Monday, November 17, 2014

Activism and Ableism: A Discussion with DPAC

Below is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with the organization Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC) discussing the history of the group, its activism, and ways in which disabled people can advocate for themselves. DPAC can be found on Facebook and Twitter; @dis_ppl_protest

1. Tell us about DPAC.

Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC) are led by disabled people. We welcome all disabled people and non disabled allies to join us. We have an outreach of over 50,000 supporters. We work with lots of other groups, these can be grass root anti-cut groups, identity groups, trade unions-the main aim is equality and human rights for disabled people. But any form of inequality or injustice for any group is wrong and should always be challenged. Since 2010 in the UK we have seen inequality and injustice increase to outrageous levels. This has contributed to an estimated 32 deaths of disabled people per week due to a reorganisation of welfare. The Government call it welfare reform and 'savings', but what we are seeing are cuts that remove even the basic support from people leaving them without food, heat or dignity. This costs lives. We started with a slogan: 'Cuts Kill'. It is heartbreaking to find 4 years down the line that that slogan has become an everyday reality for disabled people.

DPAC are mainly known for their direct actions and occupations. DPAC block major roads, occupy Government buildings and areas to draw attention to what is happening to disabled people in the UK. We are seeing a wholesale attack on disabled people's equality, support, independence and lives that is unprecedented-we have to fight it! As well as direct actions, we do targeted social media campaigns; we support legal challenges, instigate legal challenges, conduct critical research, and are in demand as speakers at events. We have an international outreach working with groups in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Australia etc. Many internationally are seeing welfare and democratic justice reorganised on the basis of the model used by our Government.  The UK was once recognised as an example of good disability policies and progress towards the equality of disabled people- it is now an example of how fast that progress can be decimated and removed. In the UK all improvements that disabled people have fought for decades are being reversed.

Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC) was set up in 2010 by disabled people. We were originally a small group called Disabled People's Protest. We came together initially to lead the march in Birmingham, England outside the Conservative party conference with trade unions and anti-cuts groups in October. One of the leading co-founders Linda Burnip was instrumental in getting disabled people a place at the front of the protest march. We could already see that the Conservative led coalition would attack disabled peoples living standards, and remove social and financial support. We were told we were scaremongering and frightening people by some of the traditional disability organisations and some disabled people, but part of the action was also because we saw that the traditional disability organisations were doing nothing, and not speaking out on the policies of the new Government led by the Conservatives. We needed a new grass roots group that wasnt afraid to speak out and show the UK exactly what was happening to people who had committed no crime, who had done no wrong, but just happened to be disabled. We needed that connection with people on the ground, to open new dialogues and actions that weren't framed by what funds we could get or lose from central or local Government, or from charity that existed to keep us dependent.

We had around a hundred people on that first march. It poured with rain the whole day.  We were initially just going to do the march, but lots of people told us to keep going. We changed our name to Disabled People against Cuts after the march. Though maybe we'd carry on for a few months, but 4 years later we're still here. From the early beginnings we now have an outreach of over 50,000 supporters who see the top-down hierarchies of the past as outmoded models that do not deliver. Disabled people must speak for themselves based on their experiences, not via some pre-framed narrative that satisfies funders.

2. How would you define activism? Why do you think that so many people only associate activism with protesting?

Activism is any political act that aims to make a change or draws attention to an issue-it is a form of protest. Lots of people seem to equate activism only with physical on the street protest. This may be because it offers an image that is instantly recognisable, it’s easy.   We have also seen the rise of physical protest on the streets with Occupy, the  99%, and internationally against fascist dictators and worldwide corruption. If it’s reported by the mainstream media at all, it’s what forms most people's idea of activism. Yet, there are many different kinds of activism and protest through art, film, discussion, writing, research, exposures of oppressive structures; they, and more, come together to form a composite of activism. Activism is more creative than the mainstream media would have us believe.

Consider the Black civil rights movement – is sitting on a bus or going into a wash room activism? History tells us it is. It is a historically diverse expression of anger, rebellion and the recognition of the need to push for change in particular social and cultural contexts. Yet all is driven by the insatiable appetite of capitalism to drive and perpetuate structured inequalities where a few benefit at the expense of the mass of ordinary people, where divisions are set up between differences of visible characteristics of the body, wealth, and perceived power. We all have power and must recognise that we can use it to shape discourse or shape change in a number of different ways. If we don't believe that, then we render ourselves powerless, and allow things to remain the same through inaction.

3. What are some ways that handicapped individuals protest and involve themselves in activism?

First, lets us say that in the UK the term handicap is no longer used. It signifies an individual problem, a lack, a dependence on the charity and good will of others. It is a term that dehumanises.

In the UK we use the social model; quite simply we see that we are disabled by social and cultural constructions, by perceptions of difference and imposed societal divisions.  These create socially constructed barriers, the barriers can be others attitudes, environmental barriers and physical barriers. They can all be changed if there is a political will to do so.

The question itself implies that because of a perceived lack of function we will develop ways that may be uniquely different or strange. DPAC campaigns against the cuts, but also for independent living for all disabled people. A concept began in the U.S. led by Ed Roberts and others as students at Berkeley University who demanded access and not segregation, who demanded personal assistants. We now have an international independent living movement led by disabled people. However, independent living doesn't mean being isolated and doing everything alone as the Western liberal individualisation myth attempts to dictate- it means achieving the independence to make our own choices on our own lives. We all recognise that everyone is interdependent; everyone relies on and are a part of a range of social connections-and everyone has the right to make choices on their own lives.

Now we might, and often have, chained wheelchairs together in the middle of the road, which we guess is different from what a non-disabled peoples' protest would entail.  At a recent occupation camp in the grounds of Westminster Abbey (London) we needed to plan access. We needed to make sure that tents we had were accessible, that we had hoists available, that we had ramps and that people could negotiate grassy areas if they were wheelchair users or if they used walking aids. This was not because of our lack, but because the environment in general doesn't consider the access needs of disabled people so we need to adapt environments so that they do.  The occupy camp had around 65 disabled people. It also had around 300 police who were sent in very quickly to guard the area, to prevent the tents being put up and generally make it as difficult as possible. It was this that was extreme. Its a new kind of extreme policing we're seeing more and more of for all protest groups whether they are disabled or not.

The DPAC occupy camp was very successful and hit social media and the news partly because of the excessive police presence. We were protesting against the closure of a central fund called the Independent Living Fund. A fund that supports those with the highest support needs to employ personal assistants. A fund that helps disabled people negotiate the barriers they face and which assists them to lead independent lives. The level of policing and the cost of it could have been spent on the fund itself. But we had to endure the power of the state in more oppressive ways.

DPAC, like other grass root groups uses social media (twitter and Facebook mainly), to good effect for campaigns and protests. If we have a physical on street protest we usually match that with a social media presence. It serves to raise the issues of the protest and publicise it, while allowing a wider participation through social media. We also use live -streaming of protests, conferences and events Live streaming is another area where the internet has helped spread political messages and allowed an alternative  active critique of mainstream media messages. Social media has also allowed a new participation and collectivism that was missing previously. One survey DPAC carried out said that activism and links between disabled people were better than previously because of DPAC and social media. People felt better informed and more included, as well as benefiting from peer support. DPAC also runs specific 'stand alone' twitter campaigns on particular issues. These can be used to flood conferences about us, but often without any disabled person representing us. Our absence is usually because the high delegate fee excludes all those but highly paid state officials and charity CEOs.

4. Why do you think that problems of disabled people in the mainstream are ignored?

It’s not clear that they are anymore. DPAC have forced the issue of disability and what is happening to disabled people. This along with the focus of Government on reducing support and removing the welfare state have combined to force the issues into the mainstream. However, the mainstream narrative is not one we would agree with a lot of the time. We don’t accept the Government propaganda that support must be slashed. We don’t accept the rhetoric or political framing set-up by the bureaucrats and ministers that set out to suggest that many disabled people were fraudulently claiming disability support. This was set -up as a precursor to slashing disability financial support. Yet, we have countered this with the real Government figures on the level of fraud which is just 0.05% and includes departmental error.  In the UK a new tougher test to qualify for disability support was introduced. It was a computer based points system developed by Unum previously Unum Provident insurance. Many may recognise this as the same company banned in  a large number of States in the US. The test was called the Work Capability Assessment (WCA)  it was administered by a company called Atos.

The 2012 Olympics here was sponsored by Atos and other dubious multinational corporations. DPAC held a seven day protest against Atos across the UK. DPAC raised the issues of the bogus and damaging WCAs carried out by Atos. Mainstream news coverage on Atos known principally as an IT company, rocketed. Coverage increased from barely anything to the front pages of national newspapers. Atos became known as a toxic brand, the media coverage never abated to previous levels, but continued leading to dedicated television coverage, a host of whistle-blowers exposing the practices of the company and the harm and unfairness they perpetuated. Also exposed was the amount of public money paid to the company. There were pickets outside their local centres, pickets of their job recruitment fares by students, and they had major problems recruiting staff. Company shares plummeted and Atos pulled out of the contract early because of the continuing negative press.  We need to recognise this as a snowball effect because we were not helped by traditional disability organisations or charities, but DPACs actions meant that even they could no longer stay silent and retain any credibility.

5. It seems that people want to somewhat help those who are physically disabled, but there is an intense stigma around those who are mentally challenged or labelled mentally ill. Why do you think this flip-flop of a sort occurs?

The fact is as we age we are all likely to become disabled in some way. We lose hearing, sight, mobility, and memory is less strong. Disability is not a minority experience it’s a constant historical fact that affects a large proportion of any population. If we add the effect of wars, environmental damage, dumping of harmful toxic waste, chemical manipulation of food, accidents and so on-we see a picture that despite advances in healthcare shows growing symptoms of the stresses and dangers of contemporary life. Add in family traumas, abuse, mental shut downs, depression, growing anxieties and feelings of inadequacy-none of us escape some levels of damage.  Physical, sensory and mental impairments are widespread, with mental health issues increasing to an alarming degree in our 24/7 societies.  A further constant of contemporary life is an unending stream of information overload coupled with constant media messages that we are each far from an unattainable ideal of mental and physical perfection. We live in a consumer society that sets unattainable images of perfection- and then attempts to sell perfection to us..

Of these terrors of life it is physical impairment that people shun, but also relate better to too- like the image of the street protest , people can identify more easily with a missing leg, they're more likely to try and understand deafness or visual impairments- how many people wear glasses?  Along with this there are a host of cultural stereotypes in books, films etc that present extremes and place them in the public consciousness. The stereotypes of mental health become perpetuated, wrongly, as dangerous, unstable, and unknown. While we celebrate perceived genius as a great thing, we never see it as a different cognitive process nor as a mental health issue. The negative stigma around mental health becomes self-perpetuating, its based on ignorance and misplaced fear. Its something that should be tackled through greater public knowledge projects and awareness raising, but these should be run by people who have experienced mental health issues themselves. In short disability reminds everyone of their own mortality and vulnerability regardless of the fact that its widespread. All forms of disability can still be treated as a guilty secret, a personal failing- this is more so with mental health issues or learning difficulties, it is something we must challenge and change.

Finally we need to add that DPAC as a group does not just consist of physically disabled people, but is cross disability. This means that we work with all groups. In addition we have people with a range of different impairment types on the elected steering group.

6. What are some ways in which disabled people advocate for themselves?

Non violent DPAC direct actions and civil disobedience, attending and crashing meetings, occupying buildings, social media campaigns, research, writing for media, contributing to the DPAC web site with stories and experiences, taking and supporting legal actions through the courts, questioning MPs, developing peer support to share experiences through our 24 local DPAC groups and social media. Linking up to form alliances of the more active and more political formal disability organisations, engaging with the United Nations, working with the European Parliament through our European links, sharing legal and welfare advice, working with other groups on key policy issues at local and national levels.

7. What are some of the differences and similarities between government support and oppression of the disabled in the US and the UK?

A key difference would be that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed sooner than our Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which was passed five years later in 1995 and was implemented in 1996. Yet in 2010 this was overtaken by the Equality Act which included all equality groups i.e disabled people, gender, age, race, GLBT groupings and faith and belief groups. The Equality Act is considered a watered down version of the DDA, also while apparently based on the ideas of 'mainstreaming', it is seen as a problem in that disability is often at the bottom of the pile when it comes to equality issues.  Disabled people fought for a Civil Rights Act for disabled people prior to the DDA but it was defeated, mainly by the disability Charities who were said to have 'sold out' disabled people. Those same people got some of the top jobs at the newly formed Disability Rights Commission which was set up to implement the DDA. The Disability Rights Commission itself is now gone with the 'mainstreaming of disability and all other equality group issues being overseen by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The EHRC has seen funds decimated over the past four years damaging any effectiveness it had.

Many of the punitive 'reforms' we are experiencing in the UK have been imported from the US. For example workfare: A work program imposed on unemployed and disabled people through contracts to private companies where individuals are forced to work without pay or face sanctions- incredibly although non-disabled people have an imposed time limit for this , disabled people do not -meaning they could spend forever working for free.  We have previously mentioned Unum insurance who were brought in to increase the private insurance market and aid the dismantling of the UK welfare state. So we see that, despite the fact that people who have paid national insurance most of their life to cover them for illness, disability, unemployment when these things  happen -they are subject to a range of punitive tests and assessments which can deny them any support at all via state social insurance frameworks.

The push is to move us to a US private insurance culture in particular for disabled people. We know disabled people in the US who work principally to be able to pay their insurance, but what happens to those who cannot work?

We are also seeing the dismantling of our National Health Service(NHS) This was built on the principle that health care should be free to all at the point of delivery based on need. The NHS is being taken over by private companies who look for the most profitable aspects of the service, take contracts and are paid with public funds. The end result of this is that health care will be provided , if at all, on ability to pay not on need.

So there are now many similarities between the US and UK were previously there were few. We didn't have a perfect system, but the support that was available has now been decimated. We are also seeing an increase in hate crimes against disabled people due to the rhetoric of Government against disabled people. This can be summed up best through the words of Anne Rea a veteran advocate for disabled peoples' rights.

Over a period of 40-odd years, disabled people have worked together, nationally, as a  body, to achieve parity in this society we live in.

We concluded that disabling barriers to our full inclusion is society were  =inaccessible housing, inaccessible environments,  inaccessible public buildings, inaccessible public transport, inaccessible mainstream education, inaccessible workplaces, the widespread institutionalisation of disabled people requiring 24 hour  personal support, inaccessible housing, and abject poverty.

We also had to address the contorted, subversive cultural contributory factors resulting in overt prejudice and discrimination. To cut to the chase, through blood, sweat and, yes, tears, we overcame all these barriers to a larger rather than lesser, extent. And we became strong,self confident people who understood very clearly  that we had the right to be accepted as equal citizens in  our own society. This Government has systematically, and quite deliberately, attacked all these gains, and in a way so pernicious as to be despicable, has ruthlessly demonised us as a feckless, workshy group of people, more or less solely responsible for every financial deficit, justify swingeing cuts in benefits, the imposition of the Bedroom Tax, and the dreadful, dreadful threat of the reinstutionalisation of disabled people with high personal support needs. 

It’s this that DPAC fights against, and it’s this that drives us to carry on without funds to right the wrongs that have been imposed on us over the past four years.

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