November 2020 marks 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act became law in the UK. The law was the first of its kind to protect those with disabilities from discrimination in areas including employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. It was replaced by the Equality Act 2010, which kept many of the same provisions as the original act.

The story behind the act

The act was passed by the then Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative Government, and came into force in 1995.

While the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 provided legal protection from discrimination on grounds of race and gender, those with a disability lacked similar protection enshrined in law.

In the early 1990s, thousands of protesters, including many disabled people, took to the streets demanding new legislation. These protests included the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN). Protests escalated as the 1990s progressed, with DAN moving from marches and demonstrations to more radical action, including protesters handcuffing themselves to buses. Founding member of DAN Alan Holdsworth, along with many others, continued this campaign of civil disobedience, alongside well-attended marches and demonstrations.

The group’s approach rejected notions of charity, instead calling for protection and rights to be enshrined in law. They embraced the slogan “piss on pity”, and twice protested outside ITV’s charity fundraising event Telethon, which they perceived to be patronising and limiting to their cause of legal protection. Barbara Lisicki, another key figure in DAN, has written of the ‘block telethon’ protests:

It was a display of collective rage by disabled people, angry at the broadcast media for stealing our image and our dignity. And it was also a party, a celebration, a gathering of up to two thousand disabled people and our supporters showing that we were proud, angry and strong.

Disabled rights groups and campaigners, including Jane Campbell (now Baroness Campbell of Surbiton), lobbied parliament for many years preceding the act, keeping the issue in the minds of politicians and the wider public.

The bill received its second reading in the House of Lords on 22 May 1995. Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, then Minister of State in the Department of Social Security, stated:

The bill is the first comprehensive measure to tackle discrimination against disabled people ever brought before Parliament by a British Government. However, the bill ensures that the move to a more accessible environment will not place undue burdens on those who will be responsible for delivering its provisions.

The Labour Party supported the bill, but did criticise its “restrictive” definitions of disability. Responding for Labour, Baroness Hollis of Heigham stated:

It is so nearly a good bill. [However], the bill is unduly restrictive in its definition of disability. If a person has a disability that falls outside the definition in the bill, even though it gives rise to discrimination, there is no redress. Therefore, courts will have to take difficult decisions about diagnosis, definition and prognosis.

The bill received royal assent on 8 November 1995.

What did the act do?

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 defined disability as physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The act provided protection against discrimination in several areas, including:

  • employment and occupation;
  • education;
  • transport;
  • the provision of goods; and
  • the exercise of public functions.

The act was the first of its kind to protect disabled people from multiple kinds of discrimination. These included:

  • direct discrimination: where a disabled person is treated less favourably than another person due to their disability;
  • failure to make a reasonable adjustment: where any workplace practice or feature of the premises puts a disabled worker at a disadvantage; and
  • victimisation: where a person is treated unfavourably because they made a complaint about their treatment as a disabled person.

What happened next?

The UK ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2009. Article 4 contains general obligations for all signatories to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability. However, there is currently no explicit statutory requirement for the Government to have regard to the CRPD when developing new policy and law.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was replaced in England, Scotland and Wales by the Equality Act 2010. The Disability Discrimination Act remains on the statute book in Northern Ireland. Many amendments to anti-discrimination legislation that have been made in the rest of the UK have been introduced in Northern Ireland through secondary legislation. However, some groups have called for a simplification of the legislation in Northern Ireland to bring equality legislation in line with the rest of the UK.

Under the Equality Act 2010, disability is one of nine protected characteristics. According to the provisions of the act, those with disabilities continue to be protected from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment related to disability, and victimisation. Much of the original text of the 1995 Act was directly incorporated into the 2010 Act.

Disabled rights groups continue to campaign for improved protections for disabled people. Writing on the 20th anniversary of the act, Lord Holmes of Richmond stated:

Barriers to the full participation of disabled people still persist. 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.

There also remains a disability employment gap. The employment rate amongst disabled people is 28.1% lower than those without a disability. This also means many disabled people face significant financial challenges in taking a discrimination case to court. Some groups have called for anti-discrimination law to be criminal rather than civil. They claim this would take the financial burden off disabled people having to take their own cases to court.

Marking 25 Years

In 2019, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive launched a new facility at Buckinghamshire New University, chronicling the history of the disability arts and activism movement.

To mark 25 years since the passing of the act, the BBC has commissioned Independence Day? How Disabled Rights Were Won, a drama telling the story of how it came to be.

Cover image by Yomex Owo from Unsplash.