What have charities ever done for us

Over the past 50 years big charities have modulated and modified their tone and presentation of disabled people, says Professor Mike Oliver. But to what end and for whose benefit?

The on-going fiasco surrounding the children’s charity Kids Company reveals that £46 million of taxpayers’ money was given to it before it finally went belly up. It prompted the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to comment that “It is unbelievable that taxpayers’ money has been given to Kids Company with little focus on what it was actually achieving.” This has lead me to wonder what we might find if we asked a similar question about the big disability charities who over the last 50 years have received far more taxpayers’ and public money than that.

We can divide up their contributions to the lives of disabled people on a decade by decade basis.

Their approach in the 1970s can be characterised by ignorance and benign neglect. They knew little about disabled people and our lives and they portrayed as tragic victims who needed to be looked after. Disabled people became increasingly fed up with this portrayal of us and we began to build our own organisations and articulate our own views of what we wanted.

As a response to this in the 1980s the big disability charities went into double denial mode. They denied that the new organisations of disabled people represented us and that the radical ideas we were presenting were actually what was needed. Instead their approach can be summed up as ‘platitudes about attitudes’ which fed into the government’s own strategy of trying to persuade non-disabled people to be nice to us.

By the 1990s our organisations represented over 100,000 disabled people and we had played a major role in building organisations of disabled people across the globe. So they decided to promote our ideas and policies as their own even though a few years earlier they had been denying their relevance. And when the then government introduced its own plans for anti-discrimination legislation they couldn’t wait to get behind it and give their support even though they knew it was fundamentally flawed.

By the 2000s they were promoting themselves as the disability movement and the legitimate voice of disabled people. So busy were they doing this that they failed to notice that the New Labour Government, while saying all the right things, were cutting our benefits and eroding our support, mainly to finance their illegal wars.

The 2010s saw the first Conservative Government for a generation and it unashamedly set about destroying the welfare state and showed a distinct lack of concern for any casualties on the way. Their own statistics showed that people were dying or killing themselves because services were being withdrawn or cut to the bone. So the disability charities have changed again, presenting themselves as our defenders and presenting us as victims in need of care. In so doing they have taken us back to where we were in the 1970s.

It would be foolish to suggest that no progress has been made in those 50 years but the question is, how much of that progress can the disability charities take credit for? Not much if you ask me. As a society we have become much richer over the past 50 years and disabled people have shared in that, but the gap between what we have and what the non-disabled have and take for granted remains as big as it ever was. New technology has also opened up our lives and our access to the world too but that progress has been market-led. And the progress that has been made in terms of our benefits and support services can almost all be accounted for by the disability activism of the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet, while for the past 50 years the big charities have had multi-million pound budgets, high salaried executives, plush London offices, the great and the good on their governing bodies and honours and awards galore, their achievements have been relatively insignificant. I wonder what the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee would make of that?

5 thoughts on “What have charities ever done for us

  1. I see some good valued points in the comments. But what angers me as a disabled person is this dam caring saying we understand your needs then you find they then scream cannot be done due to costs or we must drop it one of our sponsors might feel offended. Disabled people have no official body with teeth teeth to really bite in the currant climate more a gumless Lion in our world maybe one day when I am stocking the fires of Dante things might and I say that with tongue in cheek might change for the better.

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  2. Many charities and organisations have paved the way making it easy for for NeoLiberalist governments to cut public services especially NHS e.g.MIND have done the dirty work for work for NeoLiberalist government by promoting “positive thinking” and “mindfulness” doctrines undermining and disrespecting mental issues. These ‘smile’ campaigns disregards depression as a mood instead of a serious mental illness

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  3. We need to end the rape culture that make these charities think it is OK to spend our money poisoning us for industry profits. They show our pictures in the commercials, not the doctors, politicians, bankers, CEOs and drug company reps that really get the money.

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  4. The big charities have changed their tactics over the past 50 years according to the direction of the wind. However, their impact in advancing the issues that really matter to disabled people has been largely ineffective.

    Any advancements that have been achieved have been made by the constant pressure applied by disabled people themselves and by their organisations.

    However, it has been a struggle against all the odds for DPOs. Initially with the big charities scooping the vast majority of funding and “charitable donations”, there was not a great deal left for anyone else. Even with DPOs adopting the Social Model it took about 25 – 35 years for it to become fully recognised in the UK and even now…… All sorts of excuses were given by Government and local authorities to avoid funding organisations being established and run by “amateurs”. Of course he most recent of those excuses is Austerity.

    I was persuaded by probably the biggest of them all to join them as they were “making radical changes” about how they provided support to disabled people and listened to them” It began slowly and picked up its downhill pace quite rapidly. Initially I provided face-to-face support to disabled people in groups that I established all over the country. So, I was working with individuals every day of the week, which was the major attraction in joining them.

    However, in late 2013, they employed a new Campaigns and ENGAGEMENT Director. It was very clear to me in a matter of weeks that they had little to no experience of actually working with disabled people or anything to do with their issues. Within about 3 – 4 months they came forward with a brilliant new format for providing support to the people that I met with all the time.

    Instead of face-to-face meetings every day, the new support method would be by email, letter, or by phone – clever eh?

    Despite the representations from colleagues based all over the UK and of course not least from disabled people, senior management thought that this was a great idea and of course, it went ahead. One of the 4 countries of the UK was totally abandoned with them providing no campaigning support. Even in England the Grand Plan was as crazy as it was elsewhere. The north of England was to be covered by someone based in an office in WOLVERHAMPTON.

    In a 14 page parting letter to senior management informing them of the catastrophic decision they had made and of the detrimental effects for disabled people that they were supposed to be supporting, I forecast that the Director who had brought forward the Grand Plan would be gone within the next 6 months as she had no idea what she was doing. Actually, I was wrong about that – they were gone in 3 months.

    However, I could not abandon the people that I had supported for 7 years, many of whom were now friends. So, I still help them wherever I can.

    This big charity had, and still has, an absolutely appalling record for employing disabled people.

    I attended meetings every month or so at the HQ in London. At one of those meetings, held a couple of months before I left them, the Director in charge of the meeting stated that they were to become a DPO within 5 years!!. I almost fell out of my chair in disbelief. When I raised my hand to speak on the issue, I asked the Director if he had any idea at all of what a DPO is and what would have to change in order for them to become a DPO? Blank looks from most around the table, so I proceeded to inform them all about DPOs and the changes that would need to take place for them to achieve that status. I also told the meeting that the logistics involved were bad enough. However, the biggest hurdle in them trying to become a DPO, would be acceptance by disabled people and that was especially true given the hugely negative impression that disabled people already had of he organisation.

    From that day to this, I have heard not one single word further about them becoming a DPO.

    However, as many others have commented the one thing that the big charities are really good at doing is providing senior management (most of whom do not have a clue about issues that really affect the lives of disabled people) with huge 3 figure salaries.

    So pleased to be gone from all of that bull….it and back working at the coal face with supporting other disabled people.

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