Activists Chris Benson and Joanna Owen tell us about how the campaign for civil rights for disabled people involved people from all different backgrounds from right across the country. Protests in Leeds and Oldham showed the public that disabled people wanted to change the country.
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.
Chris is a solicitor at the firm Leigh Day. In the run-up to the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act he was a support worker for adults with learning difficulties.
I remember being in a pub with some disabled people that I was assisting. The landlord asked my group to leave because he didn’t feel comfortable with them being there. I was so shocked to learn there was no law to right this wrong. Disabled people couldn’t escape discrimination and there was nothing they could do to tackle it when it happened to them.
I’m not a disabled person. I got involved in the campaign for civil rights as a facilitator. My job was to support the involvement of individuals with learning difficulties. So, once people were handcuffed to a train or a bus, I would stash the keys somewhere and make sure everybody had a cup of coffee.
My strongest memory is of disabled people taking control of lives. Quite a lot of the people I worked with had severe learning difficulties but they knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. Seeing disabled people take direct action remains one of the most positive things that I’ve ever been involved with.
It was tough being in a Northern town because most campaigning was based in London. We couldn’t get down to London too often because buses and trains were tough to access, the costs of travelling were high, and the time and energy needed were so great.
We worked locally to raise awareness of the importance of rights. One of our memorable protests was in Oldham Town Centre, where we demonstrated against inaccessible public transport. What was key about that demonstration was service managers joined disabled people in lying down in front of buses to stop them from moving.
I was conscious of a big difficulty when it came to disabled people campaigning for rights. Adults with learning difficulties were very reliant on statutory services. If anybody asked their social worker or carer to support them in going on a protest to obtain rights, it caused professional difficulty. The staff – employed by the local council – had to make a choice, and so I often chose to use my free time to support the campaign for rights for disabled people.
The idea that disabled people had adapted minibuses or that local councils provided transport dominated the public mind. Actually, what disabled people wanted was to get on the bus like everybody else at the end of their street. We made the point that disabled people can’t get on the bus and go where they want. We raised awareness about the lack of rights where people would previously have had no idea. It put non-disabled people into the same shoes as disabled people and got our message across.
Joanna is a solicitor. In the run-up to the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act she was working with the Brent Association of Disabled People in London and took part in direct actions with the Direct Action Network.
I’m generally quite a quiet person when it comes to sticking up for myself. I’m not really the type of person to shout loudly about the things that bother me. I had shied away from campaigning through direct action for a long time because I thought it wasn’t ‘me’. As soon as I got involved in the Direct Action Network (DAN), I felt so strong.
A DAN national action focused on public transport that was impossible for disabled people to use. Over 100 disabled people travelled to Leeds City Station from all parts of the country.
Chained to an Intercity train
The railway station had no passenger lift to the platforms, so disabled people had to take the goods lift. Trains had one
space per train for a wheelchair user, so wheelchair users often had to travel in the guard’s van. With both the station and trains inaccessible, we were insulted that £40,000 had been spent on a garden on the end of one platform. It was insulting that disabled people were expected to sit in the garden while waiting for trains they cannot get on.
As planned, people chained themselves to the Intercity 225 to London. Everybody had a role, from handcuffing themselves, crowding around the handcuffed campaigners to stop the police from cutting them loose, leafletting the public, or chanting. The whole day felt positive as the campaign stopped a train from leaving for up to forty minutes. That protest felt wonderful.
It felt particularly good to see we had support from so many non-disabled people. It validated our message. Usually, people didn’t really know about access issues unless somebody brought them to their attention. Campaigning is a good way of achieving that.
Negotiating is important for achieving change, but it happens away from the public eye. Behind the scenes negotiations happen at a slower pace and, at that time, we had run out of patience. We wanted the railway company to realise that disabled people mattered.