Student Contributions

The History of Disability Rights Movement in the United Kingdom  

While disability and labor rights are not always analyzed in tandem, in the United Kingdom, disability and labor are historically intertwined. In a more contemporary context, some disabled activists advocate for the right to work, citing exclusion from the workforce as an example of ableist discrimination. However, in Industrial Era England, labor and disability often went hand in hand. With the emergence of factories and coal mines during the Industrial Revolution, workplaces became sites of disability due to the commonality of work-related injuries. This was particularly true in coal mines, which are often perceived as places where disabled people were barred from working. However, because it was common for family members to work alongside one another, disabled workers were often able to continue working despite injuries with the assistance of kin. In addition, because different areas of the coal mining industry required diverse levels of physical ability, when more strenuous roles became unfit for disabled workers, they could often continue to work in an sector that was less physically taxing, such as managing the underground railways which transported coal through the mines. The presence of disabled workers in coal mines and other industries during the Industrial Revolution challenges the popularly held belief that disabled people are incapable of working, and unveiling this history allows us to give due credit to disabled workers who contributed to Britain’s incredible economic growth in this period.   

In instances of severe injury, families with disabled members who could no longer work relied on welfare. The basis of Britain’s welfare system was the Poor Law––a regionally-based welfare system––which would later serve as the foundation upon which disabled activists fought for government relief. The Poor Law was the primary means through which British citizens could obtain outrelief, which is economic assistance that does not require institutionalization. While comparatively more generous than welfare systems in other parts of Europe, the Old Poor Law of 1795-1834 was limited in scope, attending solely to elder populations, widows, children, those suffering from illness, the physically disabled, and the unemployed. In 1834, the British government passed a Poor Law Amendment Act, resulting in the decreased availability of outrelief for the working class. Due to a desire among the upper and middle classes to reduce the cost of looking after the poor, the Poor Law Amendment Act pushed impoverished people to live in workhouses, where individuals performed physically intensive labor and faced harsh living conditions. The amendment was an early signal of changing attitudes among the British public with regards to poverty and the role of government in the mid 19th-century. Frustrated by the fact that their tax payments went to the hands of the poor, the British bourgeoisie began to purport the notion that working class people could afford to survive on savings alone and simply abused the generous welfare system. Political campaigns––namely the Crusade Against Outrelief––founded on this belief led to the increased popularity of charity and self-help in place of government assistance. The Crusade Against Outrelief emerged in the 1870s and consisted of Britain’s Local Government Board and Charity Organisation Society. Together, they worked to spread anti-welfare propaganda through widely disseminated circulars. The efficacy of the Crusade significantly reduced the reach of the Poor Law, as the number of people receiving government welfare fell by 33% from 1871-1881. The lack of government support pushed working-class laborers to form mutual aid networks through membership-only friendly societies and trade unions, which saw a massive rise in popularity in the latter half of the 19th century. Members of these societies had to pay regular fees, which were pooled together to serve as insurance if someone faced sudden job loss. Still, these efforts could not entirely replace the necessity of government assistance, as only skilled workers could afford to save and pay for membership in friendly societies.  

It was not until the leadup to WWI that attitudes towards the working class began to shift. People no longer cited idleness as the leading cause of unemployment, but rather changes in the economy out of any individual’s control. These changing ideologies led to the passage of a series of Liberal Welfare Reforms––namely the Old Age Pension Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911––which served as the groundwork for Britain’s modern-day welfare system. Notably, the National Insurance Act of 1911 was a federally funded insurance program which provided British citizens with aid in instances of income shock, alleviating people’s dependence on the Poor Law alone for financial assistance.   

During World War II, Britain established its welfare state following the publication of The Beveridge Report, a government report written by William Beveridge in 1942. In his report, Beveridge advocated for a more expansive national insurance scheme, a minimum wage, social security, and more. Unlike the Poor Law, the Beveridge report supported an insurance plan that would cover all British citizens. After rigorous debates over the Beveridge report, the government began to construct a welfare state over the course of the mid 1940s––a process which culminated in the adoption of the National Assistance Act of 1948, which rendered the Poor Law obsolete. The act centralized welfare in the UK such that government assistance was no longer paid for by local county governments, but the state government.  

With the end of the Poor Law, the establishment of Britain’s welfare state in the post WWII era was the primary form of government assistance for disabled people in the late 20th century. The Independent Living Movement emerged in the UK in the late 1970s as a reaction to welfare policy for disabled people that they felt did not suit their needs or desires. Encouraging institutionalization and medicalization, the existing welfare system did not recognize disabled peoples’ right to self determination. The Independent Living Movement actually began in the United States, when Ed Roberts helps to create the first Center for Independent Living in 1972, as part of a broader disability rights movement that took root in the 1960s. These centers allowed disabled people to live in their own accessible homes with personal care assistants rather than in institutions.  

The disability rights movement took inspiration from other social movements of the time, including the Black civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement. As such, the American disability rights movement is primarily oriented around issues of discrimination, whereas disability rights advocates abroad (such as in the UK) have focused more heavily on obtaining welfare benefits for disabled people. The Independent Living Movement can be understood as simultaneously a product of disability rights organizing, and a site for the development of a politically oriented collective disabled consciousness that further strengthened the disability rights movement. Disabled activists in late 1970s Britain took inspiration from the Independent Living Movement in the United States, adapting it to fit Britain’s existing welfare system. An early step was the formation of the Independent Living Fund, which was introduced by the Department of Social Security in 1988. The Independent Living Fund allowed disabled people to exercise greater economic independence through a system of direct payments of money that disabled people could allocate as they saw fit. Activists argued that these payments, aptly named Direct Payment schemes, provided more comprehensive and satisfactory care and were more economically efficient than government services for disabled people. The passage of a Direct Payments Act in 1996 advanced the Independent Living Movement by allowing disabled people to choose how their government relief was best spent to suit their lives. 

The Independent Living Movement is ongoing in the UK, and while activists have made incredible progress policy-wise, they continue to struggle to obtain funding and further the widespread implementation of Direct Payments. Expanding the reach of Direct Payments continues to be a priority for disability rights activists in the UK today.  


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Lea Wong is a junior at Pomona, majoring in History with a thematic concentration in Decolonization. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Lea is currently studying abroad for the 2023-4 academic year at Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, where she is taking tutorials in History and History of Art. Outside of school, her interests include art, volleyball, and social justice.