Over the past 50 years big charities have modulated and modified their tone and presentation of disabled people, says Professor Mike Oliver. But to what end and for whose benefit?
The on-going fiasco surrounding the children’s charity Kids Company reveals that £46 million of taxpayers’ money was given to it before it finally went belly up. It prompted the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to comment that “It is unbelievable that taxpayers’ money has been given to Kids Company with little focus on what it was actually achieving.” This has lead me to wonder what we might find if we asked a similar question about the big disability charities who over the last 50 years have received far more taxpayers’ and public money than that.
We can divide up their contributions to the lives of disabled people on a decade by decade basis.
Their approach in the 1970s can be characterised by ignorance and benign neglect. They knew little about disabled people and our lives and they portrayed as tragic victims who needed to be looked after. Disabled people became increasingly fed up with this portrayal of us and we began to build our own organisations and articulate our own views of what we wanted.
As a response to this in the 1980s the big disability charities went into double denial mode. They denied that the new organisations of disabled people represented us and that the radical ideas we were presenting were actually what was needed. Instead their approach can be summed up as ‘platitudes about attitudes’ which fed into the government’s own strategy of trying to persuade non-disabled people to be nice to us.
By the 1990s our organisations represented over 100,000 disabled people and we had played a major role in building organisations of disabled people across the globe. So they decided to promote our ideas and policies as their own even though a few years earlier they had been denying their relevance. And when the then government introduced its own plans for anti-discrimination legislation they couldn’t wait to get behind it and give their support even though they knew it was fundamentally flawed.
By the 2000s they were promoting themselves as the disability movement and the legitimate voice of disabled people. So busy were they doing this that they failed to notice that the New Labour Government, while saying all the right things, were cutting our benefits and eroding our support, mainly to finance their illegal wars.
The 2010s saw the first Conservative Government for a generation and it unashamedly set about destroying the welfare state and showed a distinct lack of concern for any casualties on the way. Their own statistics showed that people were dying or killing themselves because services were being withdrawn or cut to the bone. So the disability charities have changed again, presenting themselves as our defenders and presenting us as victims in need of care. In so doing they have taken us back to where we were in the 1970s.
It would be foolish to suggest that no progress has been made in those 50 years but the question is, how much of that progress can the disability charities take credit for? Not much if you ask me. As a society we have become much richer over the past 50 years and disabled people have shared in that, but the gap between what we have and what the non-disabled have and take for granted remains as big as it ever was. New technology has also opened up our lives and our access to the world too but that progress has been market-led. And the progress that has been made in terms of our benefits and support services can almost all be accounted for by the disability activism of the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet, while for the past 50 years the big charities have had multi-million pound budgets, high salaried executives, plush London offices, the great and the good on their governing bodies and honours and awards galore, their achievements have been relatively insignificant. I wonder what the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee would make of that?