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A history of the disabled people’s movement highlights its historical successes, as well as showing how and why a new fightback is needed, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Judy Hunt, No Limits. The Disabled People’s Movement: A Radical History (TBR Imprint 2019), 270pp.

At the London Paralympic Games in 2012, the then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that Britain was a ‘trailblazer for disability rights.’[1] The bitter irony of this speech, given at the same time as the Tories were embarking on an austerity programme that would hit disabled people nine times harder than average, has been widely noted. What is less often noted is the extent to which those disability rights were the product not of the benevolence of government or society, but of organisation and campaigning by disabled people themselves.

In No Limits, Judy Hunt recovers the history of the disabled people’s movement, showing how disabled people organised themselves against ‘the challenge of an inaccessible society’ and achieved significant gains. As she points out, ‘society has been forced to recognise disabled people as full citizens with the same rights as anyone to participate in the mainstream’ (p.13).[2] The effects of this which are probably most apparent to the able-bodied are adaptions to the built environment, like ramps, wheelchair-accessible toilets, textured pavements, Braille buttons at pedestrian crossings and so on. These were important advances which play a part in enabling disabled people to be part of society and were often achieved by direct campaigning. The extent to which public transport is accessible to disabled people, for example, is a consequence of direct-action campaigning when, for example, disabled people chained themselves to inaccessible buses.


These sorts of adaptions to the physical environment were only a part of what was achieved by the disabled people’s movement. For many, the experience of being disabled in the early and mid-twentieth century was of being deprived of any rights to decide where and how you would live. Hunt quotes Maggie Davis, who became disabled after an accident:

‘I was in an institution at Stoke Mandeville after my accident and I knew something was desperately wrong. I knew that I didn’t have rights that other people had; i.e. able-bodied people, but I couldn’t figure out quite what it was all about. And I couldn’t see why. I mean, being able-bodied before, I couldn’t see why I just couldn’t go back into society and have a flat and have somebody to help me and get a job. I actually presumed that this is what I would be able to do, and I must admit I had a very rude awakening when there was nowhere to go, nobody would take me back in the job I had before, and there just wasn’t any help in the community’ (p.27).

In the years after the Second World War, disabled people who were unable to live independently without support found themselves stuck in hospital chronic wards. Hunt quotes an example of a sixteen-year old who was sent to live in a geriatric ward in 1943 and who was told on arrival that ‘as I couldn’t walk, I would have to stay in bed permanently’ (p.28).Young disabled people in this situation were often ‘entirely cut off from the outside world and were destined to remain so…experiencing boredom and extreme unhappiness from being in constant association with people who were very old, deaf and senile’ (p.29).

The establishment of the NHS provided a framework for examining whether more suitable arrangements could be found for people who were physically disabled, not ill, and who therefore did not belong in hospital. At the same time, the development of the welfare state encouraged a view that disabled people should be cared for by the state rather than in their individual families, so relatives were sometimes being advised to give their disabled spouses or children to professional care. The result was the development of a range of services for disabled people by health and welfare authorities and charities, such as special schools, day centres and residential institutions.

The institutions were an improvement on chronic or geriatric hospital wards and only ever housed a minority of disabled people. They were however emblematic of an official approach to disabled people as a group to be segregated from mainstream society. They also continued to see disabled people as recipients of care to be controlled, rather than as people with rights. Hunt has personal experience of residential institutions, as she went to work at the first home set up by the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, Le Court, in 1960. It was there that she met and later married Paul Hunt, a resident at Le Court since the age of nineteen who became a prominent disability activist and writer and founder of the Union for the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS).

Against Segregation

The struggles of the residents of Le Court against the home’s management were ‘regarding restrictions on bed-times, getting-up times, about their freedoms to go out, drink alcohol, remove clothing when sunbathing along with a range of other petty and arbitrary changes to daily life routines. Rules were constantly being made without consultation, and later overthrown,’ as Paul Hunt recorded at the time (p.32). Taken together, though, they were about disabled people’s rights to control their own lives.

The self-organisation of the residents of Le Court spread to other homes and became part of the basis of the disabled people’s movement. Hunt makes clear that within the movement, views of the nature of disability were always contested. It was however from within these struggles that the view of disabled people as an oppressed minority emerged, shown for example by Stigma, an important collection of essays edited by Paul Hunt in 1966.

This was also the context for the development of the social-model interpretation of disability by Paul Hunt and Vic Finkelstein. This held that while individuals may have physical or mental impairments, they are disabled not by those impairments but by the way in which society is constructed to exclude them. Thus, for example, the built environment in the UK is largely constructed around the assumption that adults are roughly between five-foot and six-foot five-inches tall. This disables people who are much less or more than that, in the same way that a built environment constructed for people eight-feet tall would disable those who we think of as being of ‘normal’ height.

This understanding of disability affects how disabled people should be described. Some disabled people’s organisations, such as the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities, promoted ‘people with disabilities’ as the preferred phrase, as is often used today to avoid defining individuals by their disability. UPIAS on the other hand, fought for people to be described as disabled people, as a recognition that their disability was not part of their physical or mental make-up but something that was done to them.

Impact of industrialisation

The recognition that people with impairments were disabled by society was not a condemnation of human society per se, but the identification of a particular consequence of capitalism and industrialisation. As Vic Finkelstein pointed out, before the Industrial Revolution, when production was based in the household, people with a range of impairments could still contribute and were therefore not functionally disabled in the same way as they would have been in modern society. Once being economically active meant going out to work in a factory, office, mine etc, this excluded people with physical or mental impairments. The effect of this was therefore to disable them and make them reliant on others for support.

This removal of disabled people from society also meant that the built environment constructed over the last two centuries was constructed in the absence of people with impairments. Offices, libraries and stations were built without level access, doors wide enough for wheelchairs and so on, because at the time, it was assumed that disabled people would not be needing to use them.

As Hunt explains, the work of UPIAS in recognising the reality of this process was particularly important because it was little understood even by disabled people themselves:

‘What UPIAS had done was to tear away a mask of false consciousness, built up over the generations. It had started to expose the real situation, which was that disabled people had been systematically forced out of the labour market by industrialisation…The relationship between the cause and effect, that produced both segregation and social exclusion, had, over the years, become shrouded in mystery and blurred by the appearance of charitable concern and social paternalism. The real relationship was no longer visible to disabled people, nor to professionals or legislators. Instead it had come to be accepted that physical impairments made it impossible for many to work, live in the family home, use public transport, or take their place within the community’ (pp.116-7).

One of the key concerns for Paul Hunt and UPIAS was that disabled people should be independent. The loss of independence that often accompanied disability was not in this view an intrinsic consequence of impairment but caused by how society treated that impairment and made it disabling:

‘The logical way out of this situation was for disabled people to become active agents of social change. Hunt believed disabled people had to be the ones making the decisions about how to increase their opportunities for social participation. Anything that set out to emphasise or promote the dependency of disabled people was to be resisted’ (p.106).

This meant, for example, that Hunt opposed the idea that people should receive benefits according to their degree of impairment, which he regarded as demeaning and encouraging dependence. Instead, he favoured a set payment for each broad category of impairment, as in workers’ compensation claims.

Neoliberalism and austerity

As the Thatcher government in the 1980s began to cut funding for welfare and to close institutions, many, following this view, saw care in the community as a positive step away from dependence. A system in which disabled people were provided with funding to source and pay for their own care also held out the promise that they could therefore be in control of deciding what services they wanted, rather than being told by others what they needed. The problem, however, was that disabled people’s position as independent purchasers of care then left them vulnerable to the effect of cuts:

‘Once people were responsible for arranging their own personal care, both direct payment users, and workers, faced the increasing prospect of becoming more isolated from others. It then became much easier for the central and local state to adjust funding levels and eligibility criteria downwards, as welfare provision became more restrictive’ (p.188).

The result was then that financial pressures reduced the time available for care and the choice of what care was needed, leaving disabled people facing the same sorts of restrictions on when they could get up, eat, bathe and so on that many had fought in residential institutions.

Hunt echoes other writers on disability such as Frances Ryan in noting that the austerity of the past decade threatens to return British society to a nineteenth-century, pre-Welfare State model, where anyone with impairment would be dependent and reliant on charity. This is a question, as is often said, of what sort of society we want to be. As Ryan has commented, ‘a society that is content to see wheelchair users queuing at food banks has…abandoned its basic humanity.’[3]

Disabled people’s lives do indeed depend on a fightback. The most important lesson from Hunt’s impressive history of the disabled people’s movement is however that this cannot be a fightback done for disabled people by others. That would be to impose another sort of dependence. While it is everyone’s business to fight against oppression, the resistance to the effect of austerity on disabled people’s lives has to be led by disabled people themselves. What is needed, Hunt concludes, is a ‘re-invigorated disabled people’s movement’ (p.229). The roots of this are there in groups like Disabled People Against the Cuts, which has been fighting the imposition of austerity on disabled people since 2014. The challenge now is to build from the important work already being done to achieve successes on a par with those of the disabled people’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe then, as Hunt says, ‘we could start to envisage a time when no limits are imposed on our potential’ (p.229).


[1] Frances Ryan, Crippled. Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People (Verso Books, London 2019), p.2.

[2] All page references are to the page as numbered by the pdf edition.

[3] Ryan, Crippled, p.200.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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