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New frontier for disabled people

Lord Morris
By Lord Morris
Former Wythenshawe MP and Minister for the Disabled

"Show me a disabled mother, and I'll show you a disabled family." Alf Morris

Forty years ago, a new law came into this world.

It arrived in dramatic fashion, almost literally at the last possible minute, just before Parliament was dissolved to let Harold Wilson fight the 1970 General Election.

That law, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, transformed the lives of millions, not only people who were disabled and infirm, but also their families and carers, their neighbours and communities.

Official statistics indicate that over its 40 year lifetime, it has helped more people than the present population of our country.

It also brought lasting change in our built environment, our streetscapes and our public transport.

It gave millions of disabled people opportunities to go into higher education, training and employment which had been denied to them, since time began, for lack of ramps, handrails, lifts and other practical aids.

It allowed them to be more active, enjoy a fuller social life and stay in better physical and mental health.

It freed time, energy and financial resources for carers and families.

Taken together, these effects have saved the country billions of pounds, particularly in health and welfare payments, and added billions to national output and tax receipts.

The Act has been followed and sometimes directly imitated in most other countries, bringing its benefits to global society.

Man in wheelchair
Disabled people and their families lived as directed by faraway strangers with no knowledge of their lives and needs.
Lord Alf Morris

That is why I am so proud that - like me - this Act was born and bred in Manchester.

The experience of people in this city and the North West region, my family and neighbours in my early life, and later my constituents in Wythenshawe, taught me why this new law was a necessity.

I was born in Ancoats in 1928, the eighth child of a disabled father.

He had lost a leg and an eye serving in the First World War, and his lungs were wrecked.

He had been a sign writer, but from when I was three, he became unemployable.

For the remaining five years of his life, he and his family lived mainly on his meagre war pension.

The War Office decreed that his death was not war-related and denied my mother a war widow's pension.

I was seven. My experience carried lessons. Disability entailed deprivation.

Disabled people and their families lived as directed by faraway strangers with no knowledge of their lives and needs.

Later, I met my future mother-in-law in Laverack Street, Collyhurst.

Severely disabled by rheumatoid arthritis, she could move only if someone pushed her in cumbersome bath chair.

A journey of eighty yards to her local church was a daunting struggle.

When she and her family were moved in 1953 to a modern flat in Wythenshawe, she could not enjoy many of its comforts - like the bath - because it was not adapted in any way for disabled living.

Still later, as a Parliamentary candidate in Wythenshawe, I saw through a window a slight woman pushing her husband in his bath chair in the gutter in the rain, splashed constantly by passing 101 buses and other vehicles.

She simply was not strong enough to lift him and the chair up and down kerbs.

Then there was the terrible case of Jim Johnson.

World War I soldiers
Alf Morris's father was gassed during World War I

Brain-damaged in a childhood accident in Miles Platting, he was charged, without evidence, with breaking into his aunt's gas meter.

Found unfit to plead by magistrates, he was sent to the barrack-like 'mental institution' at Calderstones, where he spent the next 30 years of his life.

He was visited there each week, a round trip of over 40 miles, by his sister Sarah, herself severely disabled.

When she brought his case to me, it showed how people could be wrongly accused and locked away without trial for decades for no reason but mental capacity.

These, and many more experiences in Manchester and the region, told me how little our society even recognized the existence of disabled people, let alone provided for their interests and rights.

More than anything, memories of Manchester made me determined to change the law radically in the face of "volcanic anger" (Tam Dalyell's phrase!) from the then responsible minister, Richard Crossman.

My childhood in Manchester taught me that disabled people needed first to be defined, recognized and recorded before any provision could be made for them - a message many other countries have taken from us.

It still astonishes me to recall that in 1969, neither local nor national government had even a number count of disabled people in need.

Many disabling conditions were not even identified in law or practice.

The Act is often described as pioneering; it had to be - we had to create most of it from scratch.

Lord and Lady Morris
Lord and Lady Morris

It genuinely led the world in its key provisions.

It gave rights of access for disabled people to the built environment, including schools and universities.

It made the world's first statutory provision for purpose-built housing for disabled people and entitled them to help in adapting their homes.

It gave them the right to practical help in their homes (including the installation of telephones for the house-bound) and access to transport and other services outside the home.

For the first time globally, the Act gave legal recognition to autism and dyslexia and made provision for the needs of children who are both blind and pre-lingually deaf.

It established the world's first Institute of Hearing Research.

In these and other ways, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act brought new rights and opportunities for millions. It is no exaggeration to say that it changed the life of our country, and inspired similar change across the world. And it was made in Manchester.

It was a new North West frontier for disabled people.

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