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:
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:
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
Organisation and running of meetings
When considering an accessible and inclusive meeting, there are 3 aspects you need to think about:
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.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Sat 27 April, 10.30
Day of Action against far right party First Britain – Waltham Abbey
The far right party First Britain is standing in local elections in Waltham Abbey, Essex. Stand Up To Racism has organised this action.
More info at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sat 11 May, 12.00-16.00
Exist! Resist! Return! National Demo for Palestine
Assemble 12 noon at Portland Place and march to Whitehall.
Sat 29 June, 11.00-18.00
Left Unity National Conference
Left Unity’s annual conference will take place in Liverpool this year.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.