One of the two disabled Labour MPs elected to parliament for the first time earlier this month is a former campaigns officer for the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP), it has emerged.Jared O’Mara (pictured, centre) caused one of the shocks of the general election when he ousted the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam seat.But it has now emerged that O’Mara was a press, parliamentary and campaigns officer for BCODP – at the time the country’s leading representative organisation of disabled people’s organisations – for a short period about 10 years ago.In one BCODP newsletter from 2006, he wrote about working with prominent disabled activists such as Jane Campbell [now Baroness Campbell], Rachel Hurst and Tara Flood on opposition to a bill that would have legalised assisted suicide.O’Mara, who until this month helped run a bar and live music venue in Sheffield, was also quoted in the now-defunct Disability Now magazine, in May 2006, calling on Gordon Brown, at the time Labour’s chancellor, to do more to alleviate disability poverty.Flood, now director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “I really hope that he takes what he learned when he was at BCODP and applies it now he is an MP.”She also welcomed the election of another new disabled Labour MP, Marsha de Cordova, who spoke in her post-election address of her passionate commitment to disability rightsFlood said: “It’s great that the House of Commons is a tiny bit more diverse than it was on 8 June.”But she said that what was important was what the two politicians do now they are MPs.She said: “What they do now as disabled people in parliament is what really counts.”Anne Pridmore, who chaired BCODP at the time O’Mara was working there, said she had been surprised to hear of his election.She said: “He wasn’t [at BCODP] very long. He was very young and quite new to disability. He was young and enthusiastic.” Pridmore – who also welcomed de Cordova’s victory – said she was pleased to see the election of a former BCODP staff member to the House of Commons, and said it would “most definitely” be useful to disabled people to have an MP who had been so close to the disability movement.Despite his experience with BCODP, there may be some concern among some disabled activists that O’Mara, who himself has cerebral palsy (cp), is also a long-standing trustee of Paces, a specialist centre in Sheffield for children with cp which specialises in conductive education and also runs a special school*, of which he is a governor.Conductive education is still seen as controversial among many in the disability movement, years after Professor Mike Oliver described its reality as “oppressive to disabled people and an abuse of their human rights”.*The disability charity Scope, an advocate of conductive education, describes it as a system of learning that “teaches those with movement difficulties to learn actively to achieve purposeful movement which can then be applied throughout daily life and learning”.
A note from the editor:Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations. Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009. Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS… Campaigning disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have set out their demands for a new national independent living service that would eliminate the postcode lottery in support, and finally make the right to independent living a reality.The Independent Living for the Future document has been developed over the last 14 months under the banner of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), whose members include Disabled People Against Cuts, Inclusion London, People First (Self Advocacy), Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, The Alliance for Inclusive Education and Shaping Our Lives.ROFA will now seek support for the document from its members, political parties, disabled people, DPOs and other organisations.Independent Living for the Future is based on principles laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.Article 19 of the convention describes how countries signed up to the convention – like the UK – must recognise the right of all disabled people “to live in the community, with choices equal to others”.The new document describes how the rights in article 19 could be upheld through a new national independent living service, which would build on “what was most successful” about the former Independent Living Fund.The new service would be “co-created between government and disabled people, funded through general taxation, managed by central government, led by disabled people, and delivered locally in co-production with disabled people”, says the document.It would be free, non-means-tested and “provided on the basis of need, not profit”.There would also be funding for DPOs to deliver local services, ensuring a range of options to support disabled people to live in the community and exercise choice and control over their support.Priorities would include setting up a new independent living taskforce, led by disabled people, to develop plans for the service; and agreeing how to introduce a legal right to independent living, including an independent living bill of rights.There would also be a need, says the new document, to educate the public about the benefits of investing in independent living support for disabled people.The document also calls for the government’s Office for Disability Issues to be moved out of the Department for Work and Pensions and placed within either the Cabinet Office or the Government Equalities Office.And it says there should be a strategy for investment in local user-led services alongside the closure of institutionalised, segregated settings including long-stay hospitals and assessment and treatment units.The document points out that government austerity cuts have had “serious adverse impacts” on the rights contained in article 19, with the social care and mental health systems in crisis and disabled people’s rights being taken “dramatically backwards”.It says that grassroots campaigning by disabled people since 2010 has focused heavily on the right to independent living, partly because activists are so proud of the independent living movement and its achievements.It adds: “At a time when discrimination continues to exist legally, structurally and within many parts of society, daily living conditions are deteriorating and the odds against us seem overwhelming, it is enormously important to be able to draw on a source of pride that sits at the core of our shared identity.”The ideas behind the document began to be discussed several years ago with disabled activists involved in the campaign set up in 2011 to stop the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund.More recently, there have been discussions at the National Disabled People’s Summit in November 2017, the Independent Living Campaign Conference later that month (pictured), and a ROFA round table event last May.
The death of the disabled academic who first defined the “social model of disability” has led to an outpouring of admiration, affection and grief from leading figures in the disabled people’s movement.Theirresponses highlighted the status of Professor Mike Oliver as one of themovement’s most influential figures.Afterhearing of his death this week, many disabled friends and admirers explained onsocial media how his work had changed their lives.Dr SallyWitcher,chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, said his book, The Politics ofDisablement, had “profoundly” changed her understanding of disability and ofherself as a disabled person.Tracey Proudlock, co-founder of the influentialCampaign for Accessible Transport in the early 1990s, said his work had set heron a “personal journey transforming” her own politics.Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education,said Oliver was “an absolute legend and a pioneer” and added: “His social model of disabilitythinking along with others of his generation are absolutely responsible for thelightbulb moment in my life.”Agnes Fletcher, a former director of policy andcommunications at the Disability Rights Commission, added: “An intellectualgiant with shoulders broad enough to set so many of us free.”And PhilFriend, aformer chair of Disability Rights UK, said Oliver was “a colossusand irreplaceable” and would “always be remembered as the one who set us allfree”.Other leadingdisabled activists and campaigners to recognise his contribution to thedisabled people’s movement this week included Professor Peter Beresford, MichelleDaley, Jane Young, Dennis Queen, Liz Carr, Cllr Pam Thomas, Mik Scarlet, andRhian Davies.Many firstheard the news from the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, whohad known Professor Oliver for more than 30 years, and described him as a “dearfriend, mentor and all-round genius”.They wrote abook together, Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future,and Baroness Campbell said his legacy was “central to how millions of disabledpeople now live their lives and see themselves”, as “empowered people withrights” rather than a medical diagnosis.In an interview with PhD researcher Jonjo Brady, recorded last year for a documentary by the University of Kent’s Matt Wilson, which was shown as part of the university’s Disability History Month event in November, Oliver (pictured being interviewed) described how he left grammar school with three O-levels, before working as a clerk in an office for a year, where he discovered “that being at work was even more boring than being at school”.But after hebroke his neck diving into a swimming pool, he spent a year receivingrehabilitation in Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s renowned spinal injuries unit,and was then given a job teaching young offenders.When a law changemeant he could no longer teach without a degree or teaching qualification, he decided to study sociology, thefirst subject he had encountered that he felt was relevant to his own life.He studiedsociology and social anthropology at the University of Kent in the early 1970s,at a time when it was physically “unwelcoming” to a wheelchair-user, incontrast to the helpful attitude of the staff and fellow students who assisted himdaily with the barriers he faced in the “generous times ushered in by theeconomic and cultural revolutions of the 1960s”.His life, hesaid later, was changed by a booklet published in 1976 by the Union of thePhysically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), The Fundamental Principles ofDisability, which argued that “the root cause of our problems was the waysociety was organised and the disabling barriers we faced”.UPIAS – andone of its key members, the father of the social model, Vic Finkelstein– argued that disabled people were oppressed by society, rather than seeingdisability as “a personal tragedy”.This meant,said Oliver, that he “no longer had to accept full responsibility” for his impairmentand understood instead that his “personal troubles were also public issues”, aninsight that led him to develop the UPIAS principles and define the socialmodel as the key to understanding disabled people’s oppression.Oliverstayed on after his degree to complete his PhD in Kent, and eventually to teacha masters course for social workers working with disabled people. It is believedto have been the first postgraduate course in what later became known asdisability studies.At the time,he would say later, most writing on disability “was dominated by assumptionsthat disability was a medical problem and the focus was on illness andimpairment”, and any personal focus was on disabled people as “tragic victims”,with the stereotype reinforced in popular culture through the “triumph over tragedy”genre.He hadwanted his masters course instead to challenge the idea that professionalsworking with disabled people should focus solely on their “personal troublesand not how and why they were linked to public issues”.He told Bradylast year: “I did want to provide an alternative, more optimistic picture,which wasn’t simply about seeing disability as personal tragedy, disabledpeople as unemployable, and so on, and it was about having an optimistic viewof what disabled people could achieve if many of the barriers that they facedwere removed.”Oliver’sfirst book, Social Work with Disabled People, published in 1983, incorporatedthis philosophy and introduced the social model of disability to a wideraudience, and within five years, he said, “had become the mantra for manydisabled people’s organisations and was beginning to make its way into officialgovernment documents”.The book, nowin its fourth edition, is still in print.He alsospoke in his interview with Brady about his second book, The Politics of Disablement,which was published in 1990 and brought together sociology and disability andbecame a key textbook just as disability studies “was about to take off”.Oliver wouldlater become the first professor of disability studies in the UK, at theUniversity of Greenwich, and he was still, in retirement, emeritus professor of disability studies atthe university. He played akey role in the late 1980s and early 1990s in persuading the government tointroduce disability discrimination legislation, partly he said later bypushing for research that was carried out on behalf of the British Council ofDisabled People by another pioneering disabled academic, Colin Barnes, whichshowed the extent of discrimination faced by disabled people in Britain.Oliver said itwas that research by Barnes (now emeritusprofessor of disability studies at the University of Leeds), and directaction by the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, that persuaded thegovernment to introduce the first Disability Discrimination Act, which becamelaw in 1995.But he saidthe Conservative government “sold disabled people and our aims for thatlegislation down the river” by making the act ineffective and “almostunenforceable”.In astatement following his death, the Centre for Disability Studies(CDS) at the University of Leeds described Oliver as “a pioneer ofUK disability studies” who “will never be forgotten”, and said his work on thesocial model “became – and remains – essential for challenging socialinjustice”.CDS said hisideas and commentary had helped to shape the “strategies, demands andactivities” of the UK disabled people’s movement, while his writings were“highly regarded across the globe and were instrumental in the development ofthe United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”. CDS added:“The clarity and accessibility of his writing has led to various arguments,including alternative theories, to emerge within disability studies and acrossactivist networks. “This is tobe welcomed as it will further debate and action to address the marginalisationof disabled people. “Yet hismaterialist account of disability – which explored the relationship betweendisability and capitalism – will remain significant to current and futureresearch and action.”His collaborationwith disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations, said CDS,transformed disability “from apersonal and private trouble to a public issue, one that remains amatter of social justice.“Hisextensive publications, which include journal articles, books, and keynotespeeches, has challenged all of us to consider how disabled people’s historicaland contemporary experiences are captured, articulated and used as a way tobring about emancipation.”In recentyears, Oliver emerged occasionally from retirement, either to campaign locallyin Kent, where he still lived, or to deliver powerful speeches that wereheavily critical of both the government and the large charities that claimed tospeak for disabled people.Lastsummer,Disability News Service (DNS) reported on his campaigning work in Kent toexpose the failings in the company responsible for the NHS wheelchair servicescontract in the county.He had beena user of wheelchair services in Kent for more than 50 years, and said hebelieved the service was worse than it had ever been throughout that time.Allen Jones,honorary chair of Wheelchair Users Group for South and East Kent (WUG), knewOliver for nearly 30 years and said it was thanks to his “tireless campaigning and badgering” thatthey had made progress in persuading the authorities to listen to theirconcerns.He told DNS: “Hopefully it will be part of his legacy that we will havea wheelchair service in Kent that is fit for purpose.”He added: “For disabled people he will be a massive loss, especiallyfor those of us in Kent who knew him.”They became friends when Jones was chair of Centre for Independent Living Kent (CILK),and Oliver helped them put together a successful lottery bid for a mobilecentre for independent living.Jones said: “He had a wonderful, dry sense of humour. He was alwaysthere as a friend and a campaigner when we needed it.”He said Oliver had been “passionate” about the social model “rightuntil the last”, delivering a five-minute summary in one of the meetings withthe company that delivers the wheelchair services contract.He said: “That was the essence of Mike: he would help anybody, but hewouldn’t mince his words. He would tell it how it is. “Unless you challenge and deal with it, it will never improve. That washis philosophy. He would never take no for an answer.“Hopefully the legacy of the social model and his campaigning and hisadvocacy will live on and hopefully many more disabled people will trawl thearchives and find the papers he has written and take it up and hopefully wewill get a new generation of campaigners.”In 2013, Oliverhad spoken in public about disability for the first time in 10 years, warning disabled people to beware of the“fakes” and “so-called friends” who tried to jump on the independent living“bandwagon”.Ina speech to mark the launch of UK Disability History Month, he saiddisabled people shouldnever “forget where we came from” and should remember that “we were theones who escaped from our isolation and segregation, whether we were in homesor our families”.Describingsome of the lessons from history that disabled people must learn in theircontinuing struggle for independence, he said they should remember that independentliving did not mean “living on our own” or “doing everything for ourselves” butwas about “having choice and control in our lives” and “autonomy andself-determination”.And hewarned them to beware of “the fakes who seek to jump on the independent livingbandwagon”, such as the big charities who “claim to promote and supportindependent living and yet continue to run residential homes and even exportthe residential model to other parts of the world”.Four yearslater, inanother speech to mark Disability History Month, this time at theUniversity of Kent, he said that many of the big charities were “parasitic onthe lives of disabled people, and their attempts to reposition themselves asdefenders of disability rights are an attempt to disguise this”.He also warnedthat the government had positioned disabled people as “pathetic victims”, allowingministers to launch “a massive attack on services and benefits for disabledpeople” while claiming that their “relentless assault on the living standardsof disabled people is nothing of the kind but a heartfelt attempt to takepublic money away from scroungers and fraudsters and give it to the mostseverely disabled people who really need it”.He concludedthat disabled people needed to take responsibility themselves for “attackingthe disabling barriers we face”, arguing: “What disability history teaches usis that we cannot rely on the bleeding hearts brigade and parasite people to doit for us.“We have to do it for ourselves. We have to insist that our personal troubles are public issues that need to be resolved.”