Feature: The Influence of Disability Organisations

For our October feature article, Gareth Millward expands on his paper on how disability organisations have attempted to influence policymaking in Britain since the 1960s, which won the New Researchers Prize at the VAHS’s recent international research conference at the University of Huddersfield.

The Voluntary Action History Society's fifth international research conference was hosted by the University of Huddersfield in July 2013.

As I’ve written on this blog previously, my work is focused on British disability policy in the late twentieth century. This takes me into a number of areas of historical research: politics, history of medicine, sociology, disability studies and even a soupçon of economics.

But voluntary action is central. We cannot tell the story of late-twentieth century policy without NGOs, not-for-profit groups, charities or voluntarism.

Pressure groups – sometimes referred to as interest groups, advocacy groups or lobbyists (depending on the political or moral judgements one intends to make) – played a crucial role in framing the discourse of numerous social issues. In the world of disability policy, it is clear that the path of government action was heavily influenced by the way in which disability was defined as a social issue by the Disablement Income Group (DIG). In turn, the solutions offered by disability lobbyists formed the background of government policy responses from the late-1960s onwards.

My paper at the VAHS Conference 2013 in Huddersfield focused on how these groups attempted to secure policy change. I argued that as part of the “poverty lobby”, disability organisations have consistently used data and reason to try to “win the argument” over resource priorities and acceptable solutions to perceived problems. Voluntary organisations ask different questions than governments, have access to different data sources and have a different form of reasoning which can result in novel (sometimes beneficial) approaches to social policy.

Now – you might be thinking “so what? Don’t all lobby groups behave in this way?” No, not all. Some focus more on “raising awareness”. Some appeal more to emotional triggers (warning: contains images of animal cruelty). Some work to re-enforce decisions already taken or proposed by a political party. More importantly, the ways in which data were collected, analysed and presented to government departments did not remain static over time. There was a consistently evolving relationship between governments of all hues, voluntary organisations and the people those organisations purported to represent.

Disability symbolsMy paper is broadly split into four phases. The first (covering the 1960s) shows how DIG established disability as an object of policy. The second (the 1970s) outlines a period in which disability was accepted as something the government has responsibility for, and in which a stronger and more-confident lobby could campaign for greater public expenditure. During the third (1980s) disability groups found it far more difficult to influence the government directly due to the change in attitude from the neo-liberal Thatcher administration, and their method of attack changed accordingly. And finally (the 1990s), greater professionalisation and improved communications allowed organisations to produce more information than ever before. At the same time, the goals of the lobby fragmented, presenting new political challenges.

Part I – The 1960s

When DIG was founded in 1965, there were no specific benefits for disabled people. Rather, there were some payments that could be claimed depending on how a person became injured (such as at work or in the armed forces), their National Insurance status (Sickness Benefit), or relative poverty (National Assistance, the successor to the Poor Law). DIG’s early campaigns, therefore, focused on showing how disabled people had been left out of the welfare state. Establishing branches across the United Kingdom, the Group gathered anecdotal stories from its members as well as polling them for more quantitative data. Using government publications it was also able to explain exactly how disabled people were disadvantaged, what their main concerns were and how the government could respond to this in a relatively cost-effective way. Its National Disability Income booklets became highly influential, and in 1968 its leaders were actively consulted when the government began its first ever study into the number of disabled people in Britain and their financial needs.[1]

This was crucial. Until disability could be seen as a policy issue, with statistics on the number of people and the scale of the “problem”, the government could not act. Research began at the highest levels of the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) and eventually led to new benefits, introduced by the Conservative government in 1971 and 1972. One was paid to people with National Insurance contributions who could not work for over 12 months due to a health condition (Invalidity Benefit). The other was payable to all disabled people who required constant attention during the day and night.[2]

Part II – The 1970s

Keith Joseph was Ted Heath’s Health Secretary in the 1970s

The relative success of these early campaigns meant that governments were willing to divert resources towards disability issues. It also meant that DIG’s membership and power grew. During the 1970s it was able to move into other areas untouched by official departments, drafting a detailed analysis of how British disability policy compared with other Western European nations.[3] This prompted the government to begin its own investigations.  The thalidomide scandal drew greater focus on disability, but also led to more radical voices for change. The Disability Alliance (founded 1974), concerned at the lack of progress by the Heath administration on the matter, became far more critical of government, creating tensions with DIG who preferred a closer and less-hostile relationship with politicians and ministers.

However, the general approach of producing data, analysing it and presenting it to government continued. Led by Professor Peter Townsend, the Disability Alliance published a number of studies using data from its member organisations and official records.[4] This was used to argue for changes in policy. DIG continued to update its policy documents with new information on the National Disability Income.[5] Later, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) would be established to investigate wider disability issues beyond the benefits question. All these groups drew on a small and committed group of Westminster lobbyists, and all would base their campaigns on quantitative and qualitative evidence gleaned from studies and research of their own design.

Professor Peter Townsend (1928-2009)

The economic crises of the 1970s limited what could be achieved, however. Despite securing a number of new benefits in 1975 (including the first to recognise the needs of disabled married women and carers), the reforms never brought about a comprehensive package to cover disabled people. Still, both the Heath and Wilson/Callaghan regimes were willing to entertain the lobby’s requests. A Minister for the Disabled was created in 1974 to act as a first port of call for disability enquiries. In this environment, it was clear that disability organisations were being listened to – even if their concerns were not necessarily acted upon.

Part III – The 1980s

The same could not be said of Margaret Thatcher. The new government had a commitment to reducing government expenditure and was wary of the agendas of groups from a centre-left, poverty lobby tradition such as DIG, the Disability Alliance and RADAR. These groups used a definition of poverty which relied upon incomes relative to the national average, or in some cases the Supplementary Benefit rate (the subsistence wage provided by means-tested benefits to those out of work). The right of the party, and Thatcher herself, argued with some justification that this necessarily meant that poverty would always exist in Britain, and that therefore the poverty lobby were asking for the impossible. Unsurprisingly, the amount of direct contact with ministers dwindled, and it became more difficult for groups to put their case forward for welfare expansion.

Despite this, the lobby did not abandon its approach. It continued to produce research and publicised it as widely as possible. Newly created advisory groups such as the Social Security Advisory Council regularly met with representatives from disability organisations.[6] Moreover, their approach was credible to those outside the government. Through clearly presented data and reasoning, they showed that the proposed social security reforms of 1985 would disproportionately impact upon disabled people.[7] The protest they raised from educated and lay opinion through the media led to the creation of a contingency “Independent Living Fund” to provide payments to the most severely disabled people who were set to lose out.

Information was still useful, then. It was also influential. Direct lobbying of the government had become more tricky, but in a defensive stance – to ward off unwanted policies – the lobby’s tactics maintained an impact. The crucial difference was that instead of directing the agenda as it had done in the 1960s, the lobby was forced to react to proposals set by a hostile government.

Part IV – The 1990s

During the previous decades, organisations had become more professional. This gave them more financial resources and manpower to produce even more information. At the same time, the declining cost of microcomputers and telecommunications allowed researchers to collaborate much more easily and manipulate far more data. Following the slump in Thatcher’s popularity and the slim majority of the 1992-97 government, organisations found it easier to get direct access to an administration that had begun to open up to outside sources of information.[8] During the disability benefit reforms of mid-nineties, disability organisations were actively consulted and invited onto a testing panel to attempt to refine the eligibility tests which would underpin the new benefits.

Other forms of disability activism had also given rise to different campaigning strategies and different types of analysis. The growth in the number of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), or groups founded and run by disabled people themselves, made far greater use of personal experience in explaining the discrimination they faced from society and government policy. This was given a theoretical underpinning by Disability Studies, a branch of sociological research inspired by feminist and civil rights critiques of capitalist society.[9] The British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) was founded in 1981 and best expressed this form of campaigning. By the 1990s, Disability Studies and DPOs were well enough established to have an important – and confident – voice in the policy arena. Most notably, they were central in campaigns for disability civil rights legislation in the 1990s, which I’ve written about on this blog previously.

United Kingdom Disabled People's Council

As I also noted, however, this caused tension between the “poverty lobby” and the “DPO” factions. Far more information was available than ever before, and more groups had the resources to publicise it. This led to conflicting information and ideas. Those who based their campaigns on gradual reform within the current system (as expressed by DIG et al) were criticised for not attacking the root cause of discrimination against disabled people and propping up an oppressive system of governance. On the other hand, BCODP was accused of being unrealistic and uncooperative, demanding a level of change that would never be practical on the timescale they wanted. The successes of this period were therefore rather mixed. Anti-discrimination legislation was enacted, albeit in a much weaker form than that proposed by the Labour opposition and the DPOs. Government opinion could only be steered to a certain extent. It spent more time listening to disability groups than in the 1980s, but rarely acted upon the advice it received.


“Information” is historically constructed. How organisations have gathered it, interpreted it and promoted it has changed over time according to the resources, politics and attitudes of both the organisations themselves and the governments they tried to influence. I intend to turn this paper into a published article which will explore in more detail the ideas of “information” and “winning the political argument” in the context of British politics and voluntarism. It is my belief that through paying greater attention to how information was used as a campaign tool we will have a greater understanding of the underlying beliefs voluntary organisations and government had about each other.


[1] Modern Records Centre, Coventry (MRC): MSS 108/3/6, Towards a National Disability Income, DIG Paper #9, December 1968. Amelia I. Harris, Handicapped and Impaired in Great Britain (London, 1971).

[2] Labour had tried, but ran out of time before the 1970 General Election. See National Insurance (Old Persons’, Widows’ Pensions and Attendance Allowance) Act 1970, which introduced Attendance Allowance; and National Insurance Act 1971 which introduced Invalidity Benefit.

[3] Disablement Income Group, Social Security and Disability : A Study of the Financial Provisions for Disabled People in Seven West European Countries (London, 1971).

[4] Disability Alliance, The Government’s Record on Behalf of People with Disabilities (London, 1981); Disability Alliance, Poverty and Disability: The Case for a Comprehensive Income Scheme for Disabled People (London, 1975); Disability Alliance E.R.A., Invalid Procedures? A Study of the Control System for Invalidity Benefit (London, 1983).

[5] MRC: MSS 108/4/2, Realising a National Disability Income, April 1974.

[6] See The National Archives (TNA): BN 69, SSAC memoranda 75/81, 13/82, 42/82 and passim.

[7] The proposals were made in 1985, enacted in 1986 and implemented in 1988. See Cmnd. 9691.

[8] Virginia Berridge and Alex Mold, ‘Professionalisation, new social movements and voluntary action in the 1960s and 1970s’ in Matthew Hilton and James McKay (eds), The Ages of Voluntarism : How We Got to the Big Society (Oxford, 2011), 114-34; Tanya Evans, ‘Stopping the poor getting poorer: The establishment and professionalisation of poverty NGOs, 1945-95’ in Matthew Hilton, et al. (eds), NGOs in Contemporary Britain: Non-state Actors in Society and Politics since 1945 (London, 2009), 147-63; Hilton, Crowson, Mouhot and McKay, A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain (Basingstoke, 2012), 349-54; Baggott and McGregor-Riley, ‘Renewed consultation or continued exclusion? Organised interests and the Major governments’ in Dorey, Peter (ed.), The Major Premiership (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1999), 68-86.

[9] See Gary L. Albrecht, Katherine D. Seelman and Michael Bury (eds), Handbook of Disability Studies (Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2001); Colin Barnes, Mike Oliver and Len Barton (eds), Disability Studies Today (Cambridge, 2002); Len Barton and Michael Oliver (eds), Disability Studies : Past, Present and Future (Leeds, 1997); Lennard J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (London, 2006).

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One Response to Feature: The Influence of Disability Organisations

  1. Sanjukta Ghosh says:

    This is an excellent approach to using ‘information’ in the construction of knowledge that informs our understanding of historical experiences and formations. I look forward to the findings that can be generalised in other conflict situations between governments and charitable bodies.

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