This week marks 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 made it illegal for employers and service providers to discriminate against someone because they were disabled. Museums Journal has spoken to a number of people who advocate for disabled rights in the cultural sector to find out about the impact of the legislation and what work remains to be done.
The idea that the DDA came into law 25 years ago because of the beneficence of politicians would be fallacious.
It was the result of a hard and dirty fight in which politicians were pushed reluctantly towards a piecemeal appeasement due to the pressure from disabled people, their allies and clear public support for anti-discrimination legislation.
One of the many disabled campaigners was the late Paddy Masefield, who, fortunately at that time, was on the arts council lottery panel when the fight for disability rights was at its zenith. Lord Puttnam, the council’s then chair, talked of Paddy's persuasive powers and his absolute refusal to compromise over the question of funding to make buildings accessible for disabled people: "Paddy made all of us realise that the only way of achieving meaningful and sustainable change was to accept these as absolutely fundamental and enduring issues." As a result, all of the buildings that received funding from the panel became accessible.
So, museums and galleries then became more physically accessible due to lottery funding conditions, not necessarily because they always wanted to but because it became a requirement of funding, and that was a start.
The act made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people but in many respects it was toothless. There is a strong feeling amongst disabled people that we have since been losing ground. The Disability Rights Commission with a budget of £23m was dissolved in 2007, then the DDA was subsumed into the Equality Act 2010. Since then disability has been off the agenda and the gains made have largely been eradicated by an imposed austerity.
Disabled people might be able to get into more museums and galleries but we, with some exceptions, are seldom reflected in the workforce, on the boards or represented in the collections.
The introduction of the DDA 25 years ago was such an exciting optimistic moment for disabled people. Finally, we felt like we would be listened to and our expertise valued.
The reality has been far from equal and is still intellectually flawed as a strategic aim in our cultural institutions. We are still fighting for our freedom, representation, social justice and true equality. We are still waiting for “the cultural change to happen”. Let’s look at equality and inequality within these institutions in simple steps.
When we discuss public spaces and public institutions being accessible, when we speak about public mobility so that disabled people can assemble in the centres of decision-making places, we are still failing disabled people by excluding disabled experts as our curators, archivists, directors, boards, exhibition designers, social media teams, architects of the buildings created.
When we talk about museums and galleries being accessible, we are talking about our rights of societal access and our right to our heritage, but we are not visible enough.
The rights of mobility are crucial and form together with the right to be part of our public heritage, to these venues and public talks, the right to deliberate, the right to reflect together, the right to be heard, the right to be represented in cultural heritage, the right to be part of the public space.
We still lack a framework of a code of ethics which protects disabled people’s heritage, a national institution that speaks up for disabled people who are still fighting for basic human rights. I’m still positive but it’s with less optimism than 25 years ago, as over the last five years disabled peoples rights have been slowly erased and we have been dehumanised.
There are still pockets of change: the Wellcome Trust and its Being Human exhibition, and the support from the Research Centre for Museums and Gallery, the incredible teams at Tate Modern. But how are the senior personnel within these institutions really representing disabled people rights and actioning change? The DDA has raised awareness but its hasn’t made awareness move into actions: this is till paramount and necessary.
Identify the issues preventing full access, then produce a plan of action and then implement it and evaluate it. The latter is still very weak, and I often feel no one is accountable – it’s always someone else’s responsibility.
Is there a national register of cultural institutions and how accessible are they? A plan of action transparent to the public of what needs to be changed? Impact assessments and diversity plans are discussed but how intrinsic are they to every part of these institutions? Have disabled experts been involved?
“Equality is not just an abstract right that individuals have and bare, and express in their own way, equality is a question of equal treatment and equal opportunity but also to having lives that are regarded as equal and equal to other people lives” - In conversation with Judith Butler.
The DDA was a landmark piece of legislation. It followed protests led by the Direct Action Network that highlighted the inaccessibility of public life for disabled people and skewered demeaning views of disability as a “pitiable” state.
The impact of the DDA has been incremental, with key features such as the requirement to make reasonable adjustments, the provision of information in accessible formats, and physical access to buildings being implemented gradually in the decade following the legislation. In 2010 it was superseded by the Equality Act, which strengthened the law by making it illegal to harass someone because of their disability.
Like all service providers, museums have adapted their buildings in line with the law. In cases of best practice, museums have worked in partnership with disability organisations to draw on disabled people’s expertise in making spaces and displays accessible.
Yet to be fully inclusive museums need to do more to ensure that displays represent disabled people’s experiences. Too often disability is viewed as a medical problem rather than as a universal component of human experience. Too often we focus on what was done for – or to – disabled people in the past, rather than how disabled people have contributed to society. As new disability history research is showing, we understand the past differently when we place people normally marginalised from conventional narratives at the centre of the story.
The struggles that led to the DDA remind us that disability is always political. A good way to mark its anniversary would be to collect the stories, images and artefacts of the disabled people’s movement to celebrate those whose demands for equality have benefitted us all.