The town of Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey and its surrounding neighbourhoods is a community blessed by a rich, diverse and fascinating heritage, with much of the area’s history being relevant to Britain’s wider past and, thus, its impact on present-day society is hugely significant. One shining example of this is how residents of the Kingston Borough played a key role in the development of the disability rights movement in Britain.
In 1967, a local organisation called the ‘Kingston Association for Disabled People’ was set up to enable people with disabilities who lived in the Borough to campaign for greater independence and, fundamentally, to be able to receive the right support so that they could take control of their own lives. The organisation was also created to empower people with disabilities to have a voice. It was renamed as ‘Kingston Centre for Independent Living’ (KCIL) in 2001. Significantly, from a historical perspective, the formation of KCIL locally reflected the growing influence of campaigns for disability rights nationally. The first noteworthy piece of disability legislation in Britain was the 1944 Disability Employment Act, which introduced into law the idea of ‘reserved occupations’, where certain, albeit relatively low-key, jobs were set aside exclusively for people with disabilities so that their morale could be boosted.
The creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 under Clement Attlee’s Labour government provided an essential foundation for disabled people, particularly those on low incomes, to gain better quality health care. The NHS extended rehabilitation services to people who became disabled following industrial accidents, not only servicemen and women.
In terms of social attitudes towards people with disabilities, progress towards an equal future was gradual but significant. Inspired by the civil rights movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and also by U.S. disability rights protests (see photo), disabled people in Britain were greatly motivated to take direct action against discrimination, poor access for wheelchair users and broad inequality. New theories about how to achieve greater inclusion and community cohesion took precedence during the late Twentieth Century.
The ‘social model’ of disability argued that people with disabilities faced immense barriers to equality because society itself restricted disabled people from achieving was a direct critique of the previous ‘medical model’ which claimed that the problems disabled people faced were essentially ‘their own fault’. The social model of disability continues to be incredibly influential in Britain and across the world, helping environments to become adapted so that everyone can be part of a more inclusive society.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the most substantial legislative achievements for people with disabilities in Britain. Grassroots, user-led organisations such as KCIL played an instrumental role in challenging both the government and society as a whole to view the disability community in a much more holistic, compassionate and inclusive way. The 1981 Education Act paved the way for children with ‘special needs’ (an emerging term of vocabulary at the time, which reflected this new change in direction) to become more integrated into mainstream education, with extra support, if desired, by their families.
In the same year, the inhumane Victorian system of asylums, which were built and provided by the state from 1815 as a form of institution to separate those with mental health or learning disabilities away from society, were finally abolished. As a result, tens of thousands of people left the asylums and moved into their own communities to be supported. In addition, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal, of direct payments was not as efficient as initially and was an important step forward in the ongoing campaign for full disability rights in Britain.
Consequently, the role that KCIL played in actively campaigning for greater social and economic justice for people with disabilities locally also influenced progressive change nationally. KCIL also successfully lobbied Kingston Borough Council to establish an independent living scheme which became one of the first of its kind in the UK. The introduction of ‘direct payments’, a form of welfare whereby local authorities provide cash payments directly to disabled people so that they can pay for support themselves, was made available to all eligible people who requested them by a mandatory duty on local councils in 2003 under New Labour. A 2005 article published in the academic journal Social Policy and Society acknowledged that the uptake of direct payments was not as efficient as initially expected, but nonetheless the authors concluded that ‘direct payments have the potential to make a major contribution to social justice for disabled people by enabling the principles of independent living to be put into practice’.
In 2017, KCIL collaborated with disabled people and those working with the disability community to collect stories regarding disability rights in the Kingston Borough.
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project involved conducting oral history interviews with 23 prominent local people to celebrate this fascinating history. The interviews form part of Kingston Heritage Service’s permanent archive and can all be accessed via http://www.kingstonfightingforourrights.co.uk/
Overall, as someone who is on the Autism Spectrum, I know all too well that the struggle to achieve a fully inclusive and just society for people with disabilities is far from complete. However, it is the work of KCIL and many other grassroots organisations across Britain who have helped to attain substantial social reform for the wider disability community. Hopefully, innovative projects such as ‘Fighting for our Rights’ will help to inspire future generations of disability campaigners to achieve more progressive change.
Joe Fautley is currently studying for an MA in History at Kingston University. He volunteered to help researchers on the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project during the summer of 2017.
More information about the ‘Fighting for Our Rights’ project is on public display at Kingston Museum from now until 22nd February, 2018.
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)