Rights remain aspiration not reality

Looking back on 30 years of campaigning and activism, Andy Rickell says our rights are still too often granted at the whim of governments rather than being a given.

One of the disabled people’s movement’s early slogans was “rights not charity”. The parliamentary campaign of the early 1990s that forced defeat on the Major government (though it’s written differently in Conservative Party history) was for fully enforceable civil rights legislation that would have given disabled people the power to ensure their basic need for full social, political and economic inclusion could be guaranteed, and by implication, the money and resources necessary to make it happen.

What we got instead was the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), now incorporated in the Equality Act, which only gave us the right not to be discriminated against in just a few key areas of life. As subsequent experience has shown us, in practice nearly all government support in terms of cash and kind remains at the whim of successive governments, and every new government can take away what we thought we had won. So let’s call government support what it really is, “charity”, albeit via the state, because what is offered remains the decision of the giver. Although there has been some progress in the general social response to disabled people over the last 20 years, our aspiration for “rights not charity” remains unmet at national level and leaves disabled people at risk of being amongst the “precariat” in our society.

During the general election campaign earlier this year, four well-known members of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance produced a list of 17 demands which reminded me of the Disabled People’s Rights and Freedoms Charter we drafted at the Our Rights Now campaign 10 years ago. There were lots of very understandable demands in the list in the light of recent changes to government policy. I was particularly pleased to see their 14th point, the need for disabled people’s organisations to lead a campaign for civil rights legislation. And 20 years on from the original campaign, we now have an excellent blueprint for drafting up such a new law – the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (cringe re title but great otherwise).

I think the time has come for disabled people to finish what they started 25 years ago – to press for the enforceability of decent standards of support and inclusion for all disabled people through national civil rights legislation. Such a demand is more compatible with the new government’s policy than both sides might think – recent governments have for instance, for their own reasons, been more supportive of our right to work than previously in history.  However there will inevitably be a huge battle because the proposed law moves power to the citizen from the politicians, which is hardly likely to be popular amongst the political class and other vested interests.

Whilst it is tempting to want to campaign against specific government policies, the danger is that the politicians are then setting the agenda, and even if success is achieved, that success can always be overturned by a different politician later. If we want to see changes to specific government policies, we need to completely change the terms of the relationship between the disabled citizen and the state – rights, not charity. Count me in for that campaign.

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