Last updated: late 2005

Faith, hope and NGO's ?

In the later years of the 20th Century, it was easy to see charities as a barrier to disability rights. The traditional role of charities was as a provider of resources, services and facilities to groups who were seen as under-priveleged. In doing so, they tended to re-inforce the idea that some groups of people - people with disabilities included - were poor, helpless, and unable to fend for themselves. The fund-raising activities of charities tended to re-inforce these myths, and giving money to charities was seen as a "get out of jail free card" to oppressive companies, individuals and society in general.

Of course, many who donated to charity and worked voluntarily for charities did not do so with the aim of oppressing people with disabilities (or any other oppressed group). Most working class donors and volunteers genuinely wanted to give a better life to people less fortunate than themselves (for whatever reason!). But those who actually ran the charities, such as the large corporate donors and the charity bureaucracy (ie the directors and others in charge of the volunteers) often had a more cynical agenda. By charities helping disabled people, rather than society letting people with disabilities have what is ours by right, people with disabilities were kept firmly "in our place".

As I write this (re-written from scratch!) article in late 2005, the situation is much more complex. On a wide social level, once charities such as Oxfam used to concentrate on raising money to feed the starving people in the Third World, and supply medical equipment to poor countries. Many of those same charities are now involved in political campaigns to stop the West disadvantaging the poor, one striking example being the "Drop The Debt" campaign to write off the debt owed to the West by Third World countries.

The same undercurrent has swept several disability charities into challenging social barriers which hold back disability rights. For example, Scope has poster campaigns challenging disability-based prejudice and discrimination, and Radar have criticised governments for attacking disability benefits and the military for refusing to employ people with disabilities. There are now an increasing number of charities which, rather than effectively isolating people with disabilities by only providing facilities for people with a disability, are providing integrated facilities available to both people with disabilities and the non-disabled - for example, Physically Handicapped (sic) and Able Bodied. Some of the larger charities which used to concentrate on residential homes for people with a specific disability - such as the RNIB for blind people - are now moving towards providing services which enable such groups to integrate into the community. Even telethons such as Children In Need - which in the 1990s attracted vehement "rights not charity" protests as a result of their public mass-patronising of disabled people - now have a more factual and less tear-jerking presentation of their projects and causes, as well as broadening the scope of fund-raising to include non-disability-related charities.

A few charities are now co-operating with the government and councils on advising best policy for inclusive design, with the NHS to provide information and advice to people with disabling medical conditions, and with various other non-charity and state bodies. For this reason, the term "charity" seems to be slowly being replaced with the term "NGO", or Non-Governmental Organisation.

These changes are significant victories for the disability rights movement, and are a direct result of activity by disability rights activists. Thanks to protests by groups such as DAN (the Direct Action Network for people with disabilities), the image of people with disabilities as objects of pity has been eroded, and it has become more obvious that mainstream society could easily adapt to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. As a result, potential donors to charity are less impressed by the "tragic but brave" image of disability nowadays.

Also, protests in the 1990s by people with disabilities, against the more patronizing charity fundraising events (such as Telethon and Children In Need) have forced charities to reconsider their objectives and tactics. As a result, the public image of charities (projected by themselves) is of promoting social inclusion, rather than piecemeal material help, for people with disabilities.

All this is welcome. The "tragic but brave" image of disability will not be missed !

But we should not fool ourselves that the battle for "rights not charity" has been won.

For the following reasons:

The proliferation of competing charitable groups (whether they wish to call themselves charities or NGO's) also brings the problems associated with competition in a capitalist society. Instead of competing to sell products or services, charities often compete to "sell" a feeling to the donor of having "done some good". So there is still pressure on each charity to appeal to people's sympathy, guilt and/or fear, to give itself a competitive advantage over its "competitors". Even some groups in which people with disabilities are reasonably represented, even those started by or with the involvement of people with disabilities, are not immune from these pressures.

Then there's the fact that charities still have a (arguably parasitic) bureaucracy in charge, making the decisions. Whether these directors are disabled or not, their salary and working conditions are generally better than those of the average working class person (again, whether disabled or not!) So they are likely to be reluctant to fight for any far-reaching change which, if full rights were gained for people with disabilities, would make the charities (and their directors!) redundant.

So we should still not rely too much on charities / NGO's to improve our conditions within society. Red Disability welcomes campaigns by charities when they are campaigning against oppressive attitudes and practices, but opposes any fundraising which demeans or belittles us. We also think we should be prepared to take the fight much further than the bureaucrats, who claim to represent us, would ever be prepared to go.

We should keep pushing for rights not charity !

Back to Disability Rights Articles