Protests need to get serious about including disabled people

Too many campaign groups and demonstrations exclude those unable to march. It's time for that to change.

On Sunday, activists descended on the newly-marginal seat of Iain Duncan Smith, the former Secretary of State For Work and Pensions. It was part of a campaign to turn this once true-blue seat red. Yet many of the worst-hit of his victims were sidelined in the campaign to unseat him.

During his time at the DWP, Duncan Smith championed regressive, anti-disabled policies that have caused misery for thousands. So where were the opportunities for disabled people to get involved in the campaign against him?

This is just the latest in a long line of political events where those with disabilities and chronic illnesses have been stuck on the fringes. In essence, political activism is a very active thing. It’s knocking on doorsteps, marching with signs, and using your body as a political tool.

Yet for those whose bodies already operate under a daily burden of ill health or disability, these are tools that simply aren’t available to them.

The inevitable result of this is that those with disabilities are alienated from aspects of democracy. This is especially cruel given they often bear the brunt of cuts caused by political ideologies such as austerity. Those with disabilities already feel separated from society and suffer from chronic loneliness. That’s something which is perpetuated by the feeling that they cannot even strike back when they are unduly attacked.

Unable to protest, those with chronic illnesses and disabilities have limited alternatives to taking to the streets. Even when not marching, the majority of political movements involve some form of fundraising, which seems – on the surface – a natural solution.

But those who are forced to live on the punitively low support offered by ESA and DLA/PIP cannot afford space in their meagre budgets for constant campaign contributions. Reductions in ESA have just worsened this problem.

It is not a stretch to conclude that this is a major factor in why the disabled make for easy pickings, “low hanging fruit”, when it comes to austerity and cuts. Others may protest on their behalf. While welcome, it points out an unsavoury reality: the feeling of being forced to rely on others to stand up for your basic rights is an affront to a democratic system.

The Women’s March in January did, however, offer promise for a future where health is no longer a barrier to such activities. A sister campaign called the Disability March allowed those unable to attend physical marches to register their support in lieu of attendance. The campaign received over 1,500 submissions despite relatively little promotion, especially when compared to the huge media attention the accompanying physical march received.

It is long overdue that such innovations run alongside the active political protests. Numbers registered as Disabled Marchers should be included in statistics for attendance at demonstrations. There should also be supportive, coordinated social media campaigns that are promoted as equal to the physical campaign – rather than as an afterthought. Some would engage from behind a screen, but the idea this is less legitimate should be consigned to history.

The Disability March showed the way for progressive, inclusive thinking with regard to those with disabilities and politics. If political leaders and activists could unite, they could offer the right to protest to those who are currently left behind.

AJ Kelly a Midlands-based freelance writer, with a particular interest in disability and chronic illness. 

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