From Cuts, to Resistance, to Where?: The State and non-State Actors in the Strategy of Disabled People Against Cuts
by Luke Beesley on May 30, 2019



On our own behalf, on our own terms: researching the DIsabled People’s Movement

For disabled activists, the question of how we build the organisations of our Movement and its collective power is both incredibly pressing, and resistant to any obvious analysis. The material effects of austerity continue to send shockwaves through the Disabled People’s Movement, as many existing organisations fall prey to funding cuts - either disappearing entirely or reducing their level of influence - and longstanding cadres of the Movement find themselves isolated from activist communities by reductions to their support packages and personal finances. Even trying to identify which strategies disabled activists are utilising, and how they conceive of their aims, is immediately problematised by the questions of which activists remain active, whether they are still pursuing their aims in organisations of disabled people, and whether changes in their strategy are caused by a critical re-evaluation of their position or by harsh economic necessity?

These information gaps are exacerbated by the retreat of Disability Studies from the sphere of disabled people’s politics and the demands of the Disabled People’s Movement. While the first Centre for Disability Studies was designed to build and maintain ‘firm links with organizations controlled and run by disabled people (…) to reflect and develop their insights and interests within a scholarly framework in order to further the struggle for a more equitable and just society’,1 the reality is that Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) are increasingly peripheral to the project of DIsability Studies. Even a cursory look through recent issues of DIsability Studies’ journals reveals a greater scholarly preoccupation with sexuality, identity, and cultural critique than with recording, analysing, or reviewing the strategies of the Disabled People’s Movement in its various guises. Despite a revival of interest in the New Unionist movement, the organisations of Women’s Suffrage, the Black Panther Party, and the LGBT movement, the history of disabled people’s self organisation, at least in Britain, has been largely passed over in silence by analysts of disability and social movements alike.

That history has not, however, been ignored or forgotten by the organisations of the Disabled People’s Movement. The Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People’s painstaking archival project has already made a number of key historical documents from the movement accessible online - including Martin Pagel’s short history On Our Own Behalf - an Introduction to the Self Organisation of Disabled People (1988)2 and Vic Finkelstein’s Are We Oppressed? (1974),3 a polemic that summarises and responds to the early controversies in Britain’s first pan-impairment DPO - and an ongoing exhibition at the People’s History Museum based on those archives will hopefully bring the internal life of the movement to greater public attention. This endeavour, complemented by the excellent work of independent researchers like Roddy Slorach,4 allows us to begin re-orientating ourselves towards the initial promise of Disability Studies: a research program that recognises and seeks to expand the liberatory project of disabled people’s self organisation.

This piece seeks to make a modest contribution to that reorientation through an analysis of the short and long term strategy of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC); taking seriously its status as a liberatory organisation of disabled people rather than a mere component of a broader anti-austerity movement,5 or a particularly efficient player in the ecology of new media.6 Unlike many local organisations, Centres for Independent Living, or local authority fora of disabled people, DPAC has has been a constant organisational presence in the Disabled People’s Movement since its inception, and has been consistently active throughout that time. As such, it is one of the few organisations within which we can discern a concerted and uninterrupted engagement with questions of strategy, and thus some indication of how disabled activists have collectively responded to the challenges to movement-building that have emerged since the last recession.. Any attempt to come to terms with our immediate tasks, our conceptions of our long term goals, and our possible routes to increased power and leverage, is obliged to engage with how DPAC has conceptualised and acted on these questions.

I situate the emergence of DPAC within two moments of profound crisis for disabled people and the Disabled People’s Movement: an organisational crisis of the mid 2000s that saw DPOs lose power and influence over welfare and rights initiatives to undemocratic state and charitable institutions, and the onslaught on welfare and public services used by disabled people following the capitalist crisis of 2008/09, which led to increased social isolation and material harm. I argue that the organisational decisions taken to ensure the democratic participation of disabled people in DPAC throughout this latter crisis have been successful, but have come at the cost of formulating a comprehensive response to the questions raised by the preceding period of alliance, co-option, and political struggle viz local and national government, and non-governmental service providers. The tension between approaches to these questions is revealed in the discrepancies between the manifesto demands published by DPAC and other DPOs in 2013, which presume an instrumentalist state where influence over the executive is decisive, and more complex accounts of state and institutional entrenchment in the austerity project offered by individual DPAC activists in their explanations of of the regime of austerity. I conclude by arguing that the most recent long term strategy document that DPAC has has put its name to goes some way towards a more nuanced treatment of these questions within the context of campaigning for Independent Living; a promising development which would require its strategic insights to be applicable across different organisational campaigns to act as an impetus for rethinking the organisation’s trajectory.

This tension is not, in my eyes, a sign of organisational or strategic weakness, but rather the by-product of a democratic organisation working out political problems in a hostile and desperate socio-economic climate. I was a member of DPAC for about eighteen months (only leaving after moving to an area without a branch) and am aware of the devastating effect that ‘welfare reform’ had on many members’ ability to engage in the activities of a social movement, to make long term commitments to the organisation, and, in some cases, to even leave their houses. I took part in DPAC’s 2014 conference, and stand by the decisions that were taken there as committed and considered attempts at building the power and influence of the DIsabled People’s Movement. The goal of this piece is simply to identify that DPAC inherits a problem that the Disabled People’s Movement faced before its inception; a problem to which the organisation must collectively respond as it gets closer to achieving its demands. I hope, therefore, that any DPAC members whom this piece reaches take its conclusions in the comradely and constructive spirit in which they are intended.

Antecedents: What do you do when you win?

The mid-’90s saw two key demands of the Disabled People’s Movement granted by John Major’s Conservative government, as both anti discrimination legislation (in 1995) and the right of service users to control their own social care budgets (1996) were passed into British law. Following the election of a Labour government in 1997, disabled people organised in the Direct Action Network campaigned militantly against government plans to slash incapacity benefits, culminating in a high-profile protest that saw red paint thrown over the front of 10 Downing St to signify the blood of disabled people that Prime Minister Tony Blair would have on his hands if he pressed ahead with this endeavour. Notwithstanding Labour’s massive majority, the government’s planned reform was quietly dropped.

Despite these victories, the influence of British DPOs had, by the mid 2000s, dramatically waned. DPOs did not hold formal positions in any of the official bodies which monitored the enforcement of the Disability Discrimination Act, were being forced to compete with (often large) businesses for local government contracts, and many had begun to reduce their activities or close down completely. Many people involved in forming and implementing policy blamed DPOs themselves for this state of affairs, insisting that their intransigence and failure to move with the times had left them isolated, and that their only chance of increasing their influence would come from allying themselves with non-disabled groups. In this vein, Human Rights consultant Neil Crowther lamented DPOs’ failure to appreciate the merits of the Labour government’s community investment policies, or to understand that they could only hope to access sufficient funding if they proved to government that they were willing to deliver results for wider society alongside businesses, trade unions, and women’s, LGBT and BME organisations (or at least those already preferred by local and national government).7 Similarly, Jim Elder-Woodward, who combined roles in a number of Scottish DPOs with policy advisory positions for the charity Scope and the European Disability Forum, posited that changing markets for services and structural disablism threatened both DPOs and traditional disability charities; and that the co-production of services between the two was in the interest of both parties’ survival.8

Accounts from the left of the Disabled People’s Movement were more complex and critical. Colin Barnes and Mike Oliver identified a strategic shift within the charity sector in the 1980s that allowed the same organisations that had historically campaigned against anti-discrimination legislation to adopt it as a demand, and to take to control of the bodies tasked with implementing it when it finally reached the statute books - all the while freezing out DPOs:

‘In our view all this is extremely dangerous for disabled people. Our history has taught us that in the recent past these organisations played a leading role in keeping us oppressed and out of society. Name changes, tidying up their language and employing token disabled people cannot disguise the underlying reality that these agencies are interested primarily in self preservation and that they will say and do anything that is politically expedient in order to retain their influence in Government circles.’9

This problem was compounded by the longstanding strategy of many in the Disabled People’s Movement to make the struggle for legal rights their primary aim. Noting that legal frameworks empower ‘professionals in the rights industry’ as much as, if not more than, those the legislation is for, are likely to be closely guarded by the bodies of the state that enacted it, and are no guarantee of the cessation of the practices they prohibit; Barnes and Oliver concluded that this narrow strategy weakened democratic DPOs relative to these unaccountable parties, allowing them to usurp the language of DPOs without attacking the underlying problems that the Disabled People’s Movement had identified.

For others, this wasn’t simply a strategic mistake; it was a severe political error. Vic Finkelstein, writing in response to Barnes and Oliver, argued that the focus on legal mechanisms to end discrimination and empower independent living had become fetishistic, and pre-supposed that the society in which laws were enacted was not deeply inimical to the interests of disabled people. By assuming that the market for support services was neutral, that service providers would act in-line with the values of anti-discrimination, and that the defeats of working class movements in preceding decades had not empowered the pro-business right; DPOs had, Finkelstein argued, effectively campaigned for support services to become an open marketplace in which they could not compete without becoming more like a private business than the ‘trade unions’ of disabled people that he and others had envisaged. Instead of designing and controlling the services that disabled people used, DPOs were capable of only administering them in terms dictated by state funding decisions and market dynamics.10

Assessing the extent to which these critiques accurately describe the orientation of DPOs would require a deep strategic analysis of organisations around Britain of a kind which has not hitherto been possible. Regardless of who one believes dropped the ball, it remains clear from the preceding analysis that the exertion of influence over the state does not necessitate that this influence will continue over time, that one’s influence grows proportionally to that of antagonistic forces, or that the state will act as any kind of guarantor of the interests of a social movement. The picture painted by Barnes, Oliver, and Finkelstein is one of entrenched commercial and institutional bodies ready to leverage their existing social power to profit from the spaces opened up by the Disabled People’s Movement. Whether this takes the form of the state granting or withholding funding to (dis)encourage certain forms of activity, charities seeking to increase their influence over government policymaking, or companies scrambling for a share of a new market, there are significant risks to the Disabled People’s Movement that can intensify after it has fought a national government to the negotiating table. These are risks that we cannot afford to overlook, and which must play some significant role in our conceptions of our long-term strategy.

Crisis and rebuilding

Barnes and Oliver did not foresee a period of calm in which the movement would have the opportunity to regroup. The reality of government and civil society responses to the economic crisis of 07/08, however, constituted an attack on disabled people’s welfare on an astounding scale. In terms of welfare payments alone, recently released figures show that a total of £5bn (or 10% of total payouts) has been slashed from disability benefits since the start of this decade.11 WIth benefit entitlement used as a gateway to further government assistance, this has led to those whose claims have been downgraded losing out on more than just cash in their pockets. Some 130,000 disabled people have been removed from the government’s Motability vehicle scheme (which entitled them to support for buying an accessible car), and figures for the number of people who’ve been removed from supplements to their housing benefits due to the removal of extra-cost benefits are not yet forthcoming. Over the same time period, social support services designed to help disabled people play a greater role in their community have seen their budgets and capabilities drastically reduced, leading to the shortening of ‘care’ packages commissioned by local authorities, the closure of the Independent Living Fund (designed to facilitate comprehensive community access for adults with the most substantial impairments), and the reduction or closure of local community transport programmes.12 These assaults on the living standards of disabled people were made more palatable to the population at large by a slurry of allegations of disability benefit fraud in the popular press. These allegations systematically overstated the scale of benefit fraud, and in some cases even blamed it for the onset of the economic crisis.13

This climate did not merely result in an horrific material impact on the lives of many disabled people; it posed a direct challenge to the Disabled People’s Movement’s ability to rebuild capacity after the organisational crisis of the 00s. Decreasing funds, equipment, and mobility services mean that it is harder for disabled people to get to meetings, protests, policy consultations, etc. Worse still, this assault is dynamic and unevenly spread, with its effects ameliorated or worsened by the overall health of local authority budgets, the comprehensiveness and accessibility of public transport infrastructure, and the varying and often obscure processes that local authorities use to decide what constitutes a priority service. Not only does this make it impossible to to formulate a universal organisational response across the country, but it also makes it very difficult to predict what kind of capacity a group of activists is going to have in six months time, or if, for example, you can consistently rely on using leverage in one city as part of a national campaign.

The formation of DPAC as a national organisation, following the protest at the Conservative Party Conference in 2011, constituted a tactical convergence between the principles of ‘non-hierarchical’ protest movements of the immediate post-crisis moment (Occupy, UK Uncut, etc) and the more traditional coordinating tactics of the Disabled People’s Movement. In effect, DPAC runs as a highly decentralised organisation where power over the day-to-day running of the organisation rests largely with local branches and groups. Under its constitution, adopted in 2011 and amended in 2014, the only obligations that branches have to DPAC’s elected steering committee are to inform them of actions in advance, provide minutes of meetings, and to ensure that they abide by the ‘aims and principles’ of the group in all of their campaigns. These principles - upholding the social model of disability, campaigning against infringements on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and working in solidarity with other groups affected by austerity - do not prescribe either the forms of action that a branch is expected to make, nor whether it should be campaigning independently, taking a leadership role in local campaigns, or simply supporting ongoing actions by trade unions or anti-cuts groups.14 What a local group does, or does not do, is decided practically by the group itself, depending on its priorities, capacities, and the practical alliances that it can make.

This helps, in part, to account for the fact that DPAC has survived while its contemporary anti-austerity organisations have either gone the way of all flesh, or subsumed themselves into Momentum or the Labour Party. It also helps to explain why DPAC have been able to engage in a variety of different campaigning tactics rather than becoming overreliant on street tactics that contest space with an increasingly militarised police force and private security services. While non-violent direct actions play a central role in DPAC’s national strategy, they are often accompanied by Twitter and blog storms from supporters who couldn’t be present at the action and wish to share their stories of living under welfare reform; a tactic which research indicates have acted as a counterweight to negative press coverage.15 Similarly, DPAC (along with other DPOs) have taken a key role in instigating the investigation of the national government by the UN for non-compliance with the UNCRPD,16 and have independently carried out research on economic and welfare policy proposals within the broader left to show whether, and how far, they advance the interests and demands of disabled people.17 These activities constitute meaningful forms of activism that members can be involved in whether or not they able to take part in street politics, and which DPAC’s steering committee coordinates to make more effective. This provides the national organisation with a reservoir of practical experience of different campaign forms, and the flexibility to utilise a number of tactics simultaneously, while giving activists a concrete reason to stay within the collective itself.

Diffuse visions, the state, and the role of DPOs

DPAC’s decentralised approach to generating and maintaining campaigns has not prevented political and strategic disagreements within the organisation. In one extreme case, differing views on whether government employees in Jobcentres were an arm of the austerity state, or activists against it due to their trade union affiliation, began a dispute that ended with the expulsion of a number of activists based in South Wales.18 More commonly, however, divergence of opinion is more understated and takes the form of competing visions, or at least very different emphases, on the long term goals of the disabled people’s movement and the projects needed to achieve them. Looking at interviews with, or articles by, four different DPAC members from four different regions, we find very different descriptions of the underlying problems that DPAC exists to combat, and the medium-to-long-term steps for their solution. These stretch between imploring the government to include disabled people and their organisations in consultations in order to prevent malignant policies,19 protecting the welfare state from a political effort by the Conservative Party and elements of finance capital to dismantle it,20 the creation of ‘alternative spaces that are confrontational and about asserting our power’ as a safeguard against relying on electoral parties,21, and preventing austerity measures in order to allow disabled people to return to the pre-existing struggle for greater control over their lives - despite the inadequate and often oppressive nature of the services threatened with closure.22

The most sustained attempt to articulate the collective long term goals of DPAC is the UK DIsabled People’s Manifesto: Reclaiming Our Futures (2013);23 a document created in conjunction with ten other organisations (including local DPOs and the People First self-advocacy movement under the name of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance), and designed as a policy intervention in the run-up to the 2015 elections. The scope of the document extends beyond simple anti-austerity demands for the reversal of cuts, and it’s authors describe it as ‘our shared vision for an inclusive and equal society free from economic, social and cultural barriers (…) a ‘road-map’ setting out a vision for real sustainable change and alternative approaches to key areas of our lives’ (p.1). The Manifesto includes key demands in seven core areas: the legal right to inclusive education; enshrining the UNCRPD’s Independent Living rights into UK law; a right to inclusive welfare and housing support; the removal of systematic access barriers to key public infrastructure; a comprehensive and cohesive approach to ending labour market discrimination; the creation of a disability specific Citizen’s Income; and a process of co-production of government policies and services with disabled people and DPOs at national and local level. Each priority demand is accompanied by a list of ancillary demands or policy suggestions.

The text of the Manifesto makes no bones about the fact that it is primarily making demands to, and of, the legislative and welfare arms of the state. In fact, the following sentence appears twice in the document in different sections:

‘We believe the state must play a crucial and active role in supporting its citizens whether at times of crisis or through on-going support to tackle poverty, discrimination, exclusion and the disadvantages of being disabled.’ (p.7 & 14)

This active role involves the implementation or revocation of individual pieces of legislation in order to guarantee certain rights, the provision of funding for individual welfare benefits or wider infrastructure programs, and taking measures to empower individual disabled people to pursue their rights through, for example, proper access to legal redress (p.10) or local democratic bodies. (p.9)

But what role does the Manifesto give to DPOs, as the collective voice of disabled people, in ensuring that rights would be collectively enforced, and that these services would be run in the interests of disabled people? In light of the events in the late 90s and mid 00s, how does the Manifesto seek to prevent the alienation of DPOs from the process of monitoring, applying, and altering state policy, and to prevent the reversal of its gains in line with the interests of entrenched institutional forces?

Much of the strategy of the Manifesto focuses on ensuring the survival of DPOs and their integration into policy decisions in the state and the workplace. It demands sustainable core funding from the state for DPOs, a review of public sector contract commissioning to prioritise voluntary and community organisations, and preferential treatment for social enterprises led by disabled people in the services market. It further demands that DPOs administer mandatory Disability Equality Training in all public sector workplaces, and calls on trade unions to unite with the Disabled People’s Movement in a ‘fair wage’ campaign to combat pay inequality between disabled workers and their able-bodied counterparts. On the question of local and national policy implementation, the Manifesto proposes a principle of ‘real co-production’ that would ‘Ensure that Disabled Peoples Organisations (DPOs) and disabled people are central to all policies and discussions about us; ensure meaningful, well resourced and accessible co-production with disabled people and their organisations at local, regional and national levels on all issues affecting us.’ (p.16)

While all ‘policy makers, decision makers and service providers’ are called upon to uphold this principle (p.16), its implications are not clearly defined in the text. It is fairly obvious that the Manifesto foresees this co-production as occurring between DPOs and the arms of national and local government, but there is nothing in it to either exclude non-state (charities, private service providers) or quasi-state bodies (Clinical Commissioning Groups, civil society organisations) from being party to this process. Nor is there any indication of which obligations the state (or any other) party has to accept under ‘real co-production’: is it enough that DPOs are consulted in the initial drafting of a policy, or must they consent to the budgets and guidelines of its local implementation? Do DPOs have the right to veto a decision, and if so, how is that right enforced? Who has the final say on what counts as an issue affecting disabled people; and, for that matter, who decides when it is more appropriate to include a DPO in a co-production process than it is another group of disabled people - say, one organised by a charitable body or an institution of the state?

While measures in the Manifesto would, if carried out, increase the strength and capacity of the Disabled People’s Movement, they would equally empower the parties with whom DPOs are negotiating, and are unlikely to act as a significant counter-weight to the power of the state or institutional actors in co-production processes. While DPOs demonstrably require extra funding, there is an obvious risk of conditions being applied if it comes from the state. In the absence of a description of who decides if funding is renewed and how that decision is made, it is likely that DPOs will find themselves having to negotiate policy with their largest donors - a situation which does not guarantee their freedom to be antagonistic and awkward when they need to be. The proposed changes to local commissioning decisions, similarly, would doubtless benefit DPOs and disabled people’s social enterprises; but amending the rules around cost efficiency would likewise increase the ability of established charities, religious organisations, et al to successfully bid for government contracts. As these groups already have political leverage as service providers and civil society organisations, there is no a clear route for DPOs to increase their power relative to them.

To work and to be sustainable, the principle of ‘real co-production’ does not only require that the state’s decision-makers, policy designers, and service planners accept it and act in accordance with it at every moment, but also that the actions they take are sufficient for those policies to be enacted throughout the various departments of the state. Even if we can convince the most senior government figures to listen to the demands and concerns of disabled people, their actions have to be capable of overriding both the leverage of other parties at diffuse points of the state, and other projects of the state which may contradict our demands or empower our adversaries. Given the impulses of the varying bodies of the state to cut expenditure during times of economic contraction, to make scope and scale economies by commissioning contracts to existing service providers, and to make welfare policy cohere with its wider economic imperatives, this prognosis seems more hopeful than plausible. The measures in the Manifesto to build the power of the DIsabled People’s Movement do not, even if enacted, look to be enough to force the state to comply to it’s wishes at the non-executive level - even if all the suggested legislation was enacted or revoked. Though it results from a successful attempt to deal with the challenges of the 2010s, the program put forward in this document does not go nearly far enough in confronting the problems that arose in the decades preceding it.

Re-thinking our relationship to the state: points of departure

I do not wish in any way to suggest that the limitations of the Manifesto undermine the value of either the demands contained therein, or the organisations that authored it. It seems obvious to me that, even if only a fraction of the proposals contained in it were granted, the capacity of the Disabled People’s Movement would be greatly increased; if for no other reason than that it would partially lift burdens on disabled people and give them greater freedom to become active in the movement. Nor do I wish to suggest that there is an easy solution to the problem of maintaining leverage over the state or the organs that carry out its wishes, let alone one which could be simply enacted in a period where disabled people are struggling against impoverishment and isolation, and, in some cases, simply being left to die without adequate health services or support.24My contention is that we need to start rethinking how the state works, how its functioning actually relates to the process of policy implementation, and to what extent liberatory organisations of disabled people can work within its purview. These questions get to the heart of how DPOs conceive their long term development, and how they should prioritise their strategies to promote leverage in the future.

Progress towards rethinking this problem is already being made by members and organisers in DPAC, and in the organisation’s recently launched Future of Independent Living campaign. This progress manifests in part as a scepticism about how sincere any party administering the state would be in its commitment to dialogue with the Disabled People’s Movement. While government actions since 2010 do not suggest that Tories or Lib Dems are keen to act on the wishes of DPOs, suspicion now arises that the Labour Party’s current leadership is not particularly willing to design policy that empowers disabled people. Despite the leftwards shift in the party under Corbyn, and the historically warm relationship between John McDonnell and DPAC,25 consultations with DPOs on Labour’s welfare policy have been repeatedly ignored by the Party, with one DPAC speaker warning that the organisation will ‘take the fight to them’ if need be.26

DPAC activist-authored accounts of how the Coalition Government’s welfare policy was designed and enacted tend to support such an outlook. Foremost amongst these accounts are Debbie Jolly’s27 and George Berger’s28 descriptions of the rise of the biopsychosocial model of illness - the guiding principle of both the hated Work Capability Assessments and David Freud’s welfare reform bill of 2012. This speculative model, developed from the work of self-help guru and erstwhile surgeon George Waddell, posited that the adoption of a vulnerable, passive role by people experiencing illness was both widespread and prolonged the length of illness itself. American private insurance firm Unum, spotting an opportunity to refuse payouts to sick customers, invested heavily in a research centre at the University of Cardiff to provide scholarly justification for the theory.

Jolly and Berger’s articles show that, despite the low scholarly value of the work produced at Cardiff (which relied heavily on misusing terminology from previous medical and sociological work, and whose authors had a penchant for citing themselves out of context to make their speculative work look more empirical), the prestige of university research gifted Unum and other private insurers valuable support in changing their payout criteria to exclude ‘expensive’ people, whom they could now accuse of willingly embracing the role of ‘invalid’. After the financial crisis, this pre-existing ‘research’ became incredibly attractive to the British government, as departments and ministers realised that the same logic could be used to exclude swathes of disabled benefit claimants from higher-paying welfare categories.

In these accounts, the genesis of the assault on disabled people’s living standards do not originate in the executive arm of government, nor in the decision-making processes of local government, but in the ability of external organisations to bend state services to their own ends prior to government involvement. Unum had already become, through its research funding, a stakeholder in the public institution of the university long before government decided that this work was useful. It had been able to utilise this power to create a defence for practices which would have otherwise been legally suspect, and to legitimate a theoretical framework which had little empirical evidence. The government’s acceptance of this framework was determined by its pre-existing political commitments and the contemporary economic climate, and the administration of the program was subcontracted out to insurance and IT firms who acted more or less autonomously in their assessment of eligibility. In this picture, the institutions of legislative government exist only at two distinct stages: firstly as an empowerment of private interests that converge with their own at the point of legislation, and secondly as the arbiter of disputes around interpreting legislation through an appeals process run by HMRC - itself a body independent of central government. While the role of central government here is decisive, it is also reactive - adopting already-existing approaches to meet its aims rather than independently or co-productively designing the principles on which it acted. This analysis implies that government and legislation are not necessarily a generative cause of disabled people’s disempowerment, and that the social power of capital and the creation of petty fiefdoms within state institutions are issues which the Disabled People’s Movement must confront.

A shift in DPAC’s collective position is also discernible in the most recent long term policy document to which it has contributed. Independent Living for the Future,29 published by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, begins by noting that the impetus for social institutions to propagate disabled people’s inequality will continue to exist as long as ‘we live under a society that puts profit before people’. Until this position changes, the authors claim, the need for disabled people and their institutions to to engage in socio-political struggles will be continuous, regardless of any legal or policy reforms which take place. While defending the movement’s focus on the implementation of social rights, the authors insist that prioritising any individual reform above wider social principles will leave the movement vulnerable to having the values that motivated the reform trampled under the feet of the state or third parties. The document claims that short term alliances may be necessary with those who wish to merely reform modern society rather than fundamentally change it, but warns that this cannot allow the movement to be distracted from its own vision of a future world, or of its insistence on ‘collectivism and grassroots struggle’.

Independent Living, unlike its predecessor, is prescriptive about the conditions under which co-production can meaningfully exist. Calling for a National Independent Living Service that stands independently of the NHS, the document is very clear that, if it is to uphold disabled people’s interests, the state will need to change the institutions through which disability issues are channeled. To achieve this in regard to independent living, it demands that the relevant body for managing policies affecting disabled people be extracted from the Department for Work and Pensions, and that the infrastructure for the provision of support services be decoupled entirely from both local authorities and NHS decision makers. These measures, if adopted, would limit the influence of two of the largest institutional bodies over how the scheme should be administered, as well as minimising discrepancies between the measures agreed by disabled people and the service as actually administered in localities.

The program for Independent Living still calls for co-production to take place between the state and ‘disabled people’ - rather than exclusively with democratic DPOs accountable to their members. The measures in the document for building the power of organisations disabled people, however, are much more descriptive than those in the Manifesto. The proposed Independent Living Service is identified as an opportunity to both gain safe funding for DPOs (through making them the preferred provider for advocacy services and administrations of service user budgets), and to increasing the proliferation of DPOs (through giving user-led DPOs and co-ops preferential treatment over established charities in service contracting). As negotiating local changes to the implementation of the scheme would fall to groups of service users, it is also conceivable that DPOs could organise within consultation groups in order to provide collective input into regional challenges, without first having to mediate their influence through local government.

These are tentative steps, and still rely on state funding of DPOs,as well as a structural role for private enterprise and third parties, but these demands shed some light on what is needed for DPOs to have a fighting chance of controlling negotiation processes. If DPOs are genuinely prioritised as providers, then draconian conditions on their funding by the state (such as agreeing not to publicly criticise local administrations or undertake work that competes with public sector bodies) become less sustainable. After all, the state can’t avoid paying a DPO to carry out a piece of work, and given their small number, each DPO has greater leverage over the conditions it will and will not accept. The right to campaign antagonistically while receiving public monies, for instance, may again be up for debate. By limiting the influence of their historical adversaries, DPOs may be able to position themselves as a collective voice with closer parity to state officials or government. Which elements of this program DPAC would be willing to compromise on if the scheme comes close to being granted is a matter for the future; as is the effect that this nuanced engagement will have on activist practices and strategy in the long term. It will be particularly important to decide whether the kinds of demands made in Independent Living can be applied to other types of disabled people’s campaigns, and whether they can be scaled up to provide guiding tactics for the strategies of whole organisations. It is important to note, however, that the Movement is once againt alking about control, and thinking seriously about how to seek greater autonomy and use its leverage.


  1. Colin Barnes: ‘Disability and the academy: a British perspective’ (2008) 

  2. On our Own Behalf 

  3. Are we Oppressed 

  4. A Very Capitalist Condition: an History and Politics of Disability (Haymarket 2016) 

  5. A la Burnet Austerity and the production of hate, in The Violence of Austerity eds. Cooper, Whyte (Pluto, 2017; p. 219) 

  6. Pearson, C., and Trevisan, F. (2015) Disability activism in the new media ecology: campaigning strategies in the digital era. Disability and Society, 30(6), pp. 924-940. 

  7. ‘Nothing about us or nothing without us’ (2007) 

  8. ‘From commodification to co-production: the role of people with disabilities in the development of social services.’ (2007) 

  9. ‘Disability politics and the disability movement in Britain: where did it all go wrong?’ (2006) 

  10. ‘The social model of disability and the disability movement’ (2007) 

  11. Disability RIghts UK (18/09/2018) 

  12. The Health Foundation Social Care Funding Gap: The Implications for Local Health Care Reform. Briefing March 2017 (p.3-5) 

  13. Briant et al Bad News for Disabled People: How the Newspapers are Reporting Disability University of Glasgow, (2011) (p. 4-6, 10) 

  14. DPAC Constitution 

  15. Pearson, C., and Trevisan, F. (2015) Disability activism in the new media ecology: campaigning strategies in the digial era. Disability and Society, 30(6), pp.924-940. 

  16. House of Commons Research Briefing (March 2017) 

  17. UBI: Solution or Illusion (2019) 

  18. DPAC statement and Response from Cardiff activists 

  19. ‘In-visibility today: Gail Ward from Disabled People Against Cuts’ (2018) 

  20. Disability Activism Project ‘Disability activism in the UK: interview with Merry Cross’ (2016) 

  21. Red Pepper ‘Interview: Disabled People Against the Cuts’ (2013) 

  22. Williams-Findlay ‘Lifting the lid on Disabled People Against Cuts’ (2011) 

  23. UK Disabled People’s Manifesto: Reclaiming our Future 

  24. The Independent (16/11/2017) 

  25. Cf McDonnell’s speech at DPAC’s 2014 Conference 

  26. Disability News Service (27/09/2018) 

  27. ‘A tale of two models: disabled people versus Unum, Atos, the government and disability chairities’ 

  28. ‘Gordon Waddell’s biopsychosocial attack on disabled people’ 

  29. Independent Living for the Future 


author

Luke Beesley

No institutional affiliation - my boss still thinks I’m at work. lukebeesley@outlook.com

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