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Not being silenced: Changing attitudes to disability

Updated Thursday, 14th December 2006

Disabled people have spent over a century fighting for the rights others take for granted.

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Elly and Kelvin from Nobody's Normal Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Nobody's Normal followed Kathy moving out of her parents' home to start to live independently, and Ellie and Kelvin as they planned their wedding. In both cases, they were carefully listened to by their parents and their key workers.

However, the right to be listened to, to live independently, to have sexual relationships and to be paid properly for work have had to be fought for by disabled people and those campaigning in solidarity with them.

Institutional 'care'
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, disability legislation was introduced to separate disabled people into institutions.

The motivations behind this were associated with eugenics, which sought to stop disabled people having children. People placed in institutions had very little choice over how to live their lives. Most lived in dormitories, and many had had to work very hard. Gloria Ferris and Mabel Cooper experienced this life, and they tell their stories as part of the Open Univerisity's Life Stories project

Community care and self-advocacy
In 1959 the Mental Health Act was passed, paving the way for the closure of institutions and the beginnings of what was called 'community care'.

This meant people living in smaller institutions, or living with their parents, going to work, being trained for work or attending day centres. Being listened to was sometimes a struggle, and people still had very little choice over where they lived and what they did during the day. Some remember Day Centres fondly, others prefer daily life since their day centres have closed.

More recently self-advocacy campaigns and organisations such as the Disability Rights Commission, local People First groups and Change have fought for disabled people's diverse voices to be heard in the development of services and new legislation.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination and requires all services – like shops, theatres and swimming pools – to make 'reasonable adjustments' so they can be used by disabled people. Disabled people, however, are still having to fight what counts as 'reasonable'.

The 2001 Valuing People white paper was produced in consultation with a range of learning disability advocacy groups. Valuing People is being implemented, meaning day services for all disabled people now aim to be tailored to the individual: some go to college or have a job, others go to coffee mornings or get involved in local history. Pat Hall, Sandra Lainson, Lorraine Murphy and Olwen Ryan, who attend the Peter Sylvester Resource Base in Croydon, say it's really good to "go out more".

However, Valuing People did not come with extra cash and there is still an ongoing struggle between what individual disabled people want and the resources necessary to realise their desires.

Some, like Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan have also questioned the emphasis in Government policy on 'choice' and 'independence' as ideological aspects of 'neo-liberal' consumer capitalism.

Listening harder: From independence to interdependencies?
In the early part of the twentieth century, people had no choice and were made dependent on institutions. At the beginning of the twenty-first century 'choice' and 'independence' are the values driving Labour's social care policies. Much of this is good, but hearing what disabled people have to say might also point to a more caring vision for society which embraces the way we all depend on each other: what Lynn Rivas calls our mutual 'interdependencies'.

Representing Disability
Mabel Cooper, writing in 2005, argued "museums don't have the information about our lives. So if we don't talk about it, people will never know".

Disabled history is either missing or often presented to evoke pity, an emotion from able-bodied people that disabled people have long rejected.

Recently museums have started to try and respond to Mabel's challenge. The Museum of Croydon is hosting a new exhibition of oral histories by Mabel Cooper and Madeleine Gardiner, celebrating achievements at Croydon College and a love of music.

Also, a major project is bringing together the University of Leicester and ten museums, all working to display their disability collections in a new light.

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