Smart funding, social change and 20 years of the DDA

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). Although this wasn’t the civil rights legislation that disabled activists had been campaigning for, the Act was a very important milestone. Racial and gender equality had long been enshrined in British law. Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand had laws proscribing discrimination against disabled people, but in Britain prior to 1995 it was legal to discriminate and exclude on the basis of disability, and policy makers were refusing to recognise the discrimination facing disabled people. Several attempts to get anti-discrimination legislation on to the statute books were thwarted in the 1980s and early 1990s. Ironically,1983-1993 was the UN decade of disabled people.

Unquestionably the DDA came about as the result of the determination of disabled people and their organisations and the emergence of a confident movement demanding social justice. It was their achievement, but there were also allies supporting their efforts. Working for an ally that made a valuable contribution to building the movement has been one of the greatest privileges of many years’ work in grant-making.  The experience taught how smart giving can oil the wheels of social change.

In 1992 I was working for Charity Projects (now Comic Relief). In the UK we funded work with older people and with young people in the fields of homelessness, alcohol and drugs misuse, and disability.  Our Disability programme was typical of the time. It mostly funded organisations in which beneficiaries did not have a say, and in which disabled people were viewed as in need of charity, medical treatment or social protection. But matters came to a head when, at the insistence of two Disabled activists who joined our grants committee, the programme was reviewed with the help of a Disabled consultant.

The outcome of the review was simple, but it was to have far reaching consequences.  We were only to fund organisations controlled by Disabled people or those working to become user-led.  

This was a radical departure that affirmed Disabled people as citizens with rights, and sent a clear message that we wanted to resource social mobilisation by organisations controlled by Disabled people. Why had it not occurred to us that, like any other oppressed groups, Disabled people should be running their own organisations? We had long accepted that women should lead the struggle for women’s equality and that black people should drive demands for racial justice.

After the review, lots of grants made grassroots organising possible. The significance of people coming together with peers to find common ground, cannot be underestimated. Just as feminist consciousness grew out of women coming together to realise that the personal is political, a new sense of personal and collective empowerment emerged from the coming together of disabled people.  The “social model”- which reframes disability as a social construct – the product of a disabling environment/society rather than resulting from medical limitations- turned people’s energies outwards to build what later became a formidable movement.

There were a handful of funder allies supporting this movement. One was the Platinum Trust, whose anonymous benefactor we all suspected (and later discovered) was George Michael, the pop star. Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust and Charity Projects funded the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People to research the extent of discrimination encountered by disabled people. Their resulting publication Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination provided conclusive evidence for the case for change.  Opponents of anti-discrimination legislation had to accept the facts.

Deaf and Disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) have achieved further important advances towards the goal of equality in the past 20 years. However, austerity policies and welfare reform have locked nearly half of this population (6.9 million) in poverty, undermining rights to independent living, to work, and to adequate living standards.  It is not solely that minimum safety nets are no longer available, austerity measures are “grave and systematic violations of disabled people's rights” as identified in the most recent review of how our government is discharging its duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At the same time, cutbacks have reduced the number and the capacity of DDPOs to help people affected by these policies and to carry out collective advocacy.

Undoubtedly, a renewed emphasis on resourcing DDPOs to champion disabled people’s rights is desperately needed. Strengthening Voices Realising Rights is an initiative of Trust for London run in partnership with City Bridge Trust to bolster the capacity of DDPOs to champion these rights. The initiative’s first phase is funding DDPOs to offer advice, and casework to support Deaf and Disabled Londoners in obtaining their entitlements. It is also investing in technical support to strengthen grantees’ impact, effectiveness, and ability to collaborate. We are working to live up to the “nothing about us, without us” principles: Deaf and Disabled people are informing strategy, programmatic approach and funding decisions. Grantees, providers of capacity building, learning partners and advisers, all identify as Deaf and/or Disabled. Working with Deaf and Disabled people this way has been an amazing power sharing experience.

The DDA came about as the result of a strong, connected user-led social movement. At Trust for London we have a strong conviction that it is possible to invest strategically in those challenging structural inequalities and thereby to affect the course of change. Phase two of Strengthening Voices Realising Rights will fund policy, advocacy and campaigning work. As Deaf and Disabled people continue to face a regression of their hard fought-for rights, and with fewer user-led organisations with staff capacity and resources to speak “truth to power’, the need for a renewed emphasis on Disabled people’s rights is becoming urgent. But more funding allies and more resources are needed to make a significant difference. Phase 2 of this Initiative will go live in April 2020. Interested in joining us?