Politics: Disability militants take fight to the seat of power

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The dozen protesters arrested by police yesterday after chaining themselves to the Downing Street gates have close links to the Disabled People's Direct Action Network.

The network (known as Dan) is the most radical, visible, publicity-accruing part of Britain's disability movement. It was Dan that was responsible for trying to turn the debate into a civil rights debate and Dan that first brought to prominence the "Piss on Pity" badges. Other actions organised by Dan have involved disabled people handcuffing themselves to buses in order to disrupt London traffic.

In 1994, in the wake of the admission by Nicholas Scott, minister for the disabled, that his department had drafted the 80-odd amendments that led to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill being talked out of Parliament, an action was organised at the Palace of Westminster.

It is not the first time that Dan has clashed with the Labour Party. Last year, activists invaded John Smith House and spent six hours there because they said Labour's spokesman for the disabled had refused to assure them that a Labour government would enshrine new rights for the disabled.

One of the yesterday's protesters was Jane Campbell, a long-time campaigner for disabled people's rights who has recently been appointed to the government task force on civil rights for the disabled. She said that the Government should not be attacking benefits which enabled disabled people to be "participating citizens".

"We are not needy, we are not burdens," she said. "How can we have civil rights if our benefits are taken away, the benefits which get us out of bed in the morning." Without them she said that she would not be able to participate in politics or the social process.

Sue Elsegood, 30, from Greenwich, south-east London, is studying for a counselling qualification. She claims that her disability living allowance would be under threat by any government reforms of the welfare system and said that she would not be able to pay for her 24-hour home help or run her specially-adapted car.

She added that without the benefits she claims at the moment, she would not be able to get up in the morning and get to work.

"I have got no choice. If I do not protest about this, I will be left with nothing. Cutting the disability living allowance will mean it will be very difficult for me because I have a lot of expenses as a disabled person."

Suzanne Bull, 27, from Essex, who suffers from spina bifida, said: "I voted for Labour in the election but I will never vote for them again if this is what they are going to do. A lot of us here today cannot believe what has happened. First it was lone parents, now it is disabled people. All the people here today believe this is the start of a long campaign which we intend to win. Disabled people need these benefits and they are given these benefits for a reason."

Kevin Donnellon, 35, from Liverpool, a thalidomide victim, said: "I feel that the Government are picking on us as soft targets, but we are going to show them that we are not soft targets."