Are people once more about to break out the handcuffs, the chains, the padlocks, the cans of red paint? With spending cuts apparently putting disabled people and government once more on a collision course, Sunil Peck asks what did the direct actions of the 1990s achieve and should we expect a return to those times of militancy?

“Cuts kill,” was the stark message from disabled campaigners who took to the streets in protest during the Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Eleanor Lisney one of the disabled organisers of the rally, says that two disabled people have committed suicide because of cuts to their care packages and benefits. “We’re saying to disabled people don’t wait until you’re really up against the wall because of the cuts because it’ll be too late.”

We will have to wait and see whether the Birmingham demo turns out to be the first stage of a battle in a sustained campaign against the coalition government’s cuts but disabled people are certainly angry and there is a history of angry disabled people using direct action to fight injustice. It reached its height in the 1990s.

Campaigns waged by the Direct Action Network (DAN) and the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) sparked important changes like the erosion of negative images of disability in the media, the Disability Discrimination Act and a more accessible public transport network. It’s hard to imagine that only 20 years ago the tubes and buses in London were inaccessible to disabled people. For most people the only option was Dial-a-Ride.

As former CAT stalwart Tracey Proudlock puts it, “Even the taxis at that point weren’t accessible because they had narrow doors and no ramps.” She says that it was negative attitudes within London Transport that led to the setting up of the first pan-disability group to embark on a sustained campaign of direct action in the name of disability rights.

“We got CAT together because the decision makers we were talking to seemed totally unaware of our experience. They would say in meetings that there was no proof that disabled people wanted to use buses, because they never saw disabled people at bus stops. That to us was the green light to get us on the street. We said that we would queue at every bus stop we could find. Even though we knew we wouldn’t be able to get on any buses, we were queuing to make a point.”

CAT’s two year campaign began with a demo in Oxford Street in 1990. Tracey Proudlock says that it was the first of about ten demos and was chosen for good reason. “We decided on Oxford Street because it’s such an emblem of London. It was also a good venue because it had a vast number of buses running up and down it and because there were shops nearby with accessible loos.”

It wasn’t long before CAT’s tactics became more militant and they began chaining themselves to buses in central London. Allan Sutherland, then CAT’s press officer says that CAT was effective because its demos were well-organised, its message was simple, it provided good photo opportunities for the media and it had public support.

“CAT’s demonstrations brought the west end of London to a standstill. But the public really understood the issue. I can remember one person saying, “This is a real pain for me but I do think you’ve got to do it’.”

Tracey Proudlock, the driving force behind CAT, took a back seat from campaigning in 1992 to bring up her family. But London gained accessible buses when Ken Livingstone became mayor in 2000. Also in 1992, disabled people from around the UK converged in London for a second protest against ITV’s charity Telethon. The programme broadcast films depicting disabled people as leading sad and tragic lives in order to raise money from viewers.

The first protest had taken place in 1990. Still an activist and performer, Alan Holdsworth – aka Johnny Crescendo – one of the organisers, says that the protests were a manifestation of the collective hatred of the programme in the disability movement which meant that mobilising people was easy.

“It was just about making sure that everybody knew about it. We were trying to get the Telethon off the air. We didn’t like the imagery and we didn’t think they were capable of changing the imagery without us and we didn’t want to be involved in charity.”

Holdsworth says he was overwhelmed by the turnout and atmosphere at the protests. “We surrounded Frank Bruno’s car so he couldn’t get in. He was really annoyed. I thought he was going to hit me.”

The protests garnered tremendous media attention which, says Holdsworth, hammered home a message that disabled people were sick of being portrayed as objects of pity. The Telethon was scrapped and Holdsworth became convinced that disabled people could use direct action to campaign on other issues and the Direct Action Network (DAN) was born.

“We wanted to make what CAT was doing more national. We worked with CAT and they came to the first meeting concerned with setting up DAN.”

DAN’s first high profile campaign was in July 1993 in Dorset when it hounded Rob Hayward, a Conservative MP with multiple sclerosis, who had talked out a civil rights bill for disabled people in Parliament and who was standing in a by-election in Christchurch. He ended up losing which, according to the retired academic and member of DAN, now Disability Now columnist Mike Oliver, led to a significant development in government policy.

“The Conservative majority had been huge and DAN showed that that kind of direct action could affect politics. It was the crucial piece of action that made the Conservatives go down the road of having an anti-discrimination Act.”

DAN still protests for the rights of disabled people living in homes and against benefit cuts and social services in the UK. But its profile began to wane after a protest where members threw red paint over 10 Downing Street. Nevertheless, Barbara Lisicki, a DAN member, says that both CAT and DAN have left disabled people with another important legacy.

“It was hugely empowering. One of DAN’s strengths was that nobody was ever excluded. We had people with learning difficulties who hadn’t ever had a niche because nobody had wanted them to contribute and we’d say, “If you want to do this, come and do it.”

With so many disabled people feeling threatened by the coalition government’s cuts and with user-led organisations going to the wall, could direct action be an effective way of campaigning in the future? Barbara Lisicki is itching to get back out onto the streets because she thinks it’s one of the few ways of fighting the cuts. But she has learnt important lessons from her time with DAN which she says the new generation of activists have to take on-board.

“Actions have to be non-violent. You must also focus on one issue at a time and don’t be distracted. You must also be prepared to be arrested. If you’re going to push the boundaries that’s what could happen.”

She, like many other activists, says that direct action has to be part of a wider campaigning strategy.

“The point of direct action is to get people’s attention to stop an issue getting buried. But you’ve got to have a negotiating strategy for getting around the table with people because unless you’re clear about how your demands can be realised you shouldn’t be doing it.”

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