Manchester Firsts

by Lorraine Gradwell, 2017

Manchester Firsts

Manchester has a long history of being a place where radical things happen, and where movements and activities originate and grow. The social conditions and poverty in Manchester in the late 1800s inspired Frederick Engels to write ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ in the 1840s, and in 1848 he collaborated with Karl Marx to write ‘The Communist Manifesto’. The campaign for votes for women began in Manchester in 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1819 at St Peter’s Field, Manchester a peaceful crowd of sixty thousand people came together to call for democracy and to demonstrate against poverty. the response of an armed cavalry charge led to an estimated eighteen deaths and over six hundred serious injuries. The Manchester Free Trade Hall, built on the site of the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, was the venue where Bob Dylan angered many of his fans by ‘going electric’ for the first time!

Manchester Central Library hosted an exhibition from December 2015 to January 2016 that was curated by the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP). It told stories and highlights from thirty years of disabled peoples’ campaigning and organising by GMCDP and disabled individuals who collectively have influenced and shaped developments in disability policy and the wider disabled peoples’ movement, and have led to a number of ‘firsts’.

However, some years before disabled people in Manchester started to come together there was Alf Morris. Having been elected in 1964, Alf Morris served as Member of Parliament for Manchester Wythenshawe until 1997. In 1970 he successfully introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (CS&DP) Act, which was groundbreaking in being the first in the world to recognise and give rights to disabled people. In 1974 he became the first Minister for Disabled People anywhere in the world, and in 1991 he introduced a Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.

1981 had been proclaimed the International Year of Disabled People[1] (IYDP) by the United Nations and is seen by many as a foundation for the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People[2], to which the UK is a signatory. Closer to home IYDP was significant due to an initiative from the then Greater Manchester Council for Voluntary Organisations (GMCVO) who appointed a Development Worker to do outreach work with disabled people. The major result of this project was the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP)[3], one of the first activist organisations in the country run by disabled people only and which still operates today.

In parallel and linked developments there were disabled people’s organisations being set up within and across Greater Manchester. In the City of Manchester there was the Manchester Disability Forum (MDF) whilst GM groups included the GM Housing and Disability Group and Action on Disabled People’s Transport (ADAPT).

Meanwhile, in the early to mid 1980s, ‘equal opportunities’ was a growing concept which became a driver for many initiatives. Manchester City Council (MCC) began discussions about setting up an Equal Opportunities Unit (EOU) and as disabled people we quickly organised ourselves. We said that staff working in the Town Hall on disability issues should be disabled people: councillors present at the public meeting said that would be illegal. We responded that there was no law preventing discrimination against disabled people (this was pre the Disability Discrimination Act) (DDA) and therefore there was no law against discriminating in favour of disabled people. After consulting with legal experts the councillors acknowledged we were right, and MCC became the first local authority to advertise posts for disabled people only, appointing three disabled staff to its first Equal Opportunities Unit and prior to the enactment of equalities legislation.

To support the work of the Equal Opportunities Unit MCC set up the Disabled Peoples’ Steering Group (DPSG). This was unusual in that it was a part of MCC’s formal structures and consisted of representatives from disabled peoples’ organisations in the City and the lead councillor for disability issues, Martin Pagel. The DPSG was supported by EOU staff and its function was to receive and comment on all reports to MCC which had an impact on disabled people. Although the DPSG was not actually taking decisions, nevertheless it was in a position to advise on, shape developments and make recommendations on policy before they went to the decision-making committee. This innovative approach provided an expert source of knowledge and advice on disability matters that contributed to MCC being at the forefront of provision for disabled people in the late eighties and early nineties.

Access to politics: Manchester Town Hall is an impressive Victorian – gothic building, dating from a time when disabled people were not really seen out and about, let alone in the seat of local government. When, in the early to mid-eighties, ‘equal opportunities’ was a growing consideration, local disabled people said that access to the Town Hall was a priority. We maintained that, as citizens, disabled people had a right to access the ‘corridors of power’, the right to be councillors themselves, and the right to work in the Town Hall. Disabled peoples’ organisations picketed the inaccessible Town Hall, and through the DPSG we identified access to ‘the corridors of power’ to be a priority.

Major adaptations were commissioned to open up the Town Hall to disabled people against advice that had proclaimed that, as a listed building, the work could not be done. The resulting work delivered wheelchair access to the Town Hall and the 1930’s extension, with the ramped access in Lloyd Street now looking like a passable Victorian ramp!

Access to local politics now became possible, and local disabled people were quick to respond. Martin Pagel, who had been an early member of GMCDP, was elected to MCC in 1990 and rose to be not only the Chair of Social Services, but also the deputy Leader in 1996, a first in terms of a disabled person emerging from (and consistently referring back to) to a position of power in the local authority. Representing his local constituency as their councillor, Martin also represented the ‘community of interest’ of disabled people as the first ever lead member on disability issues.

The late eighties saw much activity around general access and the built environment: the local authority boasted an Access Review Forum, a consultative body of disabled peoples’ organisations in Manchester, as well as three access officers and a planning department that drove access improvements in all developments. Manchester’s aim was to be recognised as the most accessibly city in Europe and the commitment to improve access for disabled people was set out in its Access 2000 strategy. The production of the Design for Access 2  manual, the MCC’s best practice guidance of inclusive design standards informed and drove many of the local developments; it quickly became the ‘go to’ guidance for other local authorities and organisations.

Taxis had always been a ’no go’ area for wheelchair users, however in the mid 1980s Manchester City Council issued 100 new license plates for hackney (black) cabs in the City. The issue of the plates stipulated that within the first twelve months of operation the cabs should be adapted to be wheelchair accessible. Some drivers approached this with enthusiasm and there were some rather inventive adaptations. The offices of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People became an advice and ideas hub as various drivers called in to discuss their adaptations. Other driver/owners however, having secured a license, did not follow through with the adaptations. This led to a dispute between drivers and the licensing authority that ended in the Court of Appeal in MCC’s favour. Meanwhile, other local authorities were watching with interest for the outcome, and progress towards accessible cabs picked up. Manufacturers started to re-design the black cabs: all cabs from ‘G’ registrations (1989) onwards were built to be accessible. This matter is now covered by the Equality Act 2010, section 165, which also provides for the assistance that cab drivers should offer to disabled customers.

Accessible trams: in 1984 the GM Passenger Transport Executive submitted the Light Rapid Transit Bill to Parliament and in 1987 the first vehicle carrying passengers operated for three weeks in Debdale Park.[4] Although this was years before national equalities legislation, consultation with disabled people and their organisations was thorough, with many practical exercises covering access and egress, movement within the carriages, and even emergency evacuation procedures; there were field trips to other accessible tram systems in Europe. The resulting access was unprecedented and although no system is perfect maintenance and improvement is still delivered via the consultation and advice function, currently delivered by the disabled peoples’ organisation Breakthrough UK Ltd[5].

Manchester Commonwealth Games: for the first time in Olympic or Commonwealth Games history, indeed at any multi-sport event in the world, a number of ‘Para-Sports’ were included as mainstream events in a fully inclusive Sports Programme in Manchester 2002. Twenty countries sent both male and female elite disabled athletes to Manchester; venues were shared by disabled and non-disabled athletes, and events were scheduled alongside each other. The Games were supported by a significant volunteer programme and this too was inclusive with, for example, people with learning difficulties being part of security arrangements. Full integration was the principle from the start, a practice that had become second nature and had not been in question at the Manchester Commonwealth Games 2002.

Traditionally disabled people have been ‘cared for’ in residential institutions and were not expected to have a family life in the community. In the seventies and eighties this view was being challenged in some parts of the country, and in Manchester a groundbreaking initiative was arguably the first such development. A disabled woman, June Maeltzer[6], devised and developed a ‘care package’ (before arrangements had such names) with the support of the local authority and a local housing association. The scheme was funded by MCC and channeled via the housing association as it was illegal at that time to make direct payments to individuals. Thus one of, if not the, first independent living schemes was developed in Manchester.

So why was there so much activity in this period, so many radical developments, in Manchester? I believe there are several factors at play.

Firstly, in the western world there was increasing attention being paid to equality matters and discrimination, and there was the 1981 International Year of Disabled People (IYDP)  which focussed attention on disability. In addition there was Manchester’s particular history of radical activities around social justice: these two factors, combined with the groundwork done in IYDP to network and connect disabled people resulted in a ‘perfect storm’ of organising and activities. Disabled people took up the challenge and set up their own organisations[7] and set out to influence matters relating to disability both locally and nationally. A key part of this approach was to be involved in local politics and Martin Pagel was arguably the first disabled person to emerge via disabled peoples’ organisations to be an elected councillor, eventually rising to be Deputy Leader of MCC.

And of course Manchester had the foundation provided by Alf Morris, a very community – focussed MP who himself contributed some of Manchester’s ‘firsts’. How fitting that his work should be celebrated alongside disabled people’s’ own ‘firsts’.