Radio review: The Reunion – Disability Campaigners

Radio review: The Reunion – Disability Campaigners

The format of this programme which looks back at moments of history means it wilfully lacks relevance to the lives of disabled people today and fails to take an opportunity to challenge, says Ian Macrae.

The Reunion is BBC Radio 4’s returning series in which presenter Sue McGregor invites a number of people who were directly involved with a high-profile event to come together and share memories and perspectives of and on that event. Recent series have included topics as diverse as the King’s Cross Underground fire – in which we learned that fire fighters wore plastic boots and wool tunics which weren’t fireproof – and female pop stars of the 1960s during which two of the divas had a notable spat.

The most recent episode, the second in the current series, looked at the emergence in the 80s and 90s of the disabled people’s movement, the rise of direct action as a tactic in the battle for equality and rights and the eventual enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995.

The first and ultimately most remarkable thing about this piece of radio was the fact that it facilitated the largely unmediated reminiscences of four disabled people. Baroness {Jane} Campbell, veteran operator Sir Bert Massey, broadcaster and Disability Now writer Peter White and Adam Thomas who was a direct action participant were joined by William (now Lord) Hague who, as minister for disabled people in John Major’s government had been responsible for piloting the DDA through Parliament. Each participant spoke from their own perspective with, for example, Peter White giving an overview of the social environment and Sir Bert Massey describing hammering out the nuts and bolts with politicians like Hague and often in the face of stern opposition from people like Jane Campbell, firebrands within the disability movement.

And it was through these exchanges that a cosy sense of fellowship, even self-congratulation emerged. It was a fellowship which in the end and for disabled people today rather uncomfortably extended to William Hague. But it was a fellowship born of nostalgia and cultivated in the vacuum which this approach to recent history inevitably creates. And here was where the central problem with this programme became apparent.

Events such as the King’s Cross fire continue to reverberate in the lives of those still dealing with its aftermath. The families of those who died still miss their loved ones: those injured or traumatised go on feeling the pain and reliving the terror. The anniversary of the fire may continue to be marked in the wider public memory.

In this case however, the campaign for rights and equality for disabled people has not reached its conclusion and the passing of the DDA did not mark a full stop. Indeed, as fate would have it, shortly before the broadcast, a House of Lords committee published a report highlighting the serious and fundamental ways in which disabled people continue to be failed by the Equality Act which superseded the DDA in 2010.

In the context of the programme it felt not just uncomfortable but almost unsustainable that an activist such as Adam Thomas or fellow peer Baroness Campbell, not to mention a respected and diligent journalist like Peter White did not, could not challenge William Hague over the regressive and punitive actions towards disabled people taken by a government in which he held very high office.

The programme touched upon the inadequacies of the DDA as it was perceived by disabled people. Contributors remarked on the lack of any degree of enforcement, compulsion or regulatory body associated with the DDA. But the lack of the context from today, combined with the failure to measure its impact on the lives of disabled people now or more accurately the lack thereof, rendered the whole exercise pointless. The conversation also neglected to contrast the motivation of the party which enacted the legislation with the subsequent actions of politicians of the same stripe.

William Hague cheerfully accepted acknowledgement of his place in disability history. He must also have been glad to have been let so easily off the hook for his party’s subsequent iniquities.

The Reunion is available on BBC iPlayer.

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