Disability Discrimination Act – cause for celebration and hope for the future.
This week marks the 25th Anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, a landmark piece of legislation that for the first time enshrined the rights of disabled people in law. The act made it illegal for employers and service providers such as shops and restaurants to discriminate against someone because they were disabled.
Spinal Injuries Association was one of the many organisations actively campaigning at the time to ensure a fair deal for disabled people. We are rightly proud of our heritage, and the role we have played, with many others, in securing the Disability Discrimination Act and its successor legislation the Equalities Act. The Act was crucial in setting disabled people on the path to getting full civil rights, a strong statement of society’s intentions towards disabled people.
It is hard to believe today but at the time the act was extremely contentious – there had been numerous previous attempts tom pass legislation and even when passed, many felt that it didn’t go far enough. For example, the act only applied to firms employing more than 15 people and laws preventing discrimination on transport and ensuring reasonable adjustments to housing didn’t come into law until 2005.
But even achieving these limited rights was hard fought. Campaigning for the act was characterised by large scale public protest which in part had been driven by public fundraising telethons which were largely seen by disabled people as patronising and demeaning. “Piss on Pity” was one slogan used by campaigners, TV studios were blockaded, wheelchair users handcuffed themselves to buses and trains, arrests were common place (though on at least one occasion charges were dropped as the courtroom wasn’t accessible).
Despite its weaknesses, the act was a landmark moment in civil rights in the UK and we rightly celebrate both the anniversary itself and the efforts of so many people to bring lasting change. But as we all know, the law is one thing – changing people’s attitude to disabled people is something else entirely different. Discrimination remains rife, disabled people are still more likely to be out of work, poorer and victims of violence than the general population. Access to health and social care services is at best patchy – as evidenced during the ongoing pandemic – and too many people treat disabled people as objects of pity or derision.
Twenty five years ago, the Disability Discrimination Act played a vital role in kick starting the movement towards a more inclusive society. A quarter of a century later, we are still a long way from an equal society – and sadly the pandemic seems in some ways to have moved disability rights backwards not forwards – but we remain united in our resolve for a better, fully inclusive and enabling life for every injured person.