Has the sector run out of steam?

From April disabled people – already struggling to make ends meet – will lose some £28 billion of financial support to help them with the extra costs of living in a world not designed for them.

This is on top of a squeeze in the support they receive from councils to do the basics such as getting up, getting dressed and getting washed.

Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that people are wondering what happened to the ‘Paralympics effect’.

It’s a bleak picture.

Where does this leave organisations like Scope and others, who exist to try and make this country a better place for disabled people?

Last year the Guardian’s David Brindle said that disability campaigners had come to a cross roads.

He suggested the Disability Movement – which has been leading the fight for equality for more than 40 years – might have run out of steam, having largely won the arguments for full civil rights and the right to live in the community, in principle if not yet in practice.

It feels like the right time to revisit this point.

I don’t agree that the Movement has run out steam. If anything, there is increased energy and drive.

For the first time in years disabled people have been taking to the streets. Campaigners such as the We Are Spartacus movement, Pat’s Petition andDisabled People Against Cuts, who use social media to connect, inspire and organise have re-invigorated campaigning.

The energy exists. For me the question is where to direct it?

The cuts are a natural galvanising point – some disabled people will be hit by six benefit cuts simultaneously – decimating their income and their life chances.

But it has to be about more than cuts. Disabled people have spent decades campaigning to be treated as citizens with rights and a contribution to make. The cuts agenda has revived the discredited deserving and undeserving poor labels that we rejected years ago and does nothing to advance disabled people’s citizenship.

At the same time it’s also too simplistic to say that we just need to build on the Paralympics effect. The Paralympics were a break-through moment – disabled people have never been so visible, disability has never been so openly discussed and celebrated. But we need to be asking how we can make all disabled people – not just gold medal-winning athletes and TV personalities – more visible and better understood.

One thing we do know is that we can’t change anything without working side-by side with colleagues in the Disability Movement, in Government, in Opposition and local government and the wider sector. It’s not always easy. At the heart of this has always been a healthy debate.

In this spirit I’d like to pose four questions. I’ll say upfront that I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s time to start the debate: #disabilitywhatnext?

  1. How do we make the general public care? A recent survey showed people’s support for disabled people receiving state support is dwindling. Disability is an increasingly common experience, it can happen to anyone, and with an ageing population, increasingly, it will. But it doesn’t resonate with the public. We can’t convince the Government to be more proactive and thoughtful if this issue doesn’t echo from their focus groups.
  2. How do we make politicians see disability as a pressing political issue? Disability is not a uniform experience, it affects people differently. The old distinctions between those who can work and can’t, those who need support and those who don’t, are no longer fit for purpose. As more and more people live with disability of some sort, our structures need to reflect this experience in a more sophisticated and personalised way. We can no longer afford to write off disabled people as scroungers or dependents with nothing to contribute.
  3. How can we mainstream the Paralympics effect? We saw a new openness when it comes to disability. People stopped walking on egg shells. They asked questions. They began to think differently. How do we build on this to lift the fear of talking about disability and creating spaces where honest but respectful conversations about bodies, minds and difference can happen?
  4. Despite the new voices the numbers of people who self-identify as disabled and are actively involved in advocating for improved life opportunities for disabled people remains small. There are 11 million disabled people in the UK. Where are they all? At a time when disabled people’s quality of life is threatened like never before, how can we do to get more people involved in the political debate?

To answer these questions we need to put aside old rivalries and come together, disabled and non-disabled allies alike, to forge a new vision of what life should look like for disabled people in 2013 and beyond. The consequences of not doing this don’t bear thinking about.