Illustration by John Watson

The disability activist taking on the government

It’s vital that we remember how cuts since 2010 have harmed disabled people, argues Ellen Clifford
October 4, 2023

Ellen Clifford laughs and cries easily. “Biologically, I feel emotions more strongly than neurotypical people,” she tells me, as we sit in a café in Croydon. “There are certain normative standards of behaviour in society… that I just don’t fit into.” 

Clifford, who has bright red plaits and is wearing a summery playsuit, is a writer and campaigner for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). Along with a team of representatives from civil society organisations, she’s recently returned from a UN hearing in Geneva reviewing the UK government’s treatment of disabled people. The meeting made headlines when UK ministers refused to show up, an act that many campaigners viewed as a sign of disrespect.

It was not the first such sign. In October 2016, the UK became the first country to be found to have breached the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; a UN committee said there was a prevalence of “grave and systemic violations of the rights of disabled persons”.

“I think I’d underestimated, before the finding came out, the importance of validating disabled people’s lived experience,” Clifford says of that time. The UN report drew attention to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, who since 2010 have struggled with new, restrictive benefits assessments, the closure of the UK Independent Living Fund and major cuts to social care support. The UN made 11 recommendations, but—as its recent no-show indicates—holding the government accountable for failing to implement them is no easy task. 

Clifford begins to cry a few minutes into our chat, as she explains “the very personal reasons” why she has taken on the job. Her campaigning is inspired by her former friend and mentor Debbie Jolly, who died of lung cancer in 2016. Jolly was co-founder of DPAC and co-led the campaign that triggered the UN inquiry. Jolly died a few days after the findings were published, but, Clifford says, she was “very confused in the last few days”. The report came too late for her to see what she had achieved.

Croydon-born Clifford—a history graduate and author of The War on Disabled People—is an impressive opponent for ministers. Each year, on behalf of the Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations (DPPO), she submits evidence to the committee on the government’s progress, or lack thereof. 

The government has promised to send a delegation to Geneva in March 2024 for the next UN hearing. Clifford tells me DPAC will campaign hard in preparation for it, but that it risks being postponed if there is a general election. If that election saw in a new Labour government, it would still have to answer to the UN inquiry process. “We’re still very much in danger under Labour as well,” she says. “I think that the UN process has value in exposing specific dangers to disabled people because, really, there aren’t many other ways to do it... the media aren’t that interested.

“Disability is still considered a marginal issue that doesn’t affect many people,” she adds. “I think there’s also a lot of distaste around [it]. People think disabled children are cute, but disabled people as adults are disgusting.” 

Before she leaves, Clifford mentions a warning she remembers from the sociologist and activist Mike Oliver, who created the social model of disability: if you don’t write your own history, you’ll get written out of it. It’s vital, she says, to remember the way disabled people have been treated since 2010. “I wanted to make sure that was all on the record and pay tribute to people like Debbie and everything they’ve done. Nobody knows disabled people, so we have to remember each other.”