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A Disabled Person’s Liaisons with Politicians: A Love-Hate Affair

Penny Pepper explores what a steady stream of inadequate disability ministers reveals about the sorts of people required to really improve disabled people’s lives

Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, launches the inaugural World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge at City Hall in 2014. Photo: Stephen Chung/Alamy

A Disabled Person’s Liaisons with PoliticiansA Love-Hate Affair

Penny Pepper explores what a steady stream of inadequate disability ministers reveals about the sorts of people required to really improve disabled people’s lives

Disabled people have screamed for Boris Johnson to be discharged as Prime Minister, particularly as we – the largest marginalised group in England – now feel like COVID death fodder.

With all restrictions now having lifted in England, Coronavirus guidance has given way to doing what we all think is best. Is the danger of culling by accident or a fortuitous way of controlling social care budgets? It makes us nervous and angry.

When you’ve been an activist for as long as I have, you meet the overlords, and it’s good to assess the changes that we have urged them to implement.

I’ve lived with the significant developments for disabled people including attendance allowance in the 1970s, which morphed into disability living allowance, and then became the Conservative cudgel of the personal independence payment. I remember when the chocolate teapot which was the Disability Discrimination Act was passed 10 years after the race and sex discrimination laws.  

For me, the most profound progress was with the formation of the, sadly dismantled, independent living fund. At long last, it presented a semblance of equality to the daily freedoms that non-disabled people enjoy. It made a difference to who I could meet and where I could go – including upping my game with activism and my ongoing love/hate relationships with a long list of government ministers and their shadow counterparts. 

My interludes with Boris Johnson began at the Olympic Park in 2012, when he was Mayor of London, at the long-running disability arts festival Liberty, initiated in the days of Ken Livingstone and by the much-missed advisor, disabled activist, poet and artist David Morris

Johnson – and Conservatives in general – have no understanding, let alone love, for disability arts. But, in 2012, the buzz of the Olympics and the Paralympics were high and the Liberty Festival moved to the Olympic Park. As did I, into a freezing little tent with some baby poets who I had mentored.

The rumours flew that Johnson would put in an appearance, and this was the time when promises had been broken concerning new disabled access to train stations. No surprise, but activists did their utmost to keep it in the public eye. The Johnson entourage was so large with bodyguards and press it was easy to prepare a question as it approached.

Irony is sharp with hindsight. As austerity unravelled from 2010, many activists confronted many more politicians – the Conservatives radicalised disabled activism by means of their indifference and apparent hatred of us. We worked tirelessly to be heard and, to some extent, we were and we are. Never have so many of us met so many politicians in person.

The focus has often been on the politicians charged with improving the lives of disabled people. Here, there has not been much to commend.

But at least Labour’s Alf Morris – disabled himself – was the first Minister for Disabled People. The most loved and the most impactful, he brought in the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which was a ground-breaking step on the road to equality. Reading an overview of his life and the legislation he initiated is astonishing and carries resonance to this day – from blue badges for parking to mobility allowance, equal access and education. 

I’ve been enraged by those who have taken on the equivalent roles since. 

The worst have appeared since the start of austerity. This includes – but is definitely not limited to – Maria Miller, who was responsible for the destruction of the independent living fund; and Esther McVey, a proponent of benefit-slashing policies such as the bedroom tax, who also upset my mum when she told her in a patronising letter that McVey knew many disabled people enjoyed being in care homes vis-a-vis the closure of the independent living fund.

There was also Justin Tomlinson who had a thing against disabled people’s organisations – an important qualification for this excuse of a post, because it appears you must know as few actual disabled people as possible. 

Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is the only politician I’ve ever met who I believe comprehensively understood the ‘social model’ of disability

But what about my encounter with Boris Johnson? Through that September 2012 drizzle, he loomed close – and he is a big presence. We breathed the same air for some uncomfortable moments, as three larger bodyguards blocked my access. I called out my question, polite but firm.

He was chortling and up close against a food stall. We were roughly a metre apart. Perhaps there was a nanosecond of eye contact. But the muscle was having none of it and stepped sideways to obliterate my irritating crippled presence. 

Johnson played to the press – then as now – and moved on without acknowledgement. 

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