Bittersweet birthday for landmark disability law

“Laws are all very well, but it’s people’s attitudes that need to change.” This comment from actor and Mencap ambassador Sarah Gordy pretty well sums up opinions about the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995.

The act, 20 years old this autumn, was regarded as weaker than hoped for by campaigners – not least because its ideals were hard to enforce – and it was replaced by the Equality Act 2010 combining all anti-discrimination legislation under one law.

Back in 1995, beginning my working life, I remember talk and action relating to the most visible aspects of the new law – the installation of ramps in the workplace, for example, and accessibility on public transport.

But while such physical impact of the landmark law may be easy to spot in terms of the act’s legacy, what of the law’s less tangible elements, such as cultural attitudes to disability? Then there are the current welfare reforms and austerity measures that threaten to undermine the progress of anti-discrimination legislation and human rights.

Recent research, such as a report by Demos and Scope, Destination Unknown, outlines the disproportionate effect on disabled people of cuts to benefits including Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Employment and Support Allowance and housing benefit. Other reforms include the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and changes to unemployment benefit.

Speaking to disability campaigners and activities for a Guardian piece recently was a good litmus test for the act’s legacy. For example, Debbie Domb, of Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Organisations Network, “welfare cuts are pushing us further out of sight to the margins of society”. Activist Wendy Perez of LDA (Learning Disability Alliance) England says disabled people are now “treated like scroungers and as people who just take”: “In the last few years it feels like things have gone backwards. There used to be a lot of hope; but now it feels like hope is gone.”

As mental health campaigner Lol Butterfield, who has blogged on this site, says: “The Disability Discrimination Act has provided protection and support for people experiencing mental health conditions but we can never become complacent. We must always be reviewing its use and strength in these times of discrimination against the mentally ill. I have witnessed many positive changes within mental health services and society over all these years. But sadly we still have a long way to go.”

Baroness Jane Campbell, crossbench peer, disability rights campaigner, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Disability Group, adds: “I was extremely privileged to be part of shaping and helping implement the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This brought rights into disabled peoples’ lives, gradually replacing the culture of welfare and charity. Sadly, the momentum was never maintained as we had dreamed.

For Clenton Farquharson, disability and equality campaigner and director of community interest company Community Navigator Services, the DDA meant suddenly he was not longer invisible: “I had a right to be noticed…But 20 years on, sadly, there is still no monitoring or enforcing of the Act, leaving us to fight as individuals for our legal rights — and that is a daunting, expensive, and dispiriting process.”

The DDA still symbolises a turning point for disability rights but while it was launched in a hopeful fanfare, two decades on for many people, the legislation rings hollow.

About Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.
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