Justice not charity: the fight for a fairer society for disabled workers

As disability history month ends on the 16th Dec, I would like to take this opportunity to look back on our union’s long and proud history of fighting for disabled people’s rights, and to acknowledge the crisis we as disabled people currently find ourselves in.

Community has been supporting disabled people since 1899, with the formation of the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD) as a trade union specially for blind and disabled workers. The League organised its first strike in 1912. In April 1920, under the banner of “Justice not Charity” it organised a march that converged in London in support of legal reform that became the Blind Persons Act 1920.

Decades of campaigning from the NLBD and other disabled rights activists led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, making it unlawful to discriminate against people based on their disability. In 2000, the NLBD joined with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to form the union that is now known as Community.

Many studies have shown that disabled people continue to be the hardest hit by every crisis this country encounters. During the financial crisis disabled people were the first to be made redundant.

Throughout the austerity years, this government allowed disabled people to be the hardest hit time and time again, and now the pay gap between non-disabled and disabled employees is 17.2%, or £3,731 a year.

Not to mention the pandemic, where six in 10 of all deaths attributed to Covid were disabled people. If nothing else this shocking statistic has highlighted just how far disabled people still have to go to achieve true equality.

We now find ourselves facing the worst cost of living crisis in living memory at a time where we already know disabled people’s outgoings are higher than that of non-disabled people. Against this backdrop, and more than ever, we must continue to campaign and fight for disabled people’s rights.

As a union we will continue to demand change and a society where it is unacceptable for disabled people to be disproportionately affected each time our country faces a crisis.

Attitudes also have to change, starting with the outdated and outright discriminatory medical model of disability, it is time society understood the social model of disability. The social model states that the exclusions and discrimination faced by disabled people are not inevitable and that they are caused, not by the person’s impairment, but by the barriers that society puts in their way. There are multiple barriers in workplaces that union members can change – they might be physical, attitudinal, or related to communication.

So, what can we do you may ask? You can continue to fight for true equality and rights for disabled people in work and in society as a whole. We can promote the social model of disability wherever possible, and we can take inspiration from our proud history by continuing to organise in our workplaces and our communities. But most importantly never forget those great NLBD activists who came before us.

“Justice not charity”

If you are a member of Community and need advice or support, please contact our Service Centre at help@community-tu.org or on 0800 389 6332.

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