The Overlooked History of the Disability Rights Movement in the United Kingdom

The Overlooked History of the Disability Rights Movement in the United Kingdom

Patchwork Hub are committed to connecting individuals with more accessible and inclusive job opportunities. With our social mission in mind, we are part of a wider movement that looks to improve the access of disabled individuals to equal rights and opportunities. To understand both why this is so important, and how we can do better as a society, it's important to understand the history of the Disability Rights movement. This article, therefore, highlights just some of the key moments in the history of the Disability Rights movement.

What is the Disability Rights Movement?

The Disability Rights movement is a global ongoing movement that aims to achieve equal rights and opportunities for every person with a disability. Though most people know about movements such as the Suffragette movement, or the American Civil Rights movement, the Disability Rights movement is often overlooked.

Because of this, it’s vital that we all learn about the history of the Disability Rights movement. This is important for several reasons:

  1. Knowing about how we have fought for the rights of disabled individuals in the past can help us fight for the rights and opportunities of disabled individuals in the present and future.
  2. In the past, people with disabilities have often been portrayed as ‘helpless’ or ‘passive victims’. This is very much not the case. Highlighting how disabled people have fought for their rights and the rights of their community can help people understand this.

How has the Disability Rights Movement progressed?


First World War

Before the First World War, the ‘Eugenics’ movement was active. Coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, this phrase was used to describe ‘the science of which deals with all influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race’. In its early years, the Eugenics movement was dominated by a small elite group. This group sought to ‘scientifically’ establish ideas about inherited abilities and characteristics that were supposedly linked to race and social class. This movement looked at disabled individuals like they were a ‘problem’. Disabled people were often separated from wider society, and treated poorly as a result of their differences.

However, the First World War challenged these ideas. A large number of soldiers returned from the war with mental and physical injuries. These included loss of limbs and other bodily injuries, through to the psychiatric condition of ‘shell shock’. With thousands of men returning home from war with disabilities, this led to a small cultural shift in attitudes towards disability.

In the years to come, disabled people began to make themselves heard through marches, protests and campaigns and this became noticed in a way that had not been done before. One notable protest was the march of the National League of the Blind on Trafalgar Square in April 1920. Using the slogan ‘Justice Not Charity’, the League emphasised that they were not looking to achieve any special rights, but rather to gain the equal rights that they deserved. The Blind Persons Act (1920) which followed this was the first major set of laws that were passed, introduced and supported by disabled people.

Second World War

The Second World War was another key juncture for the Disability Rights movement. Due to the mass migration of citizens into the British Armed Forces with conscription, many jobs at home were left vacant. Because of this, individuals with disabilities who may have found it difficult to find work before the war were viewed as important members of the workforce.

Recognising the importance of these workers, in 1944 the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act was introduced, encouraging employers to ensure that at least 3% of employment roles were offered to disabled people. The introduction of this Act was therefore a very early step in decreasing the ‘disability employment gap’, the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in employment. To this day, however, the disability employment gap is a persistent issue. According to government data, in the second quarter of 2021, the gap totalled 28.4 percentage points. Here at Patchwork Hub, we’ve made it our mission to work towards reducing the disability employment gap. With this in mind, we think it’s crucial to educate employers to be more inclusive and accommodating of individuals' accessibility needs.

In later decades, due to direct action and campaigning from Disabled People's Organisations (DPOs), more bills were passed. Perhaps the most important was the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), also known as the DDA. Receiving royal assent on 8th November 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act introduced new laws to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. The Act made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled persons in connection with employment and training, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, and transport. Although this was by no means a perfect piece of legislation, this Act provided a crucial platform to build on.

Vital in the establishment of the DDA were the actions of DPOs such as the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN). If you’re interested in reading more about the DDA, we have published a blog on the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network. You can also watch ‘Then Barbara Met Alan’ on BBC iPlayer or Netflix! Based on the history of Barbara Liszicki, Alan Holdsworth and DAN, this docudrama rewrites the conventional representation of disability on mainstream television.

Arthur Hughes and Ruth Madeley

Alan Holdsworth and Barbara Lisicki, portrayed by Arthur Hughes and Ruth Madeley in Then Barbara Met Alan.

Since then, several more acts have been passed to further equality for people with disabilities. The 2005 DDA Amendment Act for example extends the definition of disability, and the 2010 Equality Act legally protects disabled people from discrimination at work.

Are you ready to join the movement?

To this day, however, disabled people do not have access to equal rights or equal opportunity. This is often due to societal and systemic barriers that limit accessibility.

Here at Patchwork Hub, we are determined to strive for equality for all and to integrate accessibility and disability inclusion into the future of work.

By bringing you this brief overlooked history of the Disability Rights movement, we hope to spark curiosity and raise awareness for this under-appreciated history. With as many as 14.1 million disabled people in the UK and 1 billion disabled people globally, it’s vital that we continue to fight for what is right.

Did you find this article on the Disability Rights movement interesting? How will you continue to fight for equality and disability rights?


Written by Adya Manoj

Published: 20th April 2022

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