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25 Years of the Disability Discrimination Act: Past, Present & Future

To mark 25 years of the Disability Discrimination Act, we look at how it started, what it means now, and how the law may need to evolve in the years ahead.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, one of the most important rulings in the fight for equal rights.

To mark this landmark moment, the BBC is airing a month-long series of programmes that reflect on the passing of the Act and tell the stories of the people affected.

Here, we look at how the Act came about, what it means for disabled people in 2020, and how the law may need to evolve in the years ahead.

The Past

Though the Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1995, its beginnings stretch back to the 1980s, a period when people were regularly discriminated against on the grounds of disability. A key moment came in 1992, when the ITV network held a 24-hour telethon to raise funds for disabled charities.

Many disabled people believed the telethon patronised them, with campaigner Rachel Hurst telling the Independent newspaper: “What telethon and programmes like it should be doing is encouraging able-bodied people to make disabled people members of their pubs and clubs, to employ them, let them into their schools, give them reasonable access to public places.”

With discontent growing, more than 100,000 people joined protests and many demonstrated outside Parliament and handcuffed themselves to buses. As support grew, protest groups including the Direct Action Network pushed for an end to discrimination and the implementation of civil rights for disabled people.

Finally, on November 8th, 1995 and following 14 failed attempts to push civil rights legislation for disabled people through Parliament between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was finally passed. The Act made it illegal for employers and service providers such as shops, bars and restaurants to discriminate against a person because they were disabled. It was considered to be a landmark moment in the fight for equal rights.

The Present

In the intervening quarter-of-a-century, many critics have noted that the Act has had a number of shortcomings, including that it was only rolled out in stages. For example, libraries, restaurants and shops didn’t have to widen doorways to improve accessibility until 2004, almost a decade later. Others criticised that companies and authorities could not be punished for discriminating against a disabled person and that any action against them had to be funded by the person themselves, making it prohibitively expensive.

Yet in 2015, Unison noted the positive impact the DDA has had in the UK. Significant progress had been made, it stated, with disabled people becoming “more engaged and involved in the process of consultation and participation in influencing public policy and public life.” As a result of the Act, disabled people also enjoyed better legal protection in employment, goods and services, as well as improved legal representation and rights in employment and society.

Both sides of the argument are covered in depth this month when the BBC marks the 25th anniversary of the DDA with a range of content running across multiple platforms. A documentary – Able – will uncover the hidden story of how disabled people fought for their rights in the lead up to the Act in 1995, while a series of discussions entitled Reframing Disability will examine the representation and portrayal of disability on and off screen.

“Our content now and into 2021 will be exploring the significance and impact of the Act as well as showcasing the creativity of disabled actors, presenters, producers, directors and writers,” says Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s Chief Content Officer. “I hope that enabling disabled people to tell their often unexpected and surprising stories will challenge stereotypes and make us all think about the world we want to live in.”

The Future

While much progress has been made over the past 25 years, many disabled people feel there is still significant room for improvement. In 2015, Lord Chris Holmes, the Disability Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission noted that barriers to the full participation of disabled people still exist. “Many disabled people are still ‘locked out’ of full participation in society due to barriers remaining in the provision of housing, transport, leisure facilities, education and workplaces,” he wrote.

To better protect their rights, Lord Holmes unveiled a strategy built around three priorities. Firstly, to promote fairness and equality of opportunity in Great Britain’s future economy. Secondly, to promote fair access to public services, and autonomy and dignity in service delivery. And finally, to promote dignity and respect, and contribute to keeping people safe.

How successful that strategy has been depends on who you ask. This month, a YouGov study found that of more than 1,000 people living with disability in Britain, more than half (51%) feel the existing Equality Act is “not robust enough to protect the rights of the disabled”, while only one in five (20%) of disabled adults think that the Equality Act in its current form does enough to protect their rights.

So, while significant progress has been made, it’s clear that the fight for equality is a long way from being finished.

[Note: The DDA Act remained in place until 2010, when it was replaced by the Equality Act, brought in to consolidate separate discrimination laws into a single Act.]

The BBC’s DDA season runs throughout November. Find out more here.

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