Baroness Campbell was on the front line of the campaign to change the law for disabled people. She’s spent her life campaigning for equality and tells us how the campaigning community made her who she is today.
This blog is shared as part of a series of stories to celebrate the campaigners who fought for civil rights. You can find out more on our website or on social media using #DDA20.
All throughout my segregated school days, where I was taught nothing apart from how to cook cheese on toast, make pottery vases and learn about dinosaurs, my life was in black and white. At 16 I could just about read and write and add up. I was acutely aware of the difference between me and my sister, who went to an ordinary school and got to do all the things that I wanted to do.
It was only when I went away to university that life began to turn into colour. I began to feel liberated because I started to learn. I learnt academically and I learnt socially.
It was hard because barriers to my participation were everywhere but at least I was present. I joined various uni-societies, as much as I physically could, and became an active member of the ‘Feminism Soc’.
I was a women’s rights activist long before a disability one. My Master’s degree dissertation focused on the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst who organised working women’s suffrage campaigns.
If I could go back in time, she’s the woman I would want to be. I wanted a moment of liberation exactly like Sylvia Pankhurst had achieved. I wanted to be part of bringing about a legal watershed moment, just like she did. Little did I know then that this time would come.
An early lesson for me was that nothing would change without a mass movement to infiltrate every part of society and demand change. We came up with a saying in the disability movement – “nothing about us without us”. This means having a mandate to change society, so it would comply with the Social Model of Disability.
To do that, we needed to involve all disabled people in our movement, not just people in wheelchairs. who dominated at the beginning. That was quite a challenge because we had to deal with our own prejudices about other impairments.
I’ve always been struck by how collective the disability movement was and how mutually supportive we were when organising our campaigns. I think we did more than most civil rights groups to ensure that all of our activities were as accessible as they could be so everyone could join in.
I wasn’t afraid to test the law. I would be found in the middle of the street with my disabled brothers and sisters. People who used electric wheelchairs were very useful because the one thing about an electric chair is that you cannot lift one without putting out your back!
In the early days of the civil rights campaign, it was impossible to get arrested, try as we might. The police didn’t know whether to pat us on the head, give us a pound, or arrest us. They were so confused. They couldn’t get disabled people into their meat wagons, if they managed to get us to a police station, there were no accessible toilets or cells.
I remember police officers taking wheelchair users they had arrested across the road to an accessible toilet in a hotel and end up, buying them a coffee, and then letting them go.
All in all, my childhood of segregation, initiation into the Disability Movement and then the campaign for the DDA, was pretty much what made me the person I am today. I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The law itself and the campaign were just small parts of what came out of taking part in our liberation struggle. The experience enabled me to understand who I really was and what I wanted. One of those things was politics, which eventually led me to enter Parliament as a Crossbencher in the House of Lords. And the rest, as they say, is history.