Identity crisis

By Peter Beresford

Reprinted from The Guardian, November 29, 2006

According to some activists, the disability movement is focusing on all the wrong issues and has lost its way. So where next? Excitement at the emergence of the women’s, black people’s, gay, lesbian and bisexual movements has within a generation given way to talk of post-feminism, the “equalities industry” and preoccupation with the pink pound. Now similar concerns are being expressed about the disability movement and people are asking: “Where did it go wrong?” At first glance, great progress seems to have been made on disability, with the biggest lead coming from the disabled people’s movement. We have seen the extension of disability discrimination legislation and new disability equality duties placed on public bodies by the end of this year. Independent living legislation to ensure disabled people have the right to support is now going through parliament. Disability issues have a new visibility, and so do disabled people themselves. Tony Blair has signed up to “improving the life chances of disabled people”, and an expansion of local organisations run by disabled people is planned. New approaches to support, such as direct payments and individualised budgets, are making it possible for a wider range of disabled people to live on more equal terms. All these achievements can be traced to the disabled people’s movement.

At the same time, life for disabled people may be getting worse. Support packages are being cut and eligibility criteria for support narrowed. Grassroots disability organisations are dying for want of funding. Service purchasers have been switching from services provided by disabled people’s organisations to cheaper, independent sector providers that frequently offer an inferior service. Benefits reform and talk of taking a million people off incapacity benefits is causing enormous anxiety among disabled people, particularly mental health service users. And this year a report by the thinktank Demos concluded that “disablism remains rife throughout Britain”. One of the most strident critics of the disability movement’s direction is Tom Shakespeare, a disabled commentator and theoretician, who is based at Newcastle University’s policy, ethics and life sciences research centre. In his latest book, Disability Rights and Wrongs, he argues that the movement has gone down a cul de sac of its own making. He accuses it of getting lost in a series of unhelpful dichotomies: disabled people versus non-disabled people, self-organisation versus charity, the right to life versus the right to death. And he rejects the reliance on “identity politics”. But the evidence doesn’t support Shakespeare’s sweeping assertions. He underplays the richness and complexity of discussion and developments from disability activists, and their early awareness of the need to move on from initial understandings of the social model of disability, which shifted attention from individual impairments to social oppression.

More worrying, though, are the views expressed by two disability activists and founding figures of the movement, Mike Oliver and Colin Barnes. They recently published a substantial critique of why they think disability politics and the disability movement in Britain have gone wrong. They criticise what they see as a narrowly legalistic, rights-based approach to disability politics, which has become an end in itself. They conclude that this tends only “to benefit those people who work in the rights industry” and has led to the professionalisation of disability rights.

Talk the talk

As they say: “Having legal rights does not mean that they will be enforced.” They highlight the early deaths and burnout of many disability activists, and the weakening of national organisations controlled by disabled people as traditional charities have combined with government “to talk the talk of the disabled people’s movement”. They are critical of the establishment of bodies such as the Disability Rights Commission. They see these as unaccountable to disabled people, whose own national organisations have seen their influence diminished as they are starved of resources. So where next? Shakespeare argues for a pluralistic approach to disability politics that better acknowledges disabled people’s diverse views. Oliver and Barnes emphasise the importance of disabled people becoming part of a far wider struggle to create a better society for all. Few are likely to reject either of these proposals, but how are they to be taken forward? Movements are only ever as strong as their local grassroots organisations. The government’s commitment to support a national network of local user-controlled organisations offers a crucial lever for renewing the disabled people’s movement. It must be grasped. The disabled people’s movement has frequently been criticised for failing to address diversity, but all movements struggle when it comes to doing so. Ensuring the equal involvement of all people demands changes in understanding and culture. It also requires resources to reach out and support such inclusion – a hard job for disability organisations unremittingly strapped for cash.

Disabled people’s organisations must also consider the wide range of people and groups included in the disability category. This includes people with learning difficulties, mental health service users, older people, people with chronic and life limiting illnesses and conditions, people with physical and sensory impairments, and more. Shakespeare sees the identity politics of the disability movement as one of its fundamental failings. We are too different from each other, he says. Half the people officially included as disabled don’t see themselves as such. Perhaps, but unless we seek to reclaim negative identities imposed upon us, they are likely to continue to restrict our lives, whether or not we accept them. Thus, the many older people who understandably don’t want to see themselves as “disabled” lose out on the entitlements they have and the support they may need. As gay people and black people have learned, it is only by taking over derogatory labels and categories that we are likely to transform them and ourselves. Members of the different disabled groups are beginning to recognise their individual differences but also their common problems and barriers. Links are developing between groups, rather than catering for only one group or condition. Organisations, such as Shaping Our Lives, the national user network, have found that it is possible to address diversity in involvement if trust is allowed to develop and so long as such involvement is properly resourced and fully inclusive.

This means taking on issues of cultural and communication access, as well as physical access. Tackling the issue of diversity doesn’t detract from solidarity, as is sometimes suggested. Instead, it reinforces it as policy makers find it more difficult to divide different groups and set them against each other. Perhaps the answer is to be found in schools. A truly inclusive education enables all children to learn alongside each other, with whatever support they need, so that the kind of divisions between disabled and non-disabled people that Shakespeare condemns are no longer routine. Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and is co-author of Making User Involvement Work (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ��17.95).


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