Last month’s SR featured a really useful and timely article by Ellen Clifford highlighting the re-emergence of disability activism. Ellen emphasised the differences between much of the current disability movement and its predecessor of the late 1980s to mid-1990s.
Groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (Dpac) and Black Triangle have indeed taken an inclusive and grass roots based approach in contrast to many other past and present disability organisations.
I think, however, we should be careful not to over-emphasise these differences, or to forget how politically diverse social movements are – both past and present.
Dpac and others were launched to defend vital benefits such as the Disability Living Allowance and the Independent Living Fund. These were fought for by the previous disability movement in a political and economic climate very different from now.
This previous generation of activists also campaigned for and helped to win new legislation outlawing discrimination. It partly explains why a new generation of disability activists have been among the first to take up the cudgels against the current offensive, as well as having the confidence to challenge prejudice more generally.
Secondly, Dpac and Black Triangle have only a few thousand supporters, but their impact has been much greater than their size would suggest. This is partly because their actions, against Atos in particular, are widely supported
The sheer scale of the austerity cuts has helped generate a broader awareness among workers that larger forces are needed to defeat them. This mood makes it easier to win arguments, especially among those facing the worst of these attacks.
The disability movement can be narrowly defined as activist organisations such as Dpac and their supporters, or more broadly to include wider alliances involving the disability charities – to which many activists are bitterly and understandably hostile.
An alliance such as The Hardest Hit (which Ellen mentions) did, however, mobilise around 5,000 marchers on a national protest against disability benefit cuts three years ago. Reputedly the biggest ever demonstration of disabled people in Britain, it was boycotted by many Dpac activists, but attracted substantial delegations from trade unions such as the GMB, Unison and the PCS.
As with other movements past and present, some activists stress the importance of parliamentary lobbying, while others emphasise the value of direct action. As Ellen says, the emphasis must always be on change from below.
Socialists play an important role in Dpac, as we do in a whole range of wider campaigns. We are, however, one among many political voices, and keeping an independent perspective remains vital.
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