With the court of appeal overturning the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund, this year’s UK Disability History Month has launched in bullish mood. Sunil Peck reports.
The theme of this year’s celebration of disability history is the struggle for independent living. 120 allies and campaigners gathered in a community centre in Westminster to listen to a string of high profile speakers.
Veteran campaigner and Disability Now columnist Mike Oliver kicked things off by describing a retirement complex which he had recently visited which he said made a five star hotel look ‘shabby’.
“The flat we were shown around was absolutely huge with a sitting room, large kitchen, bathroom suite and two large bedrooms one of which was en suite. But 40 years ago this used to be a Cheshire home and I had a friend who lived there. The luxury flat was his bedroom but he shared it with five other men. There wasn’t a single toilet or wash basin in that room, they were down the corridor. Everybody knew where they were because there was usually a queue of people outside waiting to be toileted and bathed. There was a dining room but it only had a few tables where the residents who could feed themselves would eat. The rest of the residents sat in a line waiting to be fed. That’s where many of us escaped from. Many others of us were trapped in our own homes reliant on our families for help and support. We must remember that we were the ones who escaped from our homes and families, nobody else did it for us. We created a strong and powerful disabled people’s movement which promoted independent living as one of the central planks of our struggle for full inclusion.”
He went on to say that on the journey towards independent living, it was critical to be suspicious of charities who run residential homes while claiming to support independent living and governments who are ‘hell-bent on punishing disabled people for the mistakes them and their capitalist friends made’ by cutting support services while claiming that they have brought about independent living.
Jackie Downer, an activist and advocate for people with learning disabilities, who also has a learning disability, told the audience about the role her support workers play in enabling her to lead an independent life including how to use a mobile phone.
“One thing with my support workers is that they believe in me. I make mistakes, I’m not perfect. I do things that are wrong and they will tell me. I learn from it and they learn from it.”
She said how pleasing it was to see younger people showing an interest in disability history month because people like her were becoming too old to participate in direct action.
She spoke just after the co-ordinator of UKDHM Richard Rieser spoke of the need to challenge the discrimination that disabled people, often with learning disabilities, face about deciding how their benefit money is spent.
He said: “Article 12 of the UN disability convention says that all people need to be able to take decisions about their own money. They can have support, but they can’t have guardians. But Guardianship is still very much there. In fact, if people abuse the money that they hold given out, by government such as DLA, it’s not even reported to the police. They say ‘who else would do this work otherwise?’.
The campaigner and chair of Inclusion London Kirsten Hearn rounded the evening off by urging people to carry on fighting against a government which was driving people into institutions, poverty and isolation.
“We have to unite to fight and stop the rot that will leave us caged and bound. Prisoners of an ideology that will have us silenced because we cost too much. A Nazi ideology is alive and kicking today. That is what’s behind the benefits attacks. We have to fight back together and in a way in which we implore all of us as disabled people.”