During the fight to change the law and to change attitudes, thousands of disabled activists took direct action to capture the public’s attention.
Thousands of campaigners turned out in force on London’s South Bank to block Telethon, a fundraising broadcast on television. Campaigners travelled from all over the country to oppose negative portrayals of disabled people and make the point that disabled people should have rights, not pity.
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.
Barbara Lisicki was a disability rights campaigner with the Direct Action Network, who used direct action to fight for equal treatment. Barbara has also been a stand-up comic since 1988 and worked as accessibility manager at the London 2012 Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
If you’re under 35 it is unlikely you will remember Telethon. Those of us who remember contended with 28 hours of unremittingly patronising fundraising, as audiences wondered why Coronation Street or Emmerdale were not on air when they turned on their TVs.
In 1990 and 1992 the television broadcasting world was very different. Today you can flick from channel to channel. In 1990 there were four channels, and one would take all of its programming off air to swamp the public in a festival of begging for the ’less fortunate, deprived and disadvantaged in society’.
With two weeks to go before 1990 Telethon, a few young disabled people from Ealing in West London met me and Alan Holdsworth (also known as Johnny Crescendo, the singer and songwriter of the anthem of the disabled-led, disability rights movement: ‘Choices and Rights’).
These young people told us: ‘We cannot sit through another assault on our senses, our identity and our dignity for another year. This is what Telethon does to us and we want to do something’. So we did something. Within two weeks, we had printed t-shirts and leaflets, and mobilised up to 200 disabled people outside Telethon. We got coverage, satisfaction, and reaction, but not enough.
Block Telethon 1992
In 1992, we were better prepared, and it worked. 2,000 campaigners protested against Telethon. The streets were jammed, we had banners and placards, and proudly wore black t-shirts with ‘Piss on Pity’ in shocking pink. The police were unimpressed, calling the language offensive and demanding we took them off. I was willing, but told them that I wasn’t wearing anything underneath!
Alan and I had been mobilising people to join our protest over months. I had rung people, distributed leaflets, and spoken with groups around the country. Young people had told their parents that they were going to Telethon, but not saying why! Performers and speakers, sign language interpreters and support workers, all freely gave their time, all to reclaim our dignity.
Mike Oliver summed up Block Telethon in a speech to the crowd: ‘Today, this is the only place in the entire country where you can feel proud you’re a disabled person’. Mike was right.
Our argument was simple: the only time disabled people appeared on TV was in tragic and needy roles, begging for money. Why? And what damage did this do? What employer watching – and probably donating to Telethon or allowing staff to organise a fundraising event – would hire ‘poor creatures’?
‘Rights Not Charity!’ was the disabled people’s movement’s early call to arms. We were run and controlled by disabled people, unlike charities. We were sick of traditional solutions to the ‘problems’ of disabled people and demanded an end to discrimination.
Two thousand disabled people – all proud, angry, and strong – chanted, sang, and brandished banners. Celebrating our difference and challenging negative stereotypes, we stopped Telethon. It never appeared on air again.
We won then and we can win again.
Adam Thomas worked for the Rights Now! coalition and took part in non-violent civil disobedience and direct actions organised by the Direct Action Network.
I snapped my spine in a motorbike accident three weeks after my seventeenth birthday. Ironically, this happened in 1981, the year the United Nations proclaimed the International Year of Disabled People. Until I became a wheelchair user, I was going to pubs and concerts. After my accident, I found it hard to go because the venues were often inaccessible or had inaccessible toilets.
I had no experience of the movement whatsoever. I was a kitchen designer becoming more and more political as my frustrations boiled over. At that time I had no idea about the medical and social models of disability. All I knew was that I had been injured in the Year of Disabled People and spent 15 years listening to politicians say there was no need for legislation.
I wasn’t alone
When I saw the Block Telethon protest on July 18 1992 I realised that I wasn’t alone in the world. Seeing the protests against the celebrity fund-raising gala ignited the fire smouldering inside me. It just didn’t feel right that celebrities would turn up, raise money, and everybody except disabled people would feel warm inside.
I needed my civil rights and we didn’t have them. I didn’t need pity or negative images of impairments. I saw that there were other disabled people out there who felt the same way. They had gone on a protest, had fun, joined together, and made an impact: that protest succeeded in stopping Telethons.