Activists Agnes Fletcher and Adam Thomas tell us how the campaign to change the law changed their lives – in more ways than one.
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.
Agnes Fletcher worked for Disability Awareness in Action, which she represented in Rights Now!, and took part in direct actions with the Direct Action Network.
I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as disabled, although I have a number of impairments. I thought about disability in the same way that most people had for a long time – as a greater or lesser medical tragedy, to be cured if possible or, if not, hidden. I had ‘internalised the oppression’ – my difference from the idealised norm was a source of shame.
It was only after I met Rachel Hurst that I discovered the social model of (or way of thinking about) disability. Not only did my meeting make sense of my frustrations, but it transformed my wish to change myself into a desire to change society.
I started working for Rachel, and soon after went to my first demonstration. The protest was organised by the Direct Action Network (DAN) and it was scary because it involved breaking the law. Inspired by the suffragette movement and the American black civil rights movement, DAN led peaceful law-breaking, such as stopping traffic, to draw attention to injustice.
It was exciting and strange – handcuffing myself to a bus, bringing traffic to a halt until the bolt-cutters came, and being locked up for it. It was amazing to replace the stereotypes of what disabled people should be – ashamed, weak, passive – with pride, collective strength and action.
It says a lot that many disabled people risked arrest or put themselves in physical danger for the cause. We felt that protests were the only way to get media coverage. Disabled people historically had never been able to control what images of us were shared with the general public – there’d been freaks shows, medical displays and charity fundraising adverts aimed at shocking people, frightening them and eliciting pity.
Changing people’s views
With direct action, disabled people could guarantee media coverage and control over the images beamed via television into living rooms.
Direct actions put disability issues in the spotlight and pressured MPs into realising that we weren’t going away, no matter how many times they rejected a civil rights bill. At the time, it felt like direct action was the only way we could get our long-ignored message across.
Campaigns can provoke debate and create political pressure. They also inspire and unite people. Alongside the demand for civil rights, DAN was campaigning to ‘free our people’ – to end forced institutionalisation of disabled people in residential homes. Some demonstrators were on ‘day release’.
Singing, shouting, chanting, blowing whistles – we felt a sense of our power and pride in our experiences and struggles. None of us could have done it on our own but the collective power freed all of us.
If I went back in time, I’d do all of it again. It was so exciting. It’s so much a part of who I am today. I met so many incredible people who’ve become good friends that I’ve learned so much from. They redefined what it means to be brave – not brave in terms of physical or mental challenges, although many were that, but brave in terms of defying expectations for themselves and disabled people to come.
Adam Thomas worked for the Rights Now! coalition and took part in direct actions with the Direct Action Network.
Life was tougher back then. Small things were a big problem. Cash machines were too high to reach from my wheelchair and phone boxes were too small to get inside. Pushing my way around London made my hands filthy, and most of the public toilets weren’t accessible or the sink taps were beyond reach. Eating with dirty hands really took the edge off an evening out!
When I joined the disability movement, I worked in Rights Now! (with Victoria Scott) as well as the Direct Action Network (DAN). In the morning, I could turn up to a DAN direct action with a pair of handcuffs – bought from a rubber sex shop on Upper Street in Islington! – and chain myself to a bus outside Parliament. In the afternoon I’d join Rights Now! people, go into Parliament and meet MPs shaken by the earlier protest. We showed MPs and ministers Colin Barnes’ research, which proved that disability discrimination was widespread.
With Rights Now! we could encourage thousands of disabled people to lobby Parliament but newspapers would write one
column inch of news. With DAN, we’d have 20 people cuffed to big red buses and every reporter in the city would be covering the protest within 15 minutes and putting it on the evening news of every major TV channel.
If I’d gone to a restaurant with a black person who was denied service, we could have called on the law to resolve the discrimination. If I was denied service, it was the restaurant owner who was able to call on the law if I demanded service. I felt alive on the protests and I knew that we were doing something worthwhile.