Bob Williams-Findlay’s account of a lifetime’s involvement in the disabled people’s movement and left activism impresses fellow campaigner, Judy Hunt
By anyone’s standards this is a book about a life lived to the full and one of extraordinary breadth. The reader is taken on a journey of discovery as Bob takes us into his varied worlds; of growing up with a physical impairment in the 1950s, attending segregated education in the 1960s, participating in turbulent student politics in the 1970s and there-on to a career of wide-ranging struggles in the disabled people’s movement. For Bob, the personal is political becomes the story of his life.
When talking about his early life, Bob writes in an easy story-telling style full of affection and humour: introducing us to him as an outgoing character with bags of personality and bravado. Bob brings his school days alive with stories of friendships, awakening interest in girls and incidents of prudish, prejudiced and sometimes cruel behaviour by some of the staff. As time passes his sensitivity to unfairness and inequality grows. After the sixth form, not knowing what he wants to do and determined not to return to his parents, he applies to Oakwood college for disabled students. There, football and friendships feature large but also exploratory discussions about society. He starts questioning his experience of the world living with an impairment.
Leaving Oakwood, he faces a paradox. He wants to enter the mainstream, but he says:
‘… Once on the outside of the “disabled” world, which had appeared “normal”, I was confronted by the world of “normal” persons and, subsequently, found myself to be “disabled”’ (p.135).
He had nowhere to live and Bernard Brett, a disabled man, took him ‘under his wing’. Bernard was inspirational, active and involved in community politics around housing and disability. This base became an important launchpad for Bob. It was the beginning of his transition into the mainstream.
In 1972 he heard of Paul Hunt’s intention to start a national consumer group to put forward the views of actual or potential residents of institutions, and he travelled to London to meet Paul (and myself). He says:
‘My meeting with Paul Hunt was the first of two meetings … which were to change the nature of my life. … Talking for a couple of hours sat in Paul’s kitchen made me feel as if a huge weight had been lifted off my back … I was talking to someone who understood the issues that had plagued me … someone who had the full grasp of the fact that disability was indeed a political question’ (p.124).
Bob initially joined in the early discussions started by Paul Hunt that resulted in The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), but he didn’t stay long enough to see it to its formal foundation.
Through a range of experiences, Bob became interested in questions of disablism and identity, internal and external forms of oppression, and the social construct of the disabled identity. He talks about how the impaired body becomes a site of struggle because at the same time it’s the site of oppression. He explores this subject in some depth.
Back in Essex he met some university students in the local pub. They were so impressed by the quality of his poetry that they suggested he was capable of doing a degree and encouraged him to talk to the University. He didn’t have the A-levels, but Essex University was willing to take him on if he wrote some preparatory entry essays for them. And so, his university life began.
Attending university in 1973 was hard going initially but it wasn’t long before he was embroiled in student politics. In time he joined IMG, enjoyed the student music scene and being included as part of the student group. There were few other disabled students there and no specific support systems in place: it was down to the individual to negotiate their way through disabling barriers.
Essex University was at that time associated with left-wing militancy and Bob became involved in internal and external campaigns. He was reading Marxist literature and literature on a whole range of political issues from racism to revolutionary struggles in South America. He attended various protests including the National Abortion Campaign, and the Troops Out Movement, but the big one came with the Troubles at Essex University. These resulted in demonstrations, lecture boycotts, pickets and student occupations. There were arrests with students charged by the police and expelled by the university. Bob was in the thick of it, a big risk taker, and at times taking leading roles in campaigns. This section of the book reads like a race through non-stop actions, as the students present their range of demands, and revolt with increasing rigour against unrelenting authorities.
Bob graduated in 1976 with a second-class honours degree and continued to study for an MA. But, once again when protests erupted, he became involved and this time was arrested, charged and expelled before finishing the MA. He moved to Birmingham and entered the next phase of his political and working career.
The disabled people’s movement
The next significant event is when Bob meets up with the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities. He says:
‘… I realised I was with a group of people I could readily identify with, not simply because of the fact we all had impairments but rather due to shared experience of what I now call social oppression. It was the moment I discovered who I really was and wanted to be’ (p.253).
From there on, Bob became heavily involved in the developing disabled people’s movement, locally and nationally. He initiated the setting up of the Birmingham Disability Rights Group, became a Disability Equality Trainer, and in due course took a turn chairing the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP). This became another era of hectic political activity. Following the campaigns for Anti Disability Discrimination Legislation, differences emerged within the movement and Bob found himself pushed aside. He found the Disability Arts Movement, and as a man of literary ability, put his hand to play writing on disability related themes.
Finally, post 2009, we enter the period of austerity and the disability movement is in disarray. Bob once again enters the fray by becoming a co-founder of a new network - Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which sets out to take up the fight again in what he calls ‘The Wilderness Years’.
I leave the last words to Bob:
‘What I’ve come to understand is that the personal is political. I therefore embrace the political identity of being a disabled person and all the implications I’ve spoken about during the writing of this book’ (pp.352-3).
I recommend More Than a Left Foot by Bob Williams-Findlay, to anyone wanting to understand more about disability.
Judy Hunt is author of No Limits. The Disabled People's Movement: A Radical History (TBR Imprint 2019).
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