Before yesterday I had never heard of Lord Alf Morris, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 84. Most disabled people will, if they are honest, tell you the same thing. But those of us now in education, employment, involved in sport, indeed who are integrating into society in all sorts of different ways owe Lord Alf a great debt of gratitude.
The perception of members of the House of Lords is one of old farts nodding off during readings of legislatory bills which have already been passed elsewhere. While that may be true of many, Lord Morris is one whose political career has seen him make a real difference to the lives of a great many people, myself included. It was Lord Morris who was at the forefront of the very first UK disability rights legislation back in 1970. It was a model which has been copied throughout the world and it laid the foundations for all of the greater freedoms we now enjoy.
You might not believe me if you have been trawling through my photographs on Facebook (which you have, admit it), but I wasn't around in 1970. I can only imagine what it must have been like for disabled people in Britain at that time. Regular visitors to this page will probably have been persuaded that it is not exactly shits and giggles even now, but it must have been far worse back then. Many disabled people were institutionalised, denied education and employment, locked away from the rest of society lest they bring about embarrassing attention. Sport was mostly off the agenda too, yet millions will tune into Channel 4 to see the best disabled athletes in the world compete at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in a couple of weeks. That we have come so far is due in no small part to Lord Alf and that first piece of legislation.
It has been a slow process. Improvements did not happen overnight. Where now we take disabled toilets, ramps, lifts etc for granted in many places, this was not always the case even after 1970. I started school in 1979 (at the age of three!) and was straight away unable to attend the same school as my sister, my cousins and all of the other children who grew up in the same area. None of the mainstream schools had the structures in place to provide access for a child with a phsyical disability back then. By the time I was 11 and ready to enter secondary school it was probably possible for me to attend a mainstream school but I never really considered it or even looked any further into it. There was still a social barrier which I feared could not be overcome. It was too much of a wrench to leave the familiar environment that had been created for me over the previous eight years. I was too comfortable, but I was contributing to my own social exclusion. I'm still paying for that.
Instead I was sent out to local mainstream schools to get myself a more rounded education. The special school I attended, as wonderful as all the staff there were, could not provide teaching to the standard that we were now showing that we required. Because we were able, because we could progress academically just as well as the able bodied children. This was somehow not thought possible before, or at least not important. We weren't going to be able to go out and work, so they thought, so why bother educating us? People like Lord Morris changed all that, but it hasn't been an easy transition.
During the time I spent at mainstream school I got a taste of what it might have been like had I attended full time. At Sutton High School my friend Phil and I studied French, Media Studies and Science to GCSE level. The vagaries of the timetable had it that on one day of the week we would have a session in all three of these subjects, so we spent the whole day there and just tried as best we could to fill in the gaps between lessons. That proved far more difficult than it should have been. It was the early 1990's but still our segregation from the others was plainly obvious. The school had social areas for the pupils to use during breaks and at lunchtime. Yet some pupils had damaged some of the seating, meaning that no students were allowed in from then on. Fine, we will all go outside then, right? Not you two. We can't have you going out in the rain or rolling over that dangerous concrete. We were told to stay in the social areas, indoors. We couldn't go outside, the other pupils couldn't come inside. It's too strong to compare it to Apartheid, but it was clearly segregation through lack of trust, through fear of what might happen. To us, to the other children. To society.
Even today we still have an awful long way to go in my view with regards to social attitudes and genuine integration and that is a two-way street. For every person who devalues you and thinks that you can't do your job or play sport or contribute to a debate because of your disability, there is a disabled person sat on his or her fat arse asking him or herself why they should bother and therefore doing nothing.
The government don't help, regardless of which party is in power. As much as I would relish the opportunity to call David Cameron a twat again, this is not a party political issue. I didn't start working until I was 31 years old, simply because they were paying me too much money to sit at home. There is still a perception among many disabled people that they are better off not bothering, and this extends to sport, education, socialising, everything. It's a miserable, sad state of affairs in many cases but then when you consider how poorly some of the older generation of disabled people were educated it is hard to argue with the notion that they have become too far disadvantaged to be employable now. Positive discrimination will get you an interview if you know what they are looking for in the job spec and you can communicate that effectively in writing, but after that you are on your own. The treatment they have had has made many disabled people set in their ways and lacking in belief. In themselves and in others.
I think in many ways, the younger you are as a disabled person now, the better chance you have of fully integrating. I have friends who are 5-8 years younger than me and it is noticable how much better they communicate with able bodied people their own age than even I do. I know able-bodied people who, if you asked them, would tell you they are my friends but whom I know are distinctly uncomfortable in my company, particularly if it is my company alone. Yeah it's cool to knock about with a disabled person, it shows you have an open mind and you're not shallow, heaven forbid. But don't take a disabled person out on the pull with you, is very much the philosophy. More and more, the young just don't think this way because they have dealt with it at an earlier age. Like learning a foreign language from the age of five instead of trying to learn it when you are 11. I'm sure if you took a camera into a school now you would find it hard to notice any difference between the treatment of disabled kids and any of the other kids. Maybe in 20 years from now people won't even acknowledge or notice disability in any meaningful way at all.
If that happens it will be largely down to the efforts of Lord Alf Morris.