The 9th November 2020 marks 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force in the UK. Arguably one of the biggest events in UK disability history, the Act made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their disability. It paved the way for so many of the adaptations which disabled people like me rely on every day, from ramps onto trains and buses to hearing loops and Braille buttons in public buildings. The DDA got us physically in the door to employment (employers were no longer able to discriminate against a potential candidate because of their disability) and entertainment venues (cinemas were no longer able to turn wheelchair users away on the grounds of their wheelchairs presenting a ‘fire risk’).
As a teenager learning about disability rights and politics for the first time, I remember watching in astonishment the footage of the protests that led to the DDA: people in wheelchairs and mobility scooters handcuffing themselves to buses and trains; prominent disability rights campaigners storming television studios and even parliamentary buildings; the outrage and strength of this huge bunch of brilliant protesters coming together to show the world that disabled people deserved equity of movement, entertainment, employment and education.
I don’t use the word lightly when I say I have long found stories of those protests, and of the work of groups like the Direct Action Network, truly inspiring. In my more tempestuous tirades at bus drivers who refuse to let me board, I’ve been known to shout ‘people chained themselves to buses for that wheelchair space!’ at the departing behind of a number 78.
Because as grateful as I am for the truly remarkable people who campaigned for the DDA in the 90s, and for the Equality Act in the noughties, and for all the many protesters who paved the way before then, the fact is I still can’t always get on the bus.
In 2008, 13 years after the DDA, it took my secondary school six attempts to find me a work experience placement (the first five offers having all been withdrawn on the grounds of ‘health and safety’).
In 2014, 19 years after the DDA, I was boogying away on the dancefloor of the Cambridge branch of Vodka Revs (I know, the shame), when staff approached, asked me to transfer to a bench and then took away my wheelchair on the grounds of it being a ‘fire risk’.
In 2015, 20 years after the DDA, I started a job where my employers made sure I had access to an accessible toilet in the office but where social events and summer parties were regularly held up flights of stairs.
In 2019, 24 years after the DDA, I was branded ‘uncooperative’ and almost sectioned for refusing to attend the mental health unit to which I’d been referred because it didn’t have a lift.
It’s now 2020, 25 years after the DDA. I live within a ten-minute walk of four different tube stations, and I can’t get into any of them. I’m regularly refused access to buses or trains because there’s a pushchair in the wheelchair space, or because they can’t find the key to the ramp, or because I was supposed to book 24 hours in advance. As much as I want to support small businesses, I often end up shopping and eating in chains because most of the independent shops, cafes and restaurants where I live have steps to get in, narrow doorways or shelves too close together for me to move around.
These things might sound minor – and they are, especially compared to what people had to go through 25 years ago – but microaggressions wear you down. Because when you’re a teenager who wants to be a journalist but isn’t allowed to visit the local paper, or a student pulled away from the dancefloor to sit alone at the side of the club, or a young graduate made late for an important business meeting because the lifts are broken and you have to go seven stops back on the District line to the nearest accessible station – these things all add up to say, ‘You’re not like the rest of them. Your body is a problem. You can’t keep up.’
So yes, it’s been 25 years since the DDA. The progress made before and since 1995 should absolutely be celebrated. But the fight is far from over.