As a nascent umbrella organisation of disabled people takes its first steps to being our voice, Mike Oliver reflects on what the future needs to learn from the past.
A recent conference organised by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) highlighted the need for a new national umbrella organisation suggesting that the United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) was no longer fulfilling that role. This has been apparent for many years and in my last column I suggested that there was an urgent need for disabled people to reclaim our collective voice. The decline of UKDPC is regrettable but we should not ignore the lessons its slow demise can teach us.
British Council of Organisations of Disabled People
The organisation was formed in 1981 as the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) and within 15 years it became the most influential organisation of disabled people in the United Kingdom. After its formation it quickly moved from a defensive modus operandi into an offensive one insisting it was the only authentic national voice of disabled people.
This, of course, upset many of the traditional disabled people’s organisations who vehemently opposed the new ideas it was promoting. However, BCODP was the first organisation to fully endorse the social model of disability, to promote independent living when other organisations were supporting professional care and to advocate anti-discrimination legislation when the disability charities were telling the government that discrimination wasn’t a major problem in disabled people’s lives.
Disability Discrimination Act
BCODP’s crowning achievement was to force a recalcitrant government to do a u-turn and change its mind about anti-discrimination legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995. Ironically it was this very success that sowed the seeds of BDOCP’s decline. The Act was a pale shadow of what many people wanted but a split occurred between some disabled people and organisations who wanted nothing to do with it and others who argued that it was the best we were going to get and we should support it.
BCODP took a principled stance deciding to have no involvement in what the Government was proposing while most others took the pragmatic approach and tried to make the best of it. In the following years BCODP became increasingly marginalised and starved of funds and many of its prominent leadership became key players in the disability discrimination industry that subsequently emerged or retired from disability politics altogether.
While this pivotal decision may have been crucial to what happened subsequently to BCODP, it would be wrong to see it as a mistake because those who got involved with government never managed to establish themselves as the legitimate voice of disabled people. What’s more, they soon found that they were forced back into a defensive mode, defending what had been gained in the previous 15 years rather than developing new, dynamic ideas and strategies.
If ROFA, therefore, wishes to become the legitimate voice of disabled people it will need to ensure that it does not get too close to government and hence be seen as its tame lapdog nor too distant and risk a slow decline into irrelevance as has happened with BCODP despite transforming itself into UKDPC. This will not be easy because the new organisation will need to establish a secure funding base without compromising its independence.
Many of the other issues once faced by BCODP/UKDPC will now confront this new umbrella organisation if it is to become the new voice of disabled people. For example, if its going to be an umbrella organisation what other organisations will be allowed to join and, equally importantly, who will be excluded? Additionally, who will be allowed to speak for the organisation? And finally, how will individual disabled people be enabled to participate if they don’t belong to other member organisations?
On top of this there is there urgent need to generate new ideas and dynamism because, as the last few years have demonstrated and the lessons of history have taught us, we do not need just a resistance movement but one which sets a clear direction for the future and which also has the means to persuade governments to follow our lead. Simply pleading for no more cuts has not saved us from savage attacks on our living standards until now nor will it prove to be a secure base to build our futures.