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British Disability Movement Social Work Essay

Widespread exclusion of disabled people from mainstream society has shown increasing policy attention in Britain over recent decades. In the 1960s, the dominant view of an individual with an impairment was that their life was a personal tragedy, this was as evident among service providers and policy makers as the general public (Barnes and Mercer, 2005). In the latter part of the twentieth century, disability became increasingly prominent in policy debates, in the UK and worldwide, ‘culminating with agreement in 2006 on a United Nations Convention to protect the rights of disabled people throughout the world’ (Priestley, 2008).

Two main perspectives that have created perceptions of disability, firstly was disability as a tragedy which has required the assistance of charity and secondly was disability being seen as an illness which required treatment by medicine and its professional handmaidens. Although in the past 30 years, disabled people themselves have been involved in these dominant perspectives have been challenged increasingly. ‘Disabled people have argued that their problems are not caused by tragedy but by the failure of society to take account of their needs and therefore they need social change not charity. Additionally they have argued that illness and disability is not the same thing and most of their difficulties require changes to the environment and not individual medical interventions designed to cure or change them’ (Barnes and Mercer, 1996).

Disabled people were critical of these dominant perspectives, and also developed their own perspective to replace them, which had three main ideas which included; social model of disability, independent living and civil rights. These ideas are also severely challenged by the medical perspective on disability.

The disabled people’s movement in Britain dates as far back as the 1970s, however the development of disability studies, as an academic discipline, only began to take off during the 1990s. ‘While there had been prior accounts exploring the implications of the social model of disability, it was Mike Oliver’s 1990 study, ‘The Politics of Disablement’, which established the intellectual credentials of this approach to defining and understanding disability’ (Shakespeare, 1998).

Disability can be looked at in more than one way but many people don’t realise this. It is seen that people in society may see disability as the individual’s problem. Any difficulties they face are seen as caused by the particular impairment or condition they have. They cannot do what they want to because of 'their disability'. So, if someone who uses a wheelchair cannot get upstairs to a meeting, people blame the wheelchair, and not the stairs. Or if someone who has dyslexia cannot fill in a job application form, employers blame the person, not the application form. ‘People think that they are limited in what they can do, because they are not 'the same' as the rest of society. This is often called the 'medical model' of disability. It has been around for a long time, and it is used by a lot of people, including Government departments, to decide what they should be doing about disability’ (The Disabled People’s Movement, 1997).

With the introduction of ‘The Disabled People’s Movement’ it has developed a different way of looking at disability. It has help distinguish that disability is not caused by the disabled person, it is caused by society. This is often referred to as the ‘Social Model’ of disability. ‘It is not their impairment or condition that stops them doing what everyone else does. What stops them is the fact that they live in a world which can ignore their needs - for access, understanding, transport, education, employment, and so on’ (The Disabled People’s Movement, 1997).

The disabled people's movement has often been criticised for failing to address diversity. It is important to ensure the equal involvement of all people, demands changes in understanding and culture. It also requires resources to reach out and support such inclusion – which can be seen hard for disability organisations constantly strapped for cash. Within disabled people's organisations they must also consider the wide variety of people and groups included in the disability category. This includes people with learning difficulties, mental health service users, older people, people with chronic and life limiting illnesses and conditions, people with physical and sensory impairments, and more. Shakespeare sees the identity politics of the disability movement as one of its fundamental failings. ‘He states that we are too different from each other. Half the people officially included as disabled don't see themselves as such’ (Shakespeare, 1998).

To have an idea of the relationship between disabled people, social policy and the state, an understanding of the history is vital. In the UK the starting point of the Independent Living Movement date back to the late 1970s. Disabled people in the UK were very dissatisfied by the services being provided for them. Which led them to visit the USA, where Independent Living had already been introduced, they studied it in dept and felt the concepts, ideas and philosophy of Independent Living to be very significant and appropriate and would be the way forward for disabled people in the UK if it was introduced.

From the early 1980s onwards independent living centres established in Derbyshire and Hampshire became the model for Independent Living in the UK. Self-operated support systems had been justified on the grounds that they give disabled people independent living, which will help them have more choice and control, and consume services themselves which they feel best suit them.

There were two significant developments in terms of the establish of Independent Living in the UK, which led to large numbers of disabled people running their own form of Independent Living schemes, these were the introduction of the Independent Living Fund and the configuration of the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) Independent Living Committee. The ‘Independent Living Movement’ (ILM) emerged from the efforts of disability activists such as, Vic Finkelstein a sociologist and founder of Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) which was largely responsible for the social model of disability, and also organisations helped to shift policy in new directions.

In contrast, the new social approach outlined an alternative theoretical position in which societies ‘disable’ people with impairments (Finkelstein, 1980; Oliver, 1983). This suggested a different target for disabled people’s political campaigns: with the goal of independent living as a practical, policy option to supplant residential segregation and community care services, and a focus on removing disabling barriers in work and more generally (Barnes and Mercer, 2005).

‘This social model of disability acted as a major catalyst in the politicization of a growing number of disabled people and their allies in the UK (Campbell and Oliver, 1996). It also underscored the development of a ‘materialist’ account of the social creation of disability in industrial capitalist societies (Gleeson, 1999; Oliver, 1990; Thomas, 1999), and the specific form of institutional discrimination encountered by disabled people (Barnes, 1991). Social analyses of disability have also had a growing influence on social policy at both the national and international levels (Bickenbach et al., 1999; Oorschot and Hvinden, 2001)’ Barnes and Mercer, 2005.

In the early 1990s the Disabled Action Network (DAN) was founded its aims began with the plan to protest against public transport and public buildings which weren’t being made accessible to disabled people, and put pressure councils into addressing these problems. Although some short time later after, DAN then developed into a movement, which involved disabled people taking direct action against many forms of coercion and exclusion. Over the years the DAN has expanded with different types of charity fund raising occurring, and the organisation has took centre stage, in helping to make a change to the way disabled people are perceived in Britain, by demanding civil rights not charity or pity.

Since BCODP was introduced in 1981 it has highlighted that disabled people are being ‘denied their basic human rights in British Society, this is because disabled people encounter discrimination daily and do not have the same rights as a nondisabled person’, according to the JRF website.

Civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation has been a key feature of policy development in recent years. The Disability Discrimination Act was introduced in 1995; in this act discrimination against individuals in respect to their disabilities was made unlawful, in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. ‘From the outset, it became illegal for employers or for service providers to discriminate against disabled employees or for service providers to treat disabled customers less favourably, but only insofar as this might be seen as ‘reasonable’ or ‘justified’ ’ (Priestley, 2008). Since established, the legislation has been both strengthened and extended, most notably to cover discrimination in education and making it necessary for businesses to make their premises more accessible.

It was in September 2001, The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act came in effect, which amended the DDA Part IV on Education to certify discrimination from educational establishments does not occur.

Without enforcement the mere presence of anti-discrimination legislation and guidance has little impact. ‘In Britain this was achieved with the creation of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) in 2000 as an independent body to promote disability equality in England, Scotland and Wales (in Northern Ireland a single body covered both disability equality and other dimensions of difference and discrimination). There have been significant debates about the extent to which disability discrimination policy should be included within a single equality agenda and, in 2006, the Equality Act paved the way for the abolition of the DRC and its incorporation within a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Although the move to mainstream disability issues has been widely welcomed, there remain concerns that establishment lobby groups might overshadow the specific policy claims of disabled people’ (Priestley, 2008).

The Equality Act replaced most of the DDA on the 1st of October 2010, although the Disability Equality Duty still applies under the DDA. It supplies disabled people with legal rights in the areas of; employment, education, access to goods and services and facilities, and transport services.

The Prime Ministers Strategy Unit produced their final report on, ‘Improving life chances of disabled people’, in January 2005. Within this report it sets out an ambitious programme of action that will bring disabled people fully within the scope of the “opportunity society”. By supporting disabled people to help themselves, this can be achieved in the participation and inclusion of disabled people. This report sets out a strong vision for improving the life chances of disabled people, which is needed to help disabled people face fewer disadvantages.

It will not happen straight away so they give themselves a 20-year vision:

‘By 2025, disabled people in Britain should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life, and will be respected and included as equal members of society’.

This report plans to have big changes as a result of this strategy, to make these changes the strategy will ‘empower and involve disabled people, personalise the support they receive and remove the barriers to inclusion and participation’ (Improving life chances of disabled people, 2005). The centrepiece of this strategy is the promotion of independent living.

For me researching the British Disability Movement has made me personally feel that it has been significant to the developments in social policy over the years, which affects the lives of disabled people. The Disability Movement dates back to the 1970s, it developed a different way of looking at disability, and that disability is not caused by the disabled person it is caused by society. Throughout the years new developments in social policy have been providing disabled people with more choice and control, one of the main developments was the Independent Living Movement, one of the strengths of the Independent Living Movement over the years has been its united spirit of the people involved in being able to work cohesively and harmoniously together. Although many movements operating in the last century have either been incorporated into Government or become insignificant to the political process, Oliver and Barnes, 2006 state, ‘this has become the temporary fate of the disabled people’s movement. Most significantly, there has been no coming together of the disabled people’s movement and other political groups such as the Lesbian and Gay movement, for example, to create more powerful alliances. And, in some respects the social divisions that characterised British society in the twentieth century, such as ethnicity, race, and religion, for instance, have widened. We still believe that the only practical long-term political strategy for disabled people is to be part of a far wider struggle to create a better society for all’.

What I attempted to show in this essay was over the past 40 years is that disabled people came together and made an attempt to transform their own lives. In order for government to achieve their aims of Improving life chances of disabled people and give them more choice and control over their own lives, they will have to ensure that they meet requirements to meet their 2025 pledge. With reference to the paper, Improving life chances of disabled people, ‘disabled people’s experience of government support and services needs to change. Too often disabled people may feel that they are fighting a system which is fragmented, complex and bureaucratic, and which does not put the needs of disabled people at the heart of service provision.

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