Re-forging the disability movement

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The fightback against austerity is reshaping the disability movement in Britain.

Last month's Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) national conference was a chance to agree targets and strategies for campaigning over the next year, reflecting on wins such as the victory over Atos, and taking stock of the battles ahead as cuts bite deeper and conditions worsen. It was also a space to debate and shape the continuing development of the disabled people's rights movement which has dramatically grown, re-energised and progressed politically since the emergence of DPAC in 2010.

DPAC grew out of a protest by disabled people who led the march called by the Right to Work campaign at the Tory party conference in Birmingham in 2010. By the time the coalition came to power the disabled people's rights movement had been in decline for many years.

The days of direct actions and wheelchair users chaining themselves to buses were long gone, replaced by service user forums and advisory groups. Disabled People's Organisations (DPOs), which had provided the main structures supporting the articulation of our rights and freedoms since the days when disabled people fought their way out of the institutions, had too often become subsumed by a service delivery and contract culture.

As the older more militant organisations such as the Greater London Action on Disability and the British Council of Disabled People passed into the history books the voice of grassroots disabled people became ever fainter while disabled "professionals" made careers by claiming to represent us.

In the absence of coordinated resistance, DPAC grew out of the necessity for providing a national voice to oppose the devastating impact of austerity on disabled people. The consequence has been a revolution within disability politics as working class disabled people have discovered our own power to effect change and have challenged the authority of the disability elite.

The Remploy dispute was a key turning point when DPAC led an alliance of DPOs to publicly declare our active support for the Remploy workers in opposition to the recommendations of the disabled consultant and CEO of Disability Rights UK, Liz Sayce, and sections of the movement who celebrated the factory closures as an end to segregation.

When the government announced the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), DPAC supported disabled people who set up a campaign to save the fund rooted in the concrete experiences of ILF recipients. Our stance challenged the position of the national charities and disabled establishment figures who had accepted the political consensus favouring local authority administered personal budgets and given up on the ILF as an unwinnable cause.

One of the most significant shifts has been the progression away from the identity politics which characterised disability activism in the 1990s. DPAC was expressly set up to work with the left and the wider anti-austerity movement with core principles based on an understanding of the oppression of disabled people in the context of class politics.

Seeking to work with trade unions proved controversial with delegates at the first DPAC conference in 2011, yet by the 2014 conference messages of solidarity from trade unionists were greeted with cheers while DPAC members debated ways to push the union leaderships to raise the level of struggle with coordinated industrial action.

The advancement from identity politics reflects the current political climate where attacks on disabled people can only be understood within the framework of a wider ideological agenda aimed at dismantling the welfare state and attacks on workers. At the Rethinking Disability Policy event co-organised by DPAC in September 2012 disabled activists spoke about the need to quickly develop a better understanding of political economy.

A realisation of the limitations of reformist approaches has also developed as lobbying and legal challenges have all failed to reverse the cuts. Where we have had wins it has been through collective struggle such as the protests, occupations and relentless days of action against Atos or the actions and constant pressure against the bedroom tax.

This progression of ideas has not been automatic and came about through the intervention of socialist ideas and involvement in struggle. By contrast the Hardest Hit campaign, led by charities, has continued to concentrate very narrowly on the impact of cuts on disabled people in isolation from wider resistance to austerity.

In many senses DPAC has broken the mould for disability politics. We are proud that not only do we work with the broader anti-cuts movement but are considered at the forefront of the fight against austerity, turning on its head traditional "pity model" notions of disabled people as dependent and a burden on others.

We have certainly rocked the boat, stirring up the disabled people's rights movement, injecting struggle, promoting a re-evaluation of inherited wisdom and ideas within the movement and giving a voice to working class disabled people. There is still much to learn and much to do but the 2014 national conference was testimony to a good start since 2010.