Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Disabled People's Organisations and the 'Big Society'

Why does all the rhetoric about the ‘Big Society’ irritate so many of us?  For disability activists in particular the language and attitudes grate.

I suppose some of us feel that it’s a pity that those pushing this agenda seem to be unaware of, or uninterested in, the history of disabled people pioneering new ways of supporting people; setting up our own organisations to do this; and after many years persuading government that giving people more choice and control is a good idea.

I’m referring to the independent living movement, and to the idea that it’s disabled people themselves who know how best to meet their support needs.  And to the recognition that a lack of choice and control undermines human and civil rights.

Over 30 years ago, people like Paul Hunt and John Evans in Hampshire, and Maggie Hines and Ken Davis in Derbyshire, resisted the way the residential homes in which they lived denied them control over the most basic things in their lives. They challenged the idea that physical inability means being ‘dependent’ and in need of ‘care’.  ‘Independence’ they said, is not about ‘doing things for yourself’; instead it’s about having choice and control over the support you need to go about your daily life. 

Over the next twenty years, disabled people set up local and national organisations, campaigning for direct payments and for civil rights – resulting in the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 and the Direct Payments Act in 1996. They also developed services to help people use direct payments, with peer support and lived experiences at the heart of everything they did. Recent research confirms the value of peer support, in comparison with traditional professional-led care management. User-led services mean that people are not passive recipients but participants in organising their support, leading to greater well-being and less social exclusion.

The current policy agenda is supposedly about giving people and communities more control to do things for themselves.  As Disability Lib says, disabled people and our organisations have a strong history of doing this.  But these are small organisations, struggling to compete with the economies of scale offered by large voluntary and private sector bodies. Many have lost local authority contracts in the last few years.  With less capacity to work on tendering, they are also hampered by the extra time needed to involve service users with different access needs.  The voluntary sector expects total cuts of over £3bn  over the next five years, but smaller organisations look set to suffer the most, particularly with the shift from grants to competitive tendering.


It is difficult not to be cynical and to believe that the ‘Big Society’ agenda is more about shrinking the size of the state than using public resources in more empowering ways.  It’s more about opportunities for private sector organisations than creating opportunities for organisations run by, and accountable to, their service users.  


Many people with physical and/or sensory impairments, with learning difficulties or mental health support needs, or who experience the frailty that comes with old age, need support to go about their daily lives.  Our human and civil rights are threatened if we don’t have choice and control over that support. 

We need a welfare state that recognises this, that invests in services and organisations that empower.  We don’t need empty rhetoric disguising a withdrawal of resources from organisations that have demonstrated how best to deliver human and civil rights.

[User-led organizations and the ‘Big Society’ are one issue explored in my critique of 20 years of disability policy, to be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in November.]

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