Penny Pepper explains why well-meaning but pity-inducing fundraisers do not lead to structural change for marginalised people

There is an interesting overlap of contradictory events that touch on disabled people’s lives from 18 November to 19 December, which highlight the dichotomies that hinder equality and make everyday life a challenge – and an irritation.

November saw the launch of this year’s UK Disability History Month. Have you heard of it? It began in 2011 and is coordinated by Richard Rieser – a teacher and consultant on inclusive education and disability equality.

Our month has a long way to go to reach the exposure that similar events for marginalised groups – such as Black History Month – receive. But it is satisfying to see a banner above a town hall or hear a news item on the radio. 

UK Disability History Month was formed from a network of disability-aligned organisations, most of which are user-led – that is to say that disabled people are in control. Working to a collaborative model, any disabled person can put together an event based on the themes of the event. This year there are two: disabled people, sex and relationships; and invisible impairments.

Disabled people, sex and relationships is a topic I have examined in my work for many years and I was privileged to appear at the online launch of UK Disability History Month this year, which attracted more than 100 guests.

The other key focus is on invisible impairments, recognising that disability in the mind of the non-disabled equates with wheelchairs – a view that is helpful to no one. It also reminds us how broad disability is and how it affects people beyond the obvious. It may be self-evident, for instance, why I need an accessible toilet as a wheelchair user, but someone with a heart condition – mobile but with impaired energy – will face different, and often worse, levels of discrimination. 

Today, on 3 December, we also have the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The title makes this old activist squirm with its outdated, awkward wording. But, we work with it.

This event came into being in 1992, after the UN’s apparent action plan – the International Decade of Disabled Persons – went on for 10 years from 1981.  

But does any of this get noticed?


A Charity Case

On 19 November, the mammoth charity bonanza that is Children in Need took place.

It might be thought that many disabled people support such a charity event, but not activists. As the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network first proclaimed on t-shirts in the 90s: Rights Not Charity and Piss on Pity.

The ‘charity model’ – sometimes interchangeable with the ‘tragedy model’ – is a heavily negative model defining disability. It is all about pity. Disabled people are depicted as victims of a terrible fate, needy of the Normal to offer a balm to their suffering. If there’s enough giving to such unfortunates, it will help ease their difficult lives – and make Normal individuals and organisations feel so much better about themselves, while whispering thank god it’s not me.

This – along with the ‘medical model’ – are the favourite ways we are seen by the majority of non-disabled people. 

Generosity is deemed to be a good characteristic of a society awash with the kindness trope. But, when charity becomes big business – off-target from those it purports to help – the ultimate purpose is lost in the mix.

For disabled people, the hypocrisy is unbearable. Changes made by charities offer alleviation – not a challenge to the underlying resistance to equality for disabled people.

My questions for those involved in Children In Need are: what do the contributors – including the endless roll-call of celebrities – change in the long run? Can we come round for dinner? Is your house accessible? Can you sign BSL? Will you give us a job?

I was one of these children way before Children In Need and I remember how it made me feel knowing that I was a charity case. It’s not comfortable. 

I don’t condemn anyone for donating to it but, in the end, it is also important to realise that charity cannot help anyone if they sit on the funds like a cartoon banker. It cannot help a disabled child on the toilet and supply skilled, appropriately paid care staff to do that into adulthood. Charity does not remove ingrained barriers and is often the antithesis of the ethos: Nothing About Us Without Us. 

As we face new challenges with the latest COVID-19 variant, and repetitive Government failures with social care, it is essential that UK Disability History Month and UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities grow in their exposure. And it would be incredible if they were marked through mass exposure of disabled people’s lives and achievements, current and historical – not merely a person in a huge bear suit and a loud self-congratulatory TV junket of people who wouldn’t notice if they tripped on me in the street.

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