Disabled Activists in the News

The last event in our programme accompanying the 2022 Breaking the News exhibition focused on how disabled people, in Leeds and around the UK, hit the headlines in the 1990s with some hard-hitting protests. At the event, Steve Graby of Leeds Disabled People’s Organisation talked to Gill Crawshaw and Ruth Malkin, who were both involved in DAN, the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network. In this post, Gill gives a flavour of the discussion that took place.

L-R: Ruth Malkin, Gill Crawshaw, Steve Graby

Disabled activists have been in the news again recently. Then Barbara Met Alan, which aired on BBC2 in March (and is now on BBC iPlayer) has been getting plenty of coverage. It tells the story of two of the founder members of DAN, the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network. A one-off docudrama like this can’t possibly cover the full story of a movement. The programme is fantastic, but unsurprisingly London-centric.

With renewed interest in DAN, Ruth and I wanted to tell the story of the network’s activities in Leeds, through newspaper cuttings, press releases, photographs and leaflets from the time. Along with Steve, we wanted to tell people that disabled people’s activism continues today through campaigns like Disabled People Against Cuts and local groups like Leeds Disabled People’s Organisation.

The 1980s and 90s was the period when disabled people really came together to show their strength and anger, and to demand equal rights. Up till then, if you saw disabled people at all in the media, it was likely to be in adverts raising money for charity. Disabled people were sick of being portrayed as tragic and needy in fundraising efforts for charities – organisations that were not even run by disabled people themselves.

This was the background to demonstrations outside ITV’s Telethon and, locally, outside the BBC’s regional input to Children In Need, broadcast live from Leeds. In 1991, disabled people gathered on and around the steps into BBC Broadcasting House on Woodhouse Lane. We were chanting and singing, with placards reading ‘Rights Not Charity’ and ‘WHY are children in need?’, until the police piled in and arrested several protestors. You can bet that made the news, and we had people ready to talk to the press to make sure that our message got across.

The Yorkshire Evening Post quoted one of our members:

“We were trying to draw attention to the fact that many disabled people want the charity system to stop as we see it as a major block to change.”

They went on to say:

“The nature of any civil rights protest is to provoke publicity and highlight discrimination. We believe we achieved that”.

The protests achieved more: Telethon was dropped from the schedules following the demos (although Children In Need continues). Encouraged by and building on this result, DAN was formed shortly after, with a network of organisers covering the country. I was the organiser for West Yorkshire where we had a particularly committed group of disabled activists and non-disabled allies, willing to carry out direct action, non-violent civil disobedience, in the fight for rights.

Direct action is about taking your demand straight to your target. It’s also about letting people know that you are angry and that things need to change. Many actions therefore took place in public, often causing disruption – but they couldn’t be ignored. And to spread the word further, we’d work to get press coverage.

Press releases in advance of our actions and calls to journalists meant that DAN was regularly in the news, locally and nationally. As well as raising awareness of our demands and the exclusion we faced, this press coverage showed disabled people as proud, angry and strong activists. This was a powerful contrast to the charity images.

The ‘Rights not roses’ action at Leeds station in 1994 combined DAN’s campaign for accessible public transport with a firm rejection of pity and do-gooding.

British Rail were planning to spend tens of thousands of pounds to build a ‘garden for the disabled’ at Leeds station. What an insult! At that time only a handful of the platforms were accessible, disabled passengers had to use the goods lift and often had to travel in the guard’s van. We didn’t want a garden where we could sit and watch the trains, that we couldn’t get on, go by.

When we found out that Jimmy Savile, already despised for patronising disabled people, would be opening the garden, DAN had to act! We disrupted the opening ceremony (‘Protest by disabled saddens Sir Jimmy’ said the Yorkshire Evening Post), then Danners handcuffed themselves to the London train, delaying it for half an hour, and ‘caught a bus’ outside the station in the same manner. And the garden was quietly forgotten about.

Newspaper article with photograph showing wheelchair users protesting
Leeds Other Paper, December 13 1990. (c) Leeds Other Paper

More actions took place throughout the 90s, although DAN ended shortly after. Subsequent attempts to revive DAN have struggled to get the engagement and press coverage that the network achieved first time around, and we debated why that might be at the event. Certainly, the decline in newspapers, particularly coverage of community news, has contributed to this. And the type of direct action that DAN took is more familiar, so less newsworthy, today.

So what can disabled activists do now to get their message out? Many disabled people are making effective use of social media, blogging, and creating their own content. While this sometimes leads to divisions and a focus on individual voices, the internet and social media enable disabled people to control their messages and to put their views across directly. Importantly, disabled people are connecting and finding community online. While the news might be delivered through different channels today, disabled people are still finding ways to subvert and challenge, to protest and to work collectively towards equal rights.

For more information about Leeds Disabled People’s Organisation: http://ldpo.co.uk/

DAN’s history is summarised on a Wikipedia page, which includes a downloadable timeline: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disabled_People%27s_Direct_Action_Network

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