An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Disability Politics

Disability Politics

Disability policy is now an integral part of the politics of the British welfare state. Recent controversies over the testing processes for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) show that social security is consistently debated. So too is the place of mental health awareness in workplaces, access for disabled children to mainstream education and disabled people’s rights to services and full participation in society.

This has not always been the case. Despite various attempts across the centuries to manage specific impairment groups – such as “the blind”, “cripples” and “lunatics” – the forging of what we today call “disability policy” was relatively recent. Indeed, The Disablement Income Group (DIG), generally regarded as the first disabled people’s organisation (DPO) in the UK was not formed until 1965. And it was not until the 1970s that disabled people were able to move the direction of discussion away from narrow concerns about social security and campaign for their rights to be recognised in the same way as women and ethnic minorities who secured equalities legislation much earlier than the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

My PhD thesis focused on how this category of disability policy was created and then evolved between DIG’s formation 1965 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It focused primarily on how these debates were refracted through discussions about social security – a concrete area of policy which expert campaign groups were able to secure visible political victories, but one that often underplayed other areas of disability rights. Through it, we see the birth of the modern British disabled people’s movement. We also see how disabled people, their organisations and the government reacted to changing economic conditions and the move from a broad “social democratic” welfare model through the Thatcher years, ending with the introduction of new capability assessments under John Major’s government in the 1990s.


Millward, Gareth. “A Disability Act? The Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 and the British Government’s Response to the Pertussis Vaccine Scare“, Social History of Medicine 30(2) (2017), 429-447 (first published online: 4 August 2016). doi:10.1093/shm/hkv140.

Millward, Gareth. Digital barriers and the accessible web: disabled people, information and the internet, Institute of Historical Research (London, 2015).

Millward, Gareth. “Social Security Policy and the Early Disability Movement—Expertise, Disability, and the Government, 1965–77“, Twentieth Century British History 26(2) (2015), 274-297 (first published online October 1, 2014). doi:10.1093/tcbh/hwu048

Millward, Gareth. Invalid Definitions, Invalid Responses: Disability and the Welfare State, 1965-1995. PhD thesis. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, 2014.

Millward, Gareth and Peter Border. Assessing Capacity for Work, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (London, 2012).