in wider society where we find ourselves excluded from or marginalised within activities. DPAC’s Paula Peters expresses disabled people’s frustration when she writes:

 “We are not getting the support from large sectors of the Left that we should have. Many ignore our access needs on marches [and within] meetings on a regular basis. The amount of times meetings are held in inaccessible buildings with no lifts, etc.”

A key slogan of the Disabled People’s Movement has always been ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’ – recognising how nondisabled people in a variety of capacities disempower disabled people by making decisions on our behalf or simply by ignoring our needs and interests. Disabled people are often made to feel as if they are ‘burdens on society’ or have the sense that they are ‘invisible’. Rory Heap, former chair of UNISON Disabled Members, said recently in relation to disabled people’s political engagement:

“… how uncomfortable it can feel constantly having to be the            whinging outsider, or the retro pedant going on about the finer points of language, or being once again “accidentally forgotten” on that list of oppressed groups?”

There is an increased awareness of racism, sexism and homophobia within the trade union movement, political parties and society; but the issues surrounding disablism are rarely entertained.Disabled people are part of the resistance movement, but we deserve to be respected, acknowledged and better supported. At times it feels as if our oppressors and allies have more in common than we and they would like. Only through inclusive practice and engagement with disabled people’s experience of disablism will ‘unity is strength’ really mean something. Disabled people wish to end situations where we feel by-passed or forgotten.

So why is Access a Political Issue?

The materialist based social model sees disability as the creation of social restrictions which result from and contribute to the oppression of people with impairments via systems and structures which serve in the interest of capitalism. The nature of this treatment – often discriminatory – is experienced in a myriad of ways. People with physical impairments and mental health service users, for example, can encounter very different disabling barriers due to how, historically, society has determined the social relations of the membership of these groups. This includes the use of pejorative labels. At a micro level of society, disabling barriers can be viewed as the failure to introduce inclusive practice but this fails to tell the whole story. It is necessary to recognise that at a macro level disablism exists within structures of society and takes on the character of institutional discrimination – e.g. the labour market, legal system, government policy, etc.

The emphasis within all social approaches to disability is simple: look at ways of changing the social organisation of society in order to accommodate people with impairments. This has resulted in an array of ‘interpretations’ of the social oppression approach to disability ranging from reformist to revolutionary. Whilst Left Unity Disabled Members Caucus believes that only a radical transformation of society can put an end to disablement, it acknowledges that our immediate task is to seek ‘betterment’ for disabled people by campaigning for action to introduce forms of ‘inclusive practice’. The emphasis is on reducing or removing unnecessary social restrictions that are disabling barriers to disabled people’s participation within both society and our own Party. Mike Oliver offered a simple framework to work within:

“For me disabled people are defined in terms of three criteria;

(i)   they have an impairment;

(ii)  they experience oppression as a consequence; and

(iii) they identify themselves as a disabled person.

Using the generic term [disabled people] does not mean that I do not recognise differences in experience within the group but that in exploring this we should start from the ways oppression differentially impact on different groups of people rather than with differences in experience among individuals with different impairments.”

This primarily works for developing policies, procedures and practice however on a day-to-day engagement level it may be necessary to invite disabled people to identify specific needs they may have. Branch organisers need to invite people to identity their support needs in a confidential manner if required in order to ensure they are catered for. Key to understanding disability politics is the ability to develop awareness and strategies to identify and address social environments which exclude or marginalise disabled people. Holding a meeting on the second floor of pub is creating an inaccessible environment – a form of apartheid – and this impacts on various social groups not just disabled people. Social justice and addressing the equalisation of opportunity cannot be achieved by taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach; consideration of the diversity of needs is required.

Access is a major issue for a variety of groups of disabled people; those with visual impairments encounter different disabling barriers to those who are learning disabled or have limited mobility. Only by addressing these issues can we develop an inclusive practice. Disabled people’s oppression stems from how society and people fail to take their needs and issues into account. Ignorance is a political weapon against disabled people.

What needs to be done?

Consider the above points in relation to the meetings and events Left Unity organise or are involved in:

  • How can disabled people find out about our activities? Is our material accessible?
  • Do our activities prevent or discourage disabled people’s participation?
  • What are the social environments we work within like for disabled people – level access, easy access toilets, transport systems available, parking, noise levels, clearly signed?
  • Do you know how to contact local Disabled People’s Organisations for support and advice?

Left Unity Disabled Members Caucus has produced a comprehensive guide called, Inclusivity and the Left Unity which should be available to ALL Branches and members who organise meeting and events.  Here are the key points for addressing access as a political issue and developing inclusive practice:

It is necessary for Left Unity to pay particular attention to five activity areas:

  • Organisation and running of meetings
  • The production of documentation – including leaflets
  • Accessibility of the Left Unity websites
  • Accessibility of demonstrations and other activities
  • Good practices when communicating with disabled people

 What is inclusivity?

An inclusive product, service or environment does not exclude any section of society. Inclusive solutions consider all users, including disabled people, and is a positive step towards a holistic, universal system.

The Principles of Inclusivity

  • Acknowledge individuals have unique and particular needs in learning, social and work environments.
  • Respect each individual’s right to express and present themselves relative to their religion, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender-identity, identity as disabled people.
  • Promote inclusivity by reasonably adjusting procedures, activities and physical environments.
  • Focus on the learning or support needs of the individual without assumptions or labels.
  • Be inclusive in all forms of communication.
  • Serve all with sensitivity, respect, and within boundaries of social justice.

Organisation and running of meetings

When considering an accessible and inclusive meeting, there are 3 aspects you need to think about:

  1. Planning and preparation
  2. The equipment and information
  3. The conduct of the meeting.

All this and more can be found in our guide. Remember, if you can’t afford meeting people’s rights then you can’t afford to hold that meeting or event.



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