It’s an old slogan. Disabled protestors marched carrying ‘Justice Not Charity’ signs more than 100 years ago.
Charity and disability – it’s complicated. And it’s been complicated for a very long time. ‘Justice not charity’ is an old slogan that still feels really quite radical.*
Until you’ve been on the receiving end of charity, I’m not sure you can understand how deeply uncomfortable it can be. And this is not a new feeling.
I’m not panning all charities, and certainly not the many disabled people who rely on them. In England, charity can be the only route to the right wheelchair – eg the NHS Wheelchair Service may genuinely suggest you write to a celebrity. Newspaper articles with gushing headlines on the walls. Children in shiny new wheelchairs, smiling next to David Beckham. It feels wrong to me, but charity is utterly interwoven into the system.
I only found out recently quite how timeless this discomfort is. That back in the 1890s, disabled people were running their own anti-charity organisations. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. The idea of a class of people who’ll be grateful for anything goes very deep, I think.
It was in an article about the National League of the Blind, and the 1920 blind march they organised. Founded by actual blind people in the 1890s, the league set out specifically to challenge the blind charities. There’s a quote by one of the organisers:
We are of the blind; we are the blind. All others are for the blind.**National League of the Blind organiser – 1923
Which is so very close to the modern disability rights slogan ‘nothing about us without us’.
The photos of their 1920 blind workers march are arresting – dapper blind men in coats and hats, holding signs. And the most legible, memorable sign reads ‘JUSTICE NOT CHARITY’.
Charities exerted serious control over blind people’s lives in the nineteenth century – imagine having to get permission from a charity before you get married? Of course they’d had enough. And for all I know, these 1890s blind campaigners were the flighty newcomers in a long line of disabled campaigners. Who else haven’t I heard of?!
And why was I surprised? Of course disabled people wanted control over their lives. Of course they organised. There’s nothing new about any of this. But it isn’t the story the world wants to hear.
130 years later it STILL feels radical when we disabled people question the charity model.
Society is pretty comfortable with disabled people as recipients of charity.
Disabled people? Less so. For centuries.
Then Barbara Met Alan
Just after I’d put the slides for an Instagram post, Then Barbara Met Alan came out.
This is a BBC drama by a disabled team, taking this issue on directly. Which is thrilling. Both a love story and history of the 1990s UK disability rights movement – with an early 90s post-punk aesthetic. The characters organise a protest against a 1992 charity telethon, as they did in real life. Chris Tarrant spluttered indignantly. The protestors ultimately won – the telethon was taken off air.
Charity and disability – people Say interesting things…
Talking about disability and charity as a disabled person can be a minefield. The spectre of the bitter, ungrateful crip hangs over all of us. Some recommendations:
- Nina Tame’s video about Children in Need, and her charity model highlight – both on Instagram.
- Dr Leona Godin‘s chapters on Helen Keller in her marvellous book There Plant Eyes.
- Then Barbara Met Alan – BBC TV
- Rebekah Taussig‘s fantastic book Sitting Pretty includes a memorable chapter about a charity gala.
- Cathy Reay’s Instagram post about Children in Need.
- For more on the 1992 protests, Block Telethon 1992: The Day We ‘Pissed On Pity’ is an account by Barbara Lisicki – the real life Barbara of Then Barbara Met Alan.
- The Piss on Pity exhibition, which describes itself as: ‘An exhibition of artists’ work that reflects the antipathy of the disabled people’s movement towards charity.’
– Lucy Catchpole
* The slogan ‘justice not charity’ probably originates here:
‘It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world’Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
** The biggest blind charity in the UK only changed its name from The Royal National Institute For The Blind to The Royal National Institute Of The Blind in the noughties. It’s changed name again now.
Slides at the top:
- A photo of me in my wheelchair – I’m a white woman with long hair, wearing a bandana in my hair. Our text reads, on a cream paper background: ‘”Justice not charity” Sound a bit too radical?’
- Our text reads: ‘It’s an old slogan. Disabled people carried JUSTICE NOT CHARITY signs in 1920.’ Image shows a black & white photo of The Blind Workers March from 1920 – blind men wearing rather dapper hats and coats carry a sign that reads ‘justice not charity’. Source: Wikipedia.
- Text continues: ‘Disability and charity – it’s complicated.’ Image shows the mid section of one of those ghastly old collection boxes – a statue of a disabled boy.
- ‘I’m not panning all charities. And certainly not the many of us who rely on them. Charity can be the only route to the right wheelchair. Eg the NHS wheelchair service may genuinely suggest you write to a celebrity.’ Image shows a wheelchair user on stage in a theatre – dancing maybe?
- ‘But I had no idea that all the way back in the 1890s, disabled people were running their own anti-charity organisations.’ Image shows a 1920 formal group photo of 50 or so adults. Handwritten at the bottom of the photo the words ‘B. Contingent – Blind Marchers’ are just about visible.
- ‘Charities exerted serious control over blind people’s lives – some needed permission to marry. Of course they’d had enough.’ Another image of the 1920 Blind Workers March, this one is from The Daily Sketch – via the BBC. Blind men in hats and coats carry signs in this dramatic photo. One sign is legible – ‘fight for social justice not charity’.
- ‘Why was I surprised? Of course disabled people organised. Of course they wanted control over their lives. There’s nothing new about this. But it isn’t the story the world wants to hear.’
- ‘130 years later it STILL feels radical when we disabled people question the charity model. Society is pretty comfortable with disabled people as recipients of charity. Disabled people? Less so. For centuries.’
- ‘P.S. Just after I put this together, a new BBC drama came out – about disabled people’s protests against a charity telethon in 1992. Then Barbara Met Alan – watch it!’ Image shows a still from the drama ‘Then Barbara Met Alan’ – a group of disabled people in their 20s and 30s, with an early 90s / post punk vibe, cheer in front of a green bus.
- ‘The 1992 protestors wore RIGHTS NOT CHARITY t-shirts. The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ The image in the background is via the piss on pity exhibition – it shows a group of disabled people protesting. A Black wheelchair user with a ‘rights not charity’ t-shirt is just visible.
Images in the body of the post:
- A black and white photo of The Blind Workers March from 1920 – blind men wearing rather dapper hats and coats carry a slightly rumpled sign that reads ‘justice not charity’.
- Another image of The Blind Workers March. Blind men in hats and coats carry signs in this dramatic photo. One sign is legible – ‘fight for social justice not charity’. from The Daily Sketch in 1920, via the BBC.
- A formal group photo from 1920, with 50 or so adults arranged in rows, a justice not charity sign just visible above them. In faded handwriting on the bottom of the photo are the words ‘B. Contingent – Blind Marchers’.
- Then Barbara Met Alan – this is the same as slide 9.
- Rights not charity – the same as slide 10. The 1992 Block Telethon real life protest.]