Article: ‘The Politics of Independent Living – Keeping the Movement Radical’ by Ken Davis (1984)
Celebrating UPIAS’s 50th Anniversary: Part 2
About the series:
The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) formed in September 1972, after Paul Hunt wrote letters to different newspapers and magazines asking disabled people to help set up a new organisation.
Hunt first suggested that this should be a ‘consumer group’ to look at the different kinds of support disabled people were getting and decide which gave them the most control over their lives. UPIAS quickly became much more than that. The group brought together disabled people who were sick of being let down by poor housing, segregated education, campaigns about ‘disability’ that were led by non-disabled people, and new kinds of ‘help’ from charities and governments that didn’t bother to ask them what they needed or wanted.
They decided that they needed to get to the bottom of why disabled people got such a bad deal: why were they so often poor?; why were physical buildings and public space built in a way that shut them out?; why were they kept separated from non-disabled people in special Homes, hospitals, clubs, and transport?; why did non-disabled people think they had a right to make decisions about their lives?
During these discussions, UPIAS members realised that this inequality had nothing to do with their bodies or minds being different to anyone else’s. With the state of technology and know-how in the 1970s, there was no reason why a wheelchair user, a blind person, someone with no hearing, a pain condition, etc, couldn’t get a job, an appropriate house adapted, or use public transport if it was adapted for their mobility needs. This meant that there is a difference between an impairment – a person’s body or mind being different to other people’s – and their disability – the fact that society is designed in such a way that they are stopped from doing what other people do.
This idea, which was later called the ‘social model of disability’, inspired the Disabled People’s Movement in Britain and worldwide. UPIAS members understood that the only way to change their exclusion was to change society, and that only disabled people could see what changes needed to be made. They brought the idea to their local work, setting up Coalitions and Centres for Integrated Living, and made the idea national when they helped form the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP). Through BCODP, the social model went global, when British delegates convinced members of the Disabled People’s International of their analysis in the early 1980s.
Despite these achievements, a lot of articles written by UPIAS members have been out of print for decades. To celebrate UPIAS’s influence on us as disabled activists, we will be publishing articles by UPIAS members each week for the next two months to help activists today better understand our history. Each article will be free to download, with large print and easier-to-read versions alongside a text only, screen-reader friendly version of the original.
The DPA are delighted to publish an article by Ken Davis, an early member of UPIAS and one of the founders of the Derbyshire Coalition of Disabled and the Derbyshire Centre for Integrated Living. Ken and his partner Maggie Hines (later Davis) had helped to start independent living projects in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the ‘70s and ‘80s; working with other disabled people and local councils and housing associations to work out how normal flats and bungalows could be adapted so that disabled people could live in them and finding new ways for tenants to get the support they need without having to go into a care home.
During the International Year of Disabled People in 1981, Ken and Maggie were able to get disabled activists across Derbyshire together into one group – the Coalition – and to persuade the County Council that disabled people had a right to be consulted on all the state services they used. A few years later, this understanding created Britain’s first Centre for Integrated Living (CIL). The idea was simple, but revolutionary: workers and volunteers from the CIL met with local people around the county and asked them what they needed to have more control over their lives. Then, the CIL would design a service with the council which gave them what they needed. This was the first time in Britain that disabled people in a local area had a real say over what local government’s gave them, and it flew in the face of the usual way of working where charities, academics, professionals and governments made all the decisions between them.
Not everyone was happy though. This way of doing things brought disabled people to the centre of how local services work; but it cut out the charities, researchers, and academics. Academics, in particular, were openly critical of schemes around the world to base services around disabled people. In this article, Ken Davis deals with one example of what he calls the academic ‘reaction’ – Gareth Williams’ attack on the Independent Living Movement in America. Davis argues that academic critiques of disabled people’s demands for more freedom over their lives are not based on objective fact or careful, scientific reasoning; but are a wholly political attempt to side-line disabled people and restore professional dominance.
This article was first published in Derbyshire Coalition of Disabled People News in 1984. The version we have used for transcription comes the UPIAS Members’ Pack – a collection of articles the Union sent to all members to explain the organisation’s views and analysis.
Links to read these are below: