Recently, Ontario activists had the pleasure of meeting Ellen Clifford from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
Her tour across Ontario included Toronto, Kitchener, Sudbury, Kingston and Ottawa. She has been campaigning with the disabled people’s movement for 15 years and, since 2011, has sat on the National Steering Committee of DPAC. She is also a member of Unite the Union and works to build solidarity between workers in unions and those forced to live on social benefits. She kindly answered a few questions for us.
What is DPAC and why was it created?
DPAC was set up in order to oppose the vicious and brutal assaults on disabled people being waged by the Tory government. It grew out of a protest called in Birmingham for the Tory party conference in October 2010. It was evident early on after the Tories took power that they were deliberately targeting disabled people and accelerating policy directions brought in by New Labour to privatise the welfare state. It was also clear that disabled people needed a co-ordinated national voice in order to fight back. If the Tories thought disabled people were easy targets we proved them wrong.
What seems to be the greatest threat to disabled people right now?
We are facing an unprecedented level and scale of attack affecting every aspect of our lives from benefit cuts to the slashing of frontline support services, to attacks on education and employment opportunities. Underlying the assaults on disabled people’s ability to participate in day to day life and receive the support we need to survive is an ideological attack on disabled people’s place in society. The message is that disabled people cost too much and consequently it is unreasonable for us to expect the same chances in life as other people.
What are some of the unique things about how DPAC organised compared to other movements?
DPAC was set up specifically to work within the broad left and with the trade union movement. During the last wave of activism in the 1980s and early 1990s, the UK disabled people’s rights movement was grounded in identity politics and campaigned in isolation. There was mistrust of the trade unions that had a poor understanding of the social model of disability. The social model as a tool for social reform argues it is society that needs to change in order to include disabled people, there is nothing “wrong” with disabled people ourselves. DPAC’s analysis of the current attacks on disabled people is that they are part of a much wider ideological agenda that seeks to dismantle the welfare state as a basis from which to then attack workers. DPAC understands that the Tories are waging class war. Disabled people can and have struck victories against them but we can’t win the war on our own. For that we need the power of an organised working class and that’s why links with the unions have been so important to DPAC.
Has DPAC connected with other movements? What has that looked like?
As one of my DPAC comrades says, solidarity is spelt D P A C. Solidarity is absolutely essential for realising the power that we have when we collectivise our struggle. We have close links with activist groups such as UKUncut, LondonOccupy, and Boycott Workfare among many others. Their solidarity has enabled us to build our public profile and thereby reach more people, overcoming the barriers to recognition that disabled people usually encounter within mainstream society. We have also been able to relearn practical skills for organising direct actions and grow our confidence for mobilising along more militant lines than the UK disabled people’s rights movement had grown used to under the New Labour years.
Unlike many of our activist allies we also have strong links with the trade unions on different levels. Disabled people are also workers and union members of course. Unions represent workers who are also affected by government attacks and they therefore have an interest in supporting our campaigns. Research by PCS Union found that 43 per cent of JobCentre Plus staff who would be responsible for implementing benefit changes would also be affected by them as increasingly workers are forced to turn to benefits to top up low wages to feed their families. DPAC also has strong links with rank and file workers. Just as they come on and support our protests so we go down to their picket lines and give solidarity when they take industrial action. The trade union bureaucracy is generally, depending on the union, uncomfortable with DPAC’s level of militancy but we have created a situation where our credibility and wide support base means they simply can’t ignore us and we will push the trade union leaders for action whether they officially give us a platform or not.
Without these links with the wider anti cuts movement DPAC would not have been in the position we have to intervene in and push for a co-ordinated fightback instead of giving in to a tendency to either wait for a Labour government or collapse into voluntarism.
What were some critical moments in DPAC’s fight against austerity?
For me the Remploy dispute was one because it brought class consciousness centre stage within the disabled people’s rights movement. In 2011 the government announced the closure of the Remploy factories, effectively sheltered workshops employing a couple of thousand Deaf and disabled people across the UK. Disabled people’s organisations had long campaigned for the closures on the basis of promoting inclusion. DPAC instead took a stance that supported the Remploy workers who were opposing the closures. We maintained our position against segregated employment but highlighted on the one hand the movement’s betrayal of the disabled workers and on the other the government’s hypocrisy taking away disabled people’s employment at a time of recession yet cutting benefits in order to “support” disabled people into jobs. We effectively split the movement, identifying who was with us and who wasn’t while building closer links with the unions.
Why is it important for socialists and workers to connect with the disabled people’s movement?
As socialists we are tribunes of the oppressed. It is harder for governments to co-opt significant layers of disabled people due to the deep-seated links between disability and poverty so, in the UK at least, the disabled people’s rights movement has always had a militant edge and an understanding that disability equality can never be fully realised under capitalism, that what we need to work towards is a society “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” The social model of disability which has underpinned the movement since the 1980s was developed by Marxists. Among socialists and workers who would never tolerate homophobic, racist or sexist language you still commonly hear disabilist terms and assumptions used freely. 1 in 3 people are affected by disability so it’s not a marginal issue.
How were you received by the different cities you visited?
I was surprised that so many people were interested in coming and hearing about DPAC. We have all heard about the student strikes and protests in Montreal, so the idea activists in Montreal wanted to hear from us was quite overwhelming. For me the best bit was meeting disabled activists in Canada to compare experiences of mobilising and uniting beyond the disabled people’s movement.
What suggestions would you have for the Canadian disability movement?
When disabled people collectivise, when we unite and fight we are formidable. In contrast to the traditional images society has of us as pitiful, tragic and vulnerable we can also be strong political leaders not only within the disability movement but at the forefront of the wider campaign against austerity. You can see that when you look at Rapliq and Toronto Disability Pride. The next step would be a national co-ordinated militant voice of and for disabled people with links to the trade unions.