A campaigning alliance has called for disabled people and their organisations to join its fight to use the UN disability convention to defend attacks on their rights by the UK government.
The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) was holding its third national conference in the five years since it was founded by a small group of disabled people’s organisation (DPOs) and grassroots groups.
Last week’s conference was attended by more than 50 representatives of DPOs and groups.
The conference heard that ROFA had campaigned over the last year on issues such as cuts to Access to Work; the impact of the closure of the Independent Living Fund; cuts to employment and support allowance and personal independence payment; proposals to legalise assisted suicide; and the government’s planned cuts and reforms to disabled students’ allowance.
Over the next year, ROFA will continue to campaign on welfare reform, independent living, disability hate crime, employment and education.
This will include campaigning on the social care funding crisis; developing a disabled-led vision for independent living; continuing to campaign against Department for Work and Pensions contractors Atos, Maximus and Capita; and developing a vision for community and welfare support that delivers choice and control to disabled people.
Tara Flood, chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, one of ROFA’s founding members, told the conference: “It feels like the movement is coming together in a way we haven’t seen before.”
But she said there was still a need to “strengthen and broaden our movement”.
And she said: “ROFA isn’t going to be rich anytime soon, but we are rich in terms of experience and history and commitment to disability rights.”
Flood called for more to be done to find and work with younger disabled people.
She said: “I worry about the cumulative impact on disabled young people of austerity as they move into adult life.
“Children’s services are far from perfect, but the reality is things are being decimated.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said the conference – which was hosted by Disability Sheffield, with the venue at Sheffield town hall provided free by Sheffield City Council – was “a real achievement”.
He said: “When we lost UKDPC [the UK Disabled People’s Council], when that collapsed, DPOs and disabled people didn’t have a national voice in England, and now we do.
“Change starts from us, it’s not going to come from anywhere else.
“We need to build inclusive, diverse disabled people’s organisations and we cannot do it at a local level, that’s why we need ROFA, a national voice of DPOs in England, to join our voices with those of the representative voices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
He said this would provide a “real voice to fight for the UN [disability] convention” and use it “as a weapon” against a government that “tries to take our rights away”.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said there was a need to build the alliance, despite there being no funding to do so, and added: “We have a big informal membership but we need to formalise it.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, pointed to comments made by Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who said in May at the launch of Beresford’s book All Our Welfare: “We know the media is hostile to the kind of values we have.”
Beresford told the conference: “We must have conversations with each other, we need to think of ourselves as kind of Jehovah’s Witnesses and have the confidence to go and talk to people and tell them our truths.”
Simone Aspis, from Changing Perspectives, said she was concerned about the risk of disabled people’s campaigns working too closely with left-wing political groups and unions, which might not understand or support vital issues such as inclusive education.
She said: “It’s really important that when we work with allies we are really clear, nothing is left unsaid, because anything left unsaid is maintaining the status quo unless we challenge it.”
Andrew Lee, from People First (Self Advocacy), said: “It’s important that local groups come together.
“It’s really important that we have the alliance coming together so that we can build up our strength and give ourselves some confidence.”
Roger Lewis, from the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said there was a “huge amount of fear” among disabled people about how they were being targeted, which meant there was a need to be “united and strong” in the face of “any attempt to divide us or any other group that could be scapegoated”.
After the conference, Andrew Crooks, development and engagement worker for Disability Sheffield Centre for Independent Living, which helped organise the event, as it did last year, said: “We feel it’s important for local disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to feel part of the collective voice of disabled people and we truly value the idea behind ROFA, where disabled people can unite and defend our rights together.
“They say there is strength in numbers and that is true but for disabled people in Sheffield and all over the UK I think disabled people need to know they are all in this together and can at least seek strength from other like-minded people.”
He said that Disability Sheffield feels that it is “fire-fighting” and is “constantly hearing from disabled people who are in fear of their very existence” and “really fear for their basic rights”.
He said disabled people were facing the pressures of losing benefits through the government’s personal independence payment reforms, concerns about the work capability assessment, and problems with discrimination at work and access to the built environment.
Crooks said: “In Sheffield I think we are now beginning to see the effect of swingeing austerity cuts where Sheffield City Council, with a 50 per cent loss in government support, is now taking its toll on disabled people in relation to social care.”
He said there were about 200 people in Sheffield who lost their access to the Independent Living Fund after it was closed and now “see no guarantees of being able to live their lives the way they need to”.
He said: “The feeling in our city is that there are moves back to more institutionalised methods of care and people are fearful it’s beginning to affect their ways of living.”
Disability Sheffield’s chair, Kate Whittaker, a public law solicitor who has taken high-profile legal cases in areas such as community care, disability discrimination and human rights, said: “It’s more important than ever for us to work collaboratively all over the UK where we can campaign for stronger rights, build the capacity of DPOs to deliver vital services like advocacy and support with direct payments, and tackle the barriers disabled people face to equality and full inclusion in society.”