History of Disability law in the UK

December 6, 2022


On November 24th, it was announced that John McFall would become the first physically disabled astronaut in the European Space Agency. As a start to Disability History Month, this was triumphant news, but also a stark reminder of how disabled people are only now being given access to roles and aspirations that non-disabled people have held for decades.

I’d like to take some time now, in the middle of Disability History Month, to also look back on our history and the lengths it took for disabled people to gain our rights in the UK.

Disability activism has never been passive or quiet. We have always been at the forefront of our rights, and that is important to remember in a time when disabled voices are so often pacified. Looking back on the road to legal protection for disabled rights, like most acts of progress it is paved with small steps and big acts of rebellion.

A lot of disabled protests have related to the legal system and our legal representation, but the idea of a ‘disabled person’ wasn’t legally acknowledged until the 1940s.

Every act of legal protection granted to disabled people relied on direct action, always led by disabled people themselves. The very first act passed in the UK was the Blind Persons Act 1920, which was written only when the National League of the Blind marched from Leeds to Trafalgar Square in protest. The Disability Discrimination Act, the first major encompassing act of protection for all disabled people, was written in 1995 after 3 years of direct protest by various groups from DAN (Disability Action Network) to CAT (Campaign for Accessible Transport).

This action often was disruptive and dangerous for the people involved, as many disabled people were arrested at protests with no clear legal protection. But it was vital work, that helped force accessibility progress on public transport, push back cuts to disability welfare and force legal reform that could protect disabled people effectively.

Many older disabled people have lived through a time when they had no recourse to protection from discrimination. Most people at this university were alive to watch the Equality Act 2010 finally consolidate these protections, even if we didn’t know it. It is easy to view these protests as a part of history as if the passage of time separates us from them, but our history isn’t truthfully that old. This is why Disability History Month is about looking forward as much as it is about looking back. We are continuing to live history, to live progress, with each day that we continue existing.