Lost voices and collective silence

History teaches us the importance of speaking up for ourselves individually and collectively says Professor Mike Oliver.

I was a founder member of the Spinal Injuries Association in 1974 and I have been a member ever since, proud to support an organisation which has always been led by people with spinal cord injuries. The organisation has recently announced the appointment of a new chief executive and for the first time has chosen not to appoint someone with a spinal injury to this position.

It’s not my intention here to comment specifically on this decision but it has led me to reflect on something that has been puzzling me in recent weeks. Why were disabled people and disability issues invisible during the last general election campaign?

One important reason for this is that we have lost our collective voice and we no longer speak for ourselves. Whenever disability issues are raised in the media now, non-disabled spokespeople representing the big disability organisation are called on to speak for us. Yes, they often say the right things but that clearly isn’t enough to get our issues properly aired.

I now realise that I had forgotten one of the lessons I (and others) learned when we were building the disabled peoples’ movement in the 1970s, namely that we have to speak for ourselves. In other words the medium is not the message, the messenger is.

The Union of the Physically Impaired (UPIAS) knew this when it published the Fundamental Principles document. Rightly lauded for redefining disability the publication also asserted the imperative that we speak for ourselves. It attacked well meaning professionals, politicians and academics who wanted to speak for us, seeking to deny them a platform for articulating their views of what we wanted.

This attack was taken onto the world stage in 1981 at the International Congress of Rehabilitation International when the disabled people attending withdrew from the formal proceedings of the Congress to form our own organisation, Disabled Peoples International.

The claiming of our voice had now gone global and stimulated more success. Within 10 years in Britain we had many articulate disabled spokespeople appearing in the media and some were employed in key positions in media organisations. As a consequence a stream of programmes, article and books began to emerge about our lives and our issues from our points of view.

There were casualties in this, of course, including many non-disabled people who thought we were either ungrateful or unnecessarily aggressive. All this culminated in the confrontation between a major television company and disabled people which eventually forced telethons off our television screens, never to return.

Since then we have gradually lost our collective voice and the ability to speak for ourselves. It’s not my intention here to analyse why that happened but to point to the inevitable consequences of it. We have become invisible as the recent general election campaign showed.

Facing five years of a government hell bent on eroding the quality of our lives even more than they have already means that invisibility is not a safe place to be in. The early pioneers of the disabled peoples’ movement instinctively knew that we had to claim our voice. It becomes ever more urgent that the next generation of disabled activists reclaims our rights to speak for ourselves otherwise we may lose even more than we have lost already. And who knows, telethons may even return whether we want them or not.

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