Richard D North

Disabled people no longer bottle up their anger, but are fighting for their rights
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Rarely does one feel the blind have an advantage in life. The week Lady Di became a Princess, I was mountaineering in the Pyrenees with a group of kids who were mostly blind, or going blind fast. They were as nimble as goats, as the instructors told them the precise places in which to put their feet and hands, on ledges no wider than a skirting board.

I was terrified throughout. I found myself saying, with some acerbity, to a blind boy who was trying to comfort me: "Look, you silly little bugger: you can't see how dangerously high we are, and that's your good fortune".

The boys were brave. They were also bold and forthright. So it comes as no surprise to find that disabled people no longer bottle up their anger at their suffering and treatment, and instead have come out fighting for their rights. Thus, we have seen Donga-style protests as the Government seeks to avoid shelling out huge amounts of money to help integrate the disabled in society.

And last week, we had the case of a deaf woman winning the opening round of a battle with Peter Lilley, in which she claims the right to an allowance to help her share a full social life. The legal argument is about whether Parliament has implied this right in legislation. If it has, and the costs look astronomical, presumably the further battle will be about whether Parliament wants to change its mind. And behind that will lie the awkwardness of whether taxpayers feel that deaf people ought to have the right to, say, an interpreter at a party.

At the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, I asked a group of blind people how they felt about the new rights-based militancy. The younger ones mostly thought that it was just the thing to get the public to be more generous.

A few older people said that it was seeing how little support for disabled people there was in the Seventies that made them, as one said, "Get off our backsides and work hard to make careers for ourselves". One of the older men said he was worried about the new stridency in politics - or rather the new non-politics of single issue campaigning - across the board. "Might it not lead to the breakdown of society and a sort of anarchy?," he asked, as are middle-aged people everywhere. Since he spoke as a one- time supporter of Militant Tendency, I warmed to him. It was further proof that one can find sensible reactionaries everywhere.

One can imagine the way the politics will play. Opinion polls will be produced that show that the public feels the disabled have a bad deal and ought to be given a better one (just as they said they wouldn't dream of voting Conservative, and then did so in droves). The Government will sense that taxpayers are feeling mean, and will be able to say that the money spent on disability has shot up in the decade and a half of Tory rule. And the issue will stay on the agenda in proportion to the shrillness of the protest.

At the College, everyone seemed to agree that the lot of the disabled is infinitely better now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. As Leonard Cheshire's driver in the early Seventies, I used to visit homes for the disabled and felt strongly that they suffered, not merely their afflictions, but a dreadful duty to be smilingly grateful for small mercies.

As the disabled shift from charity to legally-enshrined rights, from requests to demands, and from smiles to snarls, they may well lose what slim chance they have had of being regarded with some sort of generalised affection. Indeed, they seem to be arguing against wanting any special feeling at all: they just want equality. It doesn't really wash. Society's compassion remains useful to the disadvantaged, however much we have to go round the houses to pretend they should not have to be dependent on it. Besides, it would be an extremely weird world in which it was regarded as cruel to want to be thought kind.