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Four decades since Alf Morris' landmark disability act

'I regarded it as the most neglected area of social policy' - Alf Morris

It is 40 years since the introduction of government legislation that changed the lives of disabled people.

The 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act was a groundbreaking step on the road to equality.

Introduced by Wythenshawe MP Alf Morris, the legislation was the first in the world to recognise and give rights to people with disabilities.

Now Lord Morris, he went on to become the UK's first Minister for the Disabled.

BBC North West's look at Lord Morris' Act and how it has helped change the lives of people with disabilities begins on The Politics Show on Sun 23 May
The coverage continues through the week on North West Tonight and Radio Manchester

Lord Morris had found inspiration for his pioneering act close to home, as both his and his wife's fathers had been gassed during World War I, and his mother-in-law used a wheelchair.

The Act began as a private members' bill, which sought to give people with disabilities equal opportunities in society and be free from disadvantage.

It faced opposition from within Morris's own party and was almost scuppered when the 1970 General Election was called by Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The bill survived in the short 'wash up' period before the election and became law, the first of its kind in the world.

The Act has been described as 'a Magna Carta for the disabled' - at the time, it was revolutionary in transforming official policy.

It set down specific provisions to improve access and support for people with disabilities.

Education and support at home

Local authorities were given responsibility for the provision of welfare services and housing, extending to providing practical assistance for people in their own homes, meals provided at home or community centres, and the adaptation of houses to meet people's needs.

Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act
The 1970 Act was groundbreaking in the provisions it made

In the first decade of the Act, members of the Post Office Engineering Union installed 70,000 telephone lines in their spare time for a nominal charge of two pence per fitting, which was then donated to disability charities.

The Act gave people with disabilities the right to equal access recreational and educational facilities.

This included providing assistance with travel, all to be provided by local authorities.

Councils were also given the duty of providing special educational facilities for children who were both blind and deaf.

This was extended to include autism and dyslexia, with the expectation that the level of education provided was to the same level as that available in other local authority schools.

Access to public buildings

A code of practice was introduced for buildings that were open to the public, requiring them to provide parking, where applicable, and sanitary facilities for people with disabilities.

Local authorities were also required to provide disabled access to public toilets and were given the power to order owners of buildings to conform to the act and provide toilet and other facilities that were accessible to all.

This included school, universities, railways, shops and offices.

Disabled badges

Disabled badges for cars were introduced with exemptions for parking and other access.

Again, local authorities were given the responsibility for the administration and enforcement.

Provision was also made for the use of what were called "invalid carriages", now mobility scooters, to be used on public roads, but also on footpaths and pavements, removing the threat of prosecution.

This section was added to the bill specifically because of Alf Morris's own experience of his family being unable to access places that others took for granted.

Representation on public bodies

Whilst not a statutory requirement, the 1970 Act made it clear that representation of people with knowledge and experience of disability should be increased on local authority committees and other public bodies.

This was the first step on the road to increasing representation of a part of society that had long been ignored.

The Act spoke of "the desirability of appointing to the committee persons with experience of work among and of the needs of the chronically sick and disabled, and to the person or persons with that experience being or including a chronically sick or disabled person or persons."

Segregation in hospitals

Young and elderly patients were to be separated in wards in hospitals and in local authority-provided residential accommodation.

This recognition was particularly important in the area of mental health.

The Act provided that there should be accommodation for people with mental health disorders and substantial disabilities that was separate from that for the elderly.

War pensions

Alf Morris's father lived with the legacy of being severely gassed in World War I and, as a child, Alf saw himself as part of a disabled family, so believed it was important not just to support a disabled person, but their family as whole.

Section 23 of the Act specifically addressed War Pensions, creating a process for appealing pension decisions.

Alf's father had died of a heart attack and his mother was told she was not entitled to a widower's war pension as her husband's death was not related to his injuries during the war.

It was years before she was given the pension and it meant hardship for the family in one of the most deprived areas of Manchester.


Alf Morris went on to become the UK's first Minister for Disabled People in 1974, introducing benefits for disabled people and their carers, including a mobility allowance.

In the years since, legislation has built on the 1970 Act.

The 1986 Disabled Persons Act required social services to provide a written assessment of disabled people and to look at the abilities of informal carers when deciding on the level of care needed.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment or the provision of goods and services.

In 2000, the Disability Rights Commission was established with the task of upholding the rights enshrined in the 1995 Act.

In 2008, the United Nations introduced the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which obliged members to promote equal rights and root out discrimination.

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