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Feature

Campaign of equals

India is not the only country in the world where disabled people have had to fight long and hard to assure themselves of the rights that most people take for granted.

Picture of Good Willy.

The disability movement in India was encouraged by the meeting with the Finance Minister Mr P. Chidambaram earlier this month to discuss incentives for private firms to increase the employment of disabled people. However, this move is long overdue and has taken eight years of sustained campaigning by organisations such as NCPEDP to get even this far.

But India is not the only country in the world where disabled people have had to fight long and hard to assure themselves of the rights that most people take for granted. Just this month in the UK, leading disability organisation Scope launched a high-profile campaign to remind people that disabled people still have a far from level playing field when it comes to rights regarding employment and education. Such rights may well be laid down in law but the implementation of the law is often lacking.

At the launch of the UK campaign, Tony Manwaring, chief executive of Scope, pointed out, "Disabled people lead lives which are wrecked by poverty and exclusion and are much less likely than non-disabled people to be able to achieve their potential." And that is in a country where the disability law covers education, employment, potential employees and general access issues. So what is missing? The answer, pure and simple, is attitude.

Disabled people throughout the world have been made an invisible minority for centuries, locked away in "special institutions" where society can forget about them. But the situation is beginning to change. And the catalysts for change are disabled people themselves.

Disabled people are clamouring to be heard and to be treated as equals. Thanks to their efforts disability has become a human rights issue in countries as diverse as Australia and Sri Lanka, disability activists have made their mark from France to Korea and beyond, and disability legislation has been enacted in more than 20 countries worldwide since 1990.

Much change may have happened in the past 15 years, but campaigners have been active for many more years than that. As long ago as the 1930s disabled people began to react against the images used in awareness and fundraising campaigns.

Whether used to highlight awareness, treatment or social programmes, campaign material was generally used to invoke pity for the afflicted, as seen left.

Even campaigns aimed at providing employment for disabled people set them apart from the very society they wanted to be part of.

Such campaigns pigeonholed disabled people into doing only limited types of work, usually menial/unskilled. The sheltered workshops such campaigns were designed to support also ended up disempowering the disabled workers by imposing low pay and poor conditions on the people they were trying to "help".

In 1840 a workshop for the blind was established in Massachusetts. By the 1980s there were more than 65,000 people employed in such institutions. But they were far from providing the answer to the need for gainful employment for disabled people. They were largely exploitative and organisations for the blind had failed on several occasions to introduce collective bargaining for workshop employees. The workers were denied the right to unionise, though some instances of industrial action did occur. In 1937 employees of a Pittsburgh workshop went on strike, although the media at the time was more concerned with pointing out the "peculiarity" of the event than outlining and supporting the issues being fought over.

Despite this, such action was a turning point as it showed that disabled people had realised that they needed to act for themselves, and could act for themselves, to avoid such stereotyping and exploitation.

Looking ahead a few years to the 1960s, it can be seen that the radicalism of society in general provided a boost for the disability movement. It became the norm to publicly protest against issues that were often controversial and the disability movement was quick to capitalise on the mood of the times. Although there is no one defining event marking the birth of the independent living movement, the determination of a group of students with disabilities to attend the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s is often considered the pivotal effort that began the disability rights movement. Those students were led by Ed Roberts, at the time a young man with significant disabilities who was determined to go to college.

Disability activists were also on the move in Japan. In 1970, disabled persons from an institution for severely disabled persons in Sendai City ventured out into town with their own wheelchairs. They were disappointed to know that they could not move around because of curbs on every corner of the sidewalk. This experience triggered a new campaign and resulted in Citizens Assembly to Build a Welfare-conscious Town. This campaign to check accessibility of society began to spread over other cities and towns, and stimulated the publication of wheelchair access guides in local towns. Inadequate consideration for disabled persons in urban planning was pointed out as a result.

These local campaigns were at first organised by wheelchair users and their supporters as to expand the living environment of wheelchair uses. However, in a national meeting of the National Wheelchair Citizen's Assembly held in Sendai city, not only wheelchair users' but also other disabled persons' problems were brought up in terms of accessible environment. From this time on, the campaign expanded to the wider disabled community.

Picture of another campaign

Back in the USA in the early 1970s, people with disabilities lobbied Congress to put civil rights language for people with disabilities into the 1972 Rehabilitation Act. The Act was vetoed by President Nixon but after a group of people with disabilities marched on Washington, a revised 1973 Rehabilitation Act was passed. For the first time in history, the civil rights of people with disabilities were protected by law.

The challenges that have been faced by the disability movement worldwide, and which are still faced today in many areas, include a lack of public awareness about disability, and even an element of anxiety about being exposed to disabled people. Meetings intended to challenge the status quo and increase awareness of disability issues and rights are themselves often hampered by basic problems such as poor physical access to venues. Then there is the prevailing attitude, only slowly changing, that disabled people need looking after rather than enabling. Coupled with this is an assumption that low-level employment is all that the majority of disabled people can expect, if they can be employed at all.

But to end on a more optimistic note, it can be seen that over the course of the past century disabled people the world over have begun to claim their rights to live in and be a valuable and valued part of normal society.

The efforts of activists and campaigners worldwide are reaping benefits for millions of people, and so called "able bodied" people are at last being made aware of the fact that disabled people have a great deal to offer if they are only allowed to contribute to the enrichment of society as a whole.

The distance travelled by the movement was acknowledged by Senator Ted Kennedy in a speech to the US senate in 1990, during the long-overdue and hard fought-for passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act: "For generations, society has viewed people with disabilities as citizens in need of charity. Through ignorance, we tolerated discrimination and succumbed to fear and prejudice. But our paternalistic approach did no more to improve the lives of people with disabilities than labour laws restricting women in the workplace did to protect women. Today we are shedding these condescending and suffocating attitudes - and widening the door of opportunity for people with disabilities … People with disabilities are here today to remind us that equal justice under the law is not a privilege but a fundamental birthright."

Disability academic David Pfeiffer summed up both the personal and public struggle for acceptance in his essay, 'The Disability Movement and Its History', in 1995. He pointed out that what is important in the disability experience is knowing that you are not alone. "There are thousands of persons with disabilities thinking similar thoughts, having similar experiences, and getting angry. We are not alone. We have a history."

And that history is still being written, in India, in the UK and across the world.