Manchester Histories Digifest 2020: Disabled People’s Rights and Histories – An Update

Manchester Histories Digifest Team

Asked about the impact of the first ever disability rights legislation in the world that he introduced, Alf Morris (MP for Manchester Wythenshawe and later Lord Morris of Manchester) famously remarked “it may not add years to your life but it will add life to your years”. We too had life added to our years on Friday the 4th and Saturday 5th September as we celebrated 50 years of the landmark legislation “The Chronically Sick and Disabled Person’s Act 1970”, affectionately known as ‘Alf’s Act’. 

Following an initial approach by the Morris family to The University of Manchester’s Disabled Staff Network, Manchester Histories, Manchester Metropolitan University, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, North West TUC, and others worked together to produce a two-day digital festival that was broadcast live from Manchester Central Library. Attracting an audience of over 3000 people.

The Bee Vocal Choir

The themes were ‘celebrate, learn, challenge’ and through a call out to individuals and groups in Greater Manchester and beyond, newly commissioned work by young disabled musicians, James Holt, Lucy Bales, Ollie Hyland, Bee Vocal Choir, and three short films made by Brazen Productions about the life and work of Alf Morris, a wonderful montage of disabled people’s lives, histories, contributions, political struggles, and joyous creativity was live across the globe.

Compered by comedian Jackie Hagan, audiences were led into thought provoking, moving, entertaining and fascinating contributions exploring the positive legacy of Alf’s Act as well as the contemporary challenges of today. Debates about the right to life in the wake of doctors encouraging disabled people to consider “Do Not Resuscitate” orders at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, mingled with art, music and histories. Projects exploring disabled people’s ‘lifeworlds’ were scattered across the programme including one by young deaf sign language users in South Africa using the medium of photography, lockdown blogs from disabled people’s perspectives and historical dramas including the stories of incarceration experienced by people with learning difficulties and much much more. DigiFest 2020 was accompanied by in depth filmed pieces and a gallery which are still accessible now.

Jackie Hagan

Led by disabled people, front and centre, and with high levels of access for the audience in this online medium, DigiFest 2020 would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.  The world in which Alf’s Act was born was one where disabled people were literally not seen, not educated alongside others, rarely regarded as having the potential to live independent lives and not supported to do so. People’s preferences for language and communication were at best overlooked and at worst denied and disabled people’s contributions to society and the benefits they brought were not recognised.  True, today is different and the Equality Act 2010 brings important protections and also promotions of disabled people’s rights. But there is still much to be concerned about as the festival’s live debate with Victoria Macdonald (Channel 4 News’ health and social care editor) demonstrated.  Seemingly common-sense relaxations in some Local Authority duties of assessment and care under the Coronavirus Emergency Act have placed many disabled people at a disadvantage. 

The appropriation of ‘vulnerable’ as a stigmatizing term to describe people at greatest susceptibility to COVID-19 (including many disabled people) has been a step backwards.  Yet as many contributors to the festival alluded to – restrictions in movement and socialization, barriers to working as usual and isolation are hardly new experiences for many disabled people.  In that sense the resilience, honest emotional reflection, and practical ability just to get on with it, possessed by many disabled people, has found a new value and recognition in the eyes of others.

The online DigiFest, free and open to all, raised the profile of the ongoing struggles for disabled people’s rights bringing new perspectives to many watching. It celebrated the diversity of disabled people’s contributions to making society better for everyone. It highlighted what is to be learned from the past 50 years of disabled people’s histories and rights and showcased the future in the rich mix of rights still to be won, creative avenues still to be explored, and the inclusive and accessible communities still to be fully realised.

A follow-up event is now being organised by the DigiFest steering groups on Thursday 3rd December 2020 to celebrate International Day of People with Disability. Keep an eye out on Manchester Histories website for more details.

To watch the broadcasts, see behind the scenes photos and to explore all the digital content produced for DigiFest2020 please click here.

Manchester Histories DigiFest 2020 Team.

Gill Morris, Hamied Haroon, Kirsty Hutchinson, Alys Young, Jessica Bolan, Ros Oates, Karen Shannon and Janine Hague.

Thanks to our funders and all people who contributed to make DigiFest 2020 possible.

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