From November 16 until December 16 it’s UK Disability History Month. Thinking of this has made me aware of how little I know of the struggle for disability rights or any other detail of disability history. This shouldn’t be surprising, however, as a recent survey for ITV News found that only 13 per cent of schools across the UK plan to celebrate Disability History Month. If disability history, which impacts such a large segment of our society, is not taught and acknowledged by them, how can we expect people to grow up with an awareness of disability rights, issues and history?

The Need to Broaden Our Education

I, and the 1 in 5 people in the UK with a disability, lay claim to rights as a disabled person daily yet I know so little about how they came to be or the people behind them. Historical education about marginalised groups often starts with a discussion of civil rights so knowledge of these rights, an awareness of how they came to be and the trailblazers behind them is crucial.

Whilst I was in school, disability was mentioned twice: once in a history lesson about the Nazi’s T4 euthanasia programme, and once in an English language lesson about language and disability. Both of these lessons took place at A-level and on the curriculum of an international school. I attended an online international school for Sixth Form because the local providers could not accommodate my needs. Whilst most lessons were teacher-led, lecture-style lessons, the two lessons relating to disability were taught using YouTube videos or our own independent research, placing the onus on the students to teach themselves. This supports ITV News West Country’s research that says 39 per cent of teachers in the South West of England do not feel they have the resources or advice needed to teach about disability.

The introduction of a British Sign Language GCSE in September 2025 is a great step forward. However, it is not part of the national curriculum which makes it optional and rather limited given that it addresses just one aspect of disability. Whilst I hope that many teachers will take the opportunity to teach this new and important GCSE, if the statistics are anything to go by, teachers need to become more confident in educating about disability to make the greatest impact.

The Fight for Disability Rights

People with disabilities are the largest marginalised group in the world and roughly 11 per cent of children in the UK have a disability. However, 30 per cent of school leadership teams stated in the ITV News survey that teaching about disability history was not a priority for them. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, schools have a duty as public bodies to promote disability equality, eliminate harassment and promote positive attitudes towards disabled people. Lessons focused on disability can create a wider understanding from a young age of how people with disabilities have been treated historically and their experiences today. This creates a greater understanding of the disabled experience and shows what improvements need to be made in the future.

There is currently an evident lack of Disability Studies within the national curriculum. However, the momentum for a more diverse and inclusive education programme has accelerated in recent years. This year’s UK Disability History Month focuses on Disability, Childhood and Youth, and it is important that the lack of disability education within the curriculum of many schools is addressed. Not only so as to teach young people about disability in the past, but to foster more mature attitudes towards disability in the future.

The lack of disability-focused lessons in schools means we are often left to educate ourselves. So, here is a brief outline of some of the major moments in the fight for disability rights.

Pre and Post World War One

WW1 kickstarted the fight for disability rights as many of those returning from the war had become disabled. Prior to this, disability was largely treated pejoratively and with suspicion and any acts stripped people with disabilities of their rights.

The Blind Persons Act 1920

In 1920, the National League of the Blind (NLB) carried out a series of protests and strikes to raise awareness of blind people’s often impoverished living conditions. The NLB had previously introduced legislation to address this matter in Parliament three times but it failed to pass. From the 5th to the 25th of April, 250 members of the NLB marched across the UK and were greeted by a crowd of 10,000 in London in what became known as the 1920 Blind March. This led to the 1920 Blind Persons Act which reduced the pension age from 70 to 50 for blind men, ordered local authorities to ‘promote the welfare of blind persons,’ and decreed that blind children be able to take the same exams as sighted children. This was highly significant as it was the UK’s, and the world’s, first act protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

The Disabled Persons Employment Act 1944

The end of WW2 shifted light again on the struggles of people with disabilities, heightened by the eugenicist atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. Three hundred thousand people in the UK had been left disabled by the war. This act promised sheltered employment to people with disabilities and set up a quota system that required companies of over twenty employees to have at least three per cent of their workforce made up of people with disabilities. This was the first piece of legislation to consider disabled people in general rather than just a specific impairment.

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970

Fifty years ago, the creation of this act was spearheaded by MP Alf Morris whose father had become disabled during WW1. This was the first law that obliged councils to provide practical support and certain services to people with disabilities in their communities including home adaptations, practical assistance for people in their own homes, and the introduction of Blue Badges. Councils had to provide equal access to educational and recreational facilities and transport to and from them. Buildings open to the public were now required to follow a code of practice to provide parking and toilets for people with disabilities. This was strengthened in 1986 with the introduction of the Disabled Persons Act 1986.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995

This act was monumental as it became the first act to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in areas such as employment, education, the provision of goods and services, and transport. It also required service providers to make reasonable adjustments to their services.

In the early 1990s, a wave of protests struck in a bid to get a law introduced that provided legal protection from discrimination in a similar way to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976, which provided protection from discrimination on the grounds of gender and race. It still feels that the fight for disabled rights is about twenty years behind! The Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) spearheaded these protests and members engaged in civil disobedience, such as handcuffing themselves to buses and blocking traffic, in protest against the lack of accessible buses. DAN rejected notions of charity and called for protection and rights to be enshrined in the law.

In 1995, the act was passed. However, many campaigners thought that it did not go far enough. Unlike the Race and Sex Discrimination Acts, there was nobody to enforce the rules. Barbara Lisicki, one of the founders of DAN, stated: ‘We accepted we had some level of victory because legislation had finally been passed. But we were all aware it was weak and wasn’t going to do what was needed.’

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001

This UK Disability History Month focuses on Disability, Childhood and Youth. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 extended anti-discrimination legislation to cover education providers. This requires all education providers to make ‘reasonable provisions’ to ensure people with disabilities and special educational needs are provided with the same opportunities as those who do not have a disability.

However, thousands of children with special education needs and disabilities are still not being provided with an equal education due to reasons including a lack of understanding, a shortage of places in SEN schools, and long delays in the issuing of EHCPs. Only 51 per cent of local councils issue EHCPs within the 20-week deadline.

The Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Act 2005

This act extended the anti-discrimination legislation of the 1995 act to encompass land, transport, small employers and private clubs. Additionally, public bodies are required to promote the equality of people with disabilities and involve them in the design of services and policies.

The Equality Act 2010

This is the most recent and significant piece of disability legislation in the UK and covers eight other protected characteristics. A disability under this act is defined as a ‘physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ It outlawed direct or indirect discrimination and harassment in vocational education, employment and the provision of goods and services. It also protects you from discrimination if you are connected with someone who has a disability or if you’ve complained about discrimination or supported someone else’s claim. In 2010, the UK Government also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities 2010.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.