A brief history of an ‘-ism’

Last Thursday I dropped in on the launch of a report I helped put together called Disablist Britain. It was hosted by Scope and DAA and featured the new(ish) Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton as keynote speaker. BBC News Online covered the launch here.

It was strange to see what we’ve helped to pull off. As a tiny part of a network of other organisations and people, I realised I’ve helped change the language and intentions of the Government.

Two years ago we published Disablism, deliberately setting out to get policy makers and politicians using the word and recognise that disabled people are the victims of prejudice as insidious and excluding as racism or sexism.

Taking our inspiration from the disability rights movement, we defined disablism as:

‘discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others.’

David Blunkett was the man in charge then and he was sceptical. Tom Shakespeare also took issue with it in an article for the BBC, but in the main, the pamphlet was very well recieved.

Just a few months later Andrew Smith was in charge and used the word freely, agreeing with much of what we’d said in the pamphlet. Behind the scenes in Whitehall a group of very bright and committed civil servants were using our ideas and support to push forward a Strategy Unit report called ‘Improving the life chances of disabled people’. Andrew Smith didn’t last long in the job but the work carried on in his absence.

Last Thursday John Hutton could have been reading from the introduction of Disablism. The issue of course will be in the implementation and the mainstreaming of the attitudes we’ve begun to instill in Government. I also don’t think he’s ‘got’ how differently work is defined by many disabled people and what that means for a Labour Government obsessed by ‘hard working families’.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from working with people from the disability rights movement. I found it incredibly hard to begin with. They didn’t trust me or Demos and probably with good reason. They’d been abused, screwed around and ignored for a very long time.

I often find it hard to explain what Demos does in those situations. But I think we help to shape the story of policy, working with all the principal actors and helping them to develop a shared language for next steps. I describe it using Peter Gallison’s idea of trading zones where change happens when people with different viewpoints and expertise come together as equals. Shiv Visvanathan calls it cognitive justice.

When I first met Katie Caryer, it was the first time I’d had a conversation with someone who uses a communicator. She shattered all my preconceptions. Young, bright, entrepreneurial, feisty and with a very clear set of ideas about how things should change. I knew from that moment that disabled people had a heck of a lot to teach policy makers. A few months later and Katie’s story was the obvious place to start when I was writing Disablism.

I’m not sure what next. While not everything is heading in the right direction, other people like the Disability Rights Commission seem to be doing a good job of stimulating discussion about disablism. Scope’s own advertising campaign about disablism has had quite an effect. And movie’s like Murderball are shattering peoples’ preconceptions about disabled people. I’ll stay involved and watch with interest as things change — I hope for the better for disabled people.

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