After just two years in existence, the Disability Rights
Commission (DRC) faces being merged with the equality organisations
for gender and race. The government has announced that, after
consultations, it is considering creating a single equality body
for racial, sexual and disabled discrimination (see panel this
But disability campaigners fear that the protection and
promotion of the rights of disabled people will be marginalised by
issues with a higher political priority or that exert greater
Yet on the face of it, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
has provided greater protection in employment and rights for access
to services. And the DRC has supported 4,000 people who have made
complaints under the act and has brought 150 legal actions.
This week the commission has called for a radical shake-up of
the act so that it would be harder for employers to justify
discrimination and to improve access to business premises and
However, commission chairperson Bert Massie is concerned about
the proposals for a merger.
“Disabled people fought for many years to establish enforceable
rights – these began to come into force only five years ago and
many remain to be implemented,” he says.
“We must ensure that disabled people’s voices continue to be
heard and their rights enforced.”
Massie says that the new commission should only be introduced
after a new single equality act implements a common set of rights
But the commission is accused by some activists of spending too
much effort negotiating rather than pushing for tougher
legislation, taking aggressive enforcement action or campaigning to
improve the rights of disabled people.
It is also accused of failing to push vigorously enough on
behalf of disabled people because of attempts to appease the
concerns of businesses.
Britain’s 8.5 million strong disability lobby should be a
powerful economic and political force for change. But there is
growing anger among activists that there is still little political
or public awareness of disability issues.
Many believe that only way to speed-up the pace of change is for
greater activism by disabled people rather than a continuing
reliance on the statutory and voluntary groups.
Professor Colin Davies, founder of the centre for disability
studies at Leeds University, said: “Over the past 40 years the
image of disability has been transformed by activities of disabled
people rather than paternalistic organisations.
“There has been progress but we started from such a low base
that there is still so much to do. We must remember that only 50
years ago disabled people were still be locked away.”
Although the notion of disability rights has now been adopted by
the political mainstream there is a growing feeling that the agenda
has been watered down.
“The government has taken in the language – but there is a still
a long way to go in implementing the policies,” said Davies.
“There has been a shift in public attitudes but if you look at
the figures for employment or the number of disabled people in
special schools they are not that different from 20 years ago.”
Local disabled rights groups have achieved success in areas such
as personal care, living allowances and transport. But the enormous
amount of time required on local issues and limited funding means
little of this success has been translated to the national
“I think we are heading for a summer of disillusion but it is
time for disabled people to take hold of the agenda,” said
Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action and
chairperson of Rights Now, says: “Disability is now seen as a
rights issue and that has been an enormous step forward. But from
where I sit there is an increasing public repugnance and distaste
in all that is entailed with being a disabled person.
“We now seem to have this idea in society that you should
eliminate people because you can not bear to watch them suffer
rather than to do something which makes their lives better.”
Despite the rhetoric there is a feeling that politicians and
civil servants still see disabled people as being different from
the rest of humanity – requiring special care, buses and buildings,
Providing accessible buildings and transport or arranging
personal care is still largely seen as a burden rather than a
fundamental right that benefits society as a whole.
“We have a government that does not understand disablism and
does not understand institutional disablism in the way that they
understand institutional racism and sexism.
“I hope that after a summer of disillusion that the bile will
start to rise and that we see a winter of action,” says Hurst.
l Centre for Disability Studies is at