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  • Writer's pictureDaisy Holder

The Law According to Disabled People (in the UK)

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

I've decided to write a few quick primers to disability history, as I haven't written anything here for a while since I've been working on other things (I'm in a magazine!) and I'm considering a future for my disability history research in potentially a different, more accessible method.

(Answers on a postcard please, I'm considering a project of sorts, potentially with podcast, zine, some written bits and youtube?)

Sounds like a lot right? But it's a very varied subject and some stuff will work better with different mediums. Besides, with a mix of all there should be an option everyone finds accessible to any impairment needs. Of course every podcast would have a transcript, ever zine would have image descriptions and every video would have captions, but any further ideas, or anything you're interested in helping with hmu.


Here I am bringing you an overview of the history of disability legislation in the UK, particularly regarding civil rights for disabled people.

I sometimes forget to cover things like this as they're more recent history and I generally assume someone else has done it better, but nevertheless here we go.

"the new poor law, with a description of the new workhouse. look at the picture- see". The picture shows a cartoon of imprisonment, forced labour and corporal punishment
A poster responding to the new Poor Laws

Theoretically I could start this round up with the dissolution of the monasteries and the first of the Poor Laws (the first of its sort being the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers, the more common ones we know of being brought in the 16th Century, during the reign of Elizabeth 1st, and the more recent version in 1834) however these were not specifically laws for disabled people, we just got entangled in it, so I'm not covering them in any detail here, but I probably will at some point.


So we skip forward to the Second World War, when politicians are trying to come up with a solution to the sheer amount of disabled people who were now nearby but didn't want to be treated badly (outrageous). The 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act aimed to get people disabled by injury, illness or war into work. It stated that any company with more than a certain number of employees was required to employ at least 3% disabled people. However they didn't think to get anyone to check that they were doing it, so they continued to discriminate.


A few years later, the war has officially ended and this is where we have the law that finally supersedes the 1834 New Poor Law, the 1948 National Assistance Act, passed by Atlee's Labour government (the same one that brings in the NHS).

This law was to fill the gaps left by the National Insurance Act of 1946, which stated that every worker paid into a National Insurance that would pay for them if they became sick or unemployed. The National Assistance Act extended that right to people who could not pay into the National Insurance scheme, like disabled people, the homeless and unmarried mothers. All people would be allowed the use of the safety net created by the government.


A black and white photo of a white man with dark hair in a suit.
Alf Morris

However, we don't start getting into the teeth of disability rights legislation until 1970. Alf Morris, who later became the world's first ever Minister for Disabled People, won the right to put forward a bill to be debated and potentially adopted as law. I know this sounds ridiculous, but this is how a lot of British Parliament works. Essentially, all the laws in the commons are done by the government in charge, and their ministers. If you're an MP who isn't a minister in charge of anything, as we would call "a backbencher", who is just there to represent your area, even if your party is in government, there aren't many occasions to suggest your own laws. There is a certain amount of debating time given to "private members bills", i.e. those not officially supported by the government. This can be done in a few different ways, but is often decided by ballot.



Yeah, so Alf won the ballot, and immediately was inundated with other ideas for bills that people fancied getting passed, but he stuck to his guns and brought forwards the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. Somehow, through the lack of help from the government, the limited understanding from members about the point of helping the disabled and the constant threat of an election about to cut off all their work, it managed to be passed. (When an election is called, everything stops. There is a "wash up period" which is supposed to make sure nothing is going to fall apart while they go off campaigning and so it's rare any bills get passed during this time.)

This was the world's first disability civil rights bill, putting the responsibility onto local authorities to ensure equal access for disabled people in all areas of life. It has frequently been referred to as the disabled community's Magna Carta.


While there were also bits of legislation passed during the time following this to create different types of financial benefits for disabled people and their families (such as to create the Mobility Allowance and Invalid Care Allowance), most of the disability specific laws that were passed in the years following this were additions to the 1970 act. The 1981 Disabled Persons Act focussed on building regulations, the 1987 Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act forced local authorities to adequately follow the law, and the 1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act ensured assessments for those needing care services.


It took another little while for the next development. Everyone patted themselves on the back for quite a while about this one, with Alf Morris still continuing to work on all sorts of disability related issues. The most well known of these was the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill (initially drafted in 1991) which he had been working on with Bristol MP Roger Berry and was seen as a competitor to the government's 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, but also the inspiration for it. The Civil Rights bill was modelled around the Americans with Disabilities Act from 1990 (the ADA), and was introduced by Berry in yet another law raffle (ballot) for Private Member's Bills.

The United Kingdom had led the way in disability rights, but had fallen behind significantly.


A large historic hall. It's nearly full with groups of people with varying disabilities.
Westminster Hall Lobby, 1994 (I think)

There was a Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People in 1979 which reported significant problems and pressure from all different sides to update this legislation and do more for disabled people. The introduction of this civil rights bill raised the profile of disabled people as a successful lobbying force, and it soon became impossible for Parliament to ignore them.


Disabled people all over the country wrote to their MPs, and thousands turned up to lobby parliament in person. MPs could no longer quietly vote against civil rights legislation for disabled people and had to take notice.

The end result of the Disability Discrimination Act (the DDA) was an extremely watered down version of the civil rights bill. The disability rights campaigns were at their peak at this time, with well organised, extremely loud and sometimes militant protests making their voices heard on all matters that affected them. There was no chance to mistake the will of disabled people, even when they were trying really hard and plenty were desperately clinging to the idea of the good cripple who was thankful for the charity. It was a long slog, and there was a certain amount of pearl clutching and monocles falling into wine glasses, but eventually the work paid off and the DDA was signed into law. However most of the behaviours and treatments the bill outlawed weren't put right immediately. It would be extended in 2005, partly to account for all the things they hadn't got round to yet and incredibly, some still haven't been fully implemented.

A photo of a street in London. Lots of people with various disabilities going along the road. They are all wearing very 90s fashion.
Trafalgar Square Lobby, 1994 (I think)


In 2009, the British Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (just say disabled people UN, jeez) which protected disabled people's human rights, and gave us full equality under the law. Realistically, this was primarily symbolic and rights are still regularly trampled on, only to be settled quickly before anything can get to court. As of now, the Disability Discrimination Act has been essentially eliminated by the 2010 Equality Act in England, Wales and Scotland, which now acts in its place. Northern Ireland still uses the DDA. The Equality Act says all of the same things, but also covers other protected characteristics, such as gender, race, religion and sexuality.


It has now been 10 years since the most recent disabled civil rights law, and there is still much to be done. Despite all of these measures, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, have disproportionately been affected by austerity and changes to tax and welfare and are at a much higher risk of living in poverty and abusive situations.

Many activists from the glory days of the disability rights movement think the time may be coming to reorganise and push for what we need and deserve, just like they did in the 1980s and 1990s. We need to fight for our rights, and loudly. Our history gets forgotten so easily, as does pretty much everything featuring disabled people, so let's make sure people remember it, and not let ourselves forget it too

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