Alf Morris: The law that changed the world, one step at a time

FORTY years ago, a new Bill began its journey through Parliament. It was the first of its kind in the world. It became law, in dramatic fashion, just before Parliament was dissolved for Harold Wilson to fight the 1970 General Election.

That law, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, transformed the lives of millions, not only people who were disabled and infirm, but also their families and carers, their neighbours and communities.

Official statistics indicate that over its 40-year lifetime it has helped more people than the present population of our country. It also brought lasting change in our built environment, our streetscapes and our public transport.

It gave millions of disabled people opportunities to go into higher education, training and employment which had been denied to them, since time began, for lack of ramps, handrails, lifts and other practical aids. It allowed them to be more active, enjoy a fuller social life and stay in better physical and mental health. It freed time, energy and financial resources for carers and families. Taken together, these effects have saved the country billions of pounds, particularly in health and welfare payments, and added billions to national output and tax receipts.

The Act has been followed – and sometimes directly imitated – in most other countries in the world. The number of beneficiaries has risen into billions: global society and the global economy have made the same lasting gains as we at home.

From my early life, I learnt why this legislation was a necessity. Although I am a Mancunian, I know that many Yorkshire people had the same kind of experience.

I was the eighth child of a disabled father. He had lost a leg and an eye serving in the First World War, and his lungs were wrecked. He had been a signwriter, but from when I was three-years-old he became unemployable.

For the remaining five years of his life, he and his family lived mainly on his meagre war pension. The War Office decreed that his death was not war-related and denied my mother a war widow's pension. That happened when I was seven. It showed that disability entailed deprivation and that disabled people and their families depended on decisions by faraway strangers with no knowledge of their lives and needs.

Later, the experience of my wife's family, and that of many people in my constituency, told me how little our society even recognised the existence of disabled people, let alone provided for their interests and rights. They made me determined to change the law radically.

I realised that disabled people needed first to be defined, recognised and recorded before any provision could be made for them – a message many other countries have taken from us. It still astonishes me to recall that in 1969 neither local nor national government had even a number count of disabled people in need. Many disabling conditions were not even identified in law or practice.

The Act is often described as pioneering. It had to be – we had to create most of it from scratch.

It genuinely led the world in its key provisions. It gave rights of access for disabled people to the built environment, including schools and universities. It made the world's first statutory provision for purpose-built housing for disabled people, and entitled them to help in adapting their homes. It gave them the right to practical help in their homes, including the installation of telephones for the house-bound, and access to transport and other services outside the home. For the first time globally, the Act gave legal recognition to autism and dyslexia and made provision for the needs of children who are both blind and pre-lingually deaf. It established the world's first Institute of Hearing Research.

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act brought new rights and opportunities for millions. But there is still much work ahead if we are to fulfil the ideals I expressed when I asked the House of Commons to give my Bill a Second Reading 40 years ago.

"If we could bequeath one precious gift to posterity, I would choose a society in which there is genuine compassion for long-term sick and disabled people; where understanding is unostentatious and sincere; where needs come before means; where if years cannot be added to their lives, at least life can be added to their years; where the mobility of disabled people is restricted only by the bounds of technical progress and discovery; where they have the fundamental right to participate in industry and society according to ability; where socially preventable distress is unknown; and where no one has cause to be ill at ease because of his or her disability."

Lord Morris of Manchester, was Labour MP for Wythenshawe when he introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill to the House of Commons. It won a Second Reading on December 5, 1969.