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UK Disability History Month

Paul Hunt

Paul Hunt was a disabled writer and activist who spearheaded the early Disability Rights Movement in Britain campaigning for Rights, not Charity. 

 In 1972 Paul wrote a letter to the Guardian asking if others would join him in fighting for their right to live independently. “..I am proposing the formation of a consumer group to put forward nationally the views of actual and potential residents of these successors to the workhouse. We hope in particular to formulate and publicise plans for alternative kinds of care”. 

Paul suffered a degenerative physical impairment from early childhood, and when, at the age of 13, he became chair bound was forced to go and live in hospital. In 1956, at the age of 18, he moved to LeCourt  Cheshire  Home in Hampshire where he spent 14 years. 

In the 1950s, those with significant physical impairments were placed in hospital wards for the chronically sick and elderly, as there were too many obstacles for them to live in the community. Their problem was seen as their impairment, but Paul Hunt came to think it was disability, being the social and physical barriers to integration, that was the key problem.  These barriers were underlain by deep and age-old prejudicial oppressive attitudes and thinking.

Le Court was set up by Leonard Cheshire as his first alternative home for ‘the disabled’. There was an easy-going attitude, a democratic residents’ committee controlling a publication ‘Cheshire Smile’ and a film making unit. However, as Local Authorities were paying for places at the growing number of these homes, they began to have stricter management and to medicalise these institutions. At Le Court, Paul and the other residents resisted these pressures collectively over a long period, even being threatened with expulsion back to hospital. 

They produced the important book ‘Stigma. The experience of disability’(1966), analysing their experiences and arguing for a different approach to the ‘medical model’, self-representation and control of their lives. This indirectly led to the formation of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS).   

UPIAS led to the British Council of Disabled People in 1980, which included those with intellectual impairments. They campaigned for Civil Rights. Many attempts and Direct Action through DAN and the Disability Arts Movement (see UKDHM 2017) led to a change of culture, the weak Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the stronger Equality Act 2010. UK activists were key in setting up Disabled People International which campaigned for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006. 178 countries worldwide have ratified this.  

A good resource is ‘No Limits’ by Judy Hunt (2019) which recounts the historical transformations for physically disabled people from institutional care to independent living, drawing on Paul’s journal and papers and interviewing the dwindling number of his contemporaries.