The Long Road of Struggle for People with Disabilities

Hundreds of People With Disability (PwD) and activists protested in Nepal in May 2024. photo: doc DDP

In an interview, the late Michael Winter, former Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in California, vividly recalled the time, 34 years ago, when sixty protesters with disabilities, defying physical barriers, ascended the 78 marble stairs of the Capitol’s West Front, in Washington, DC. In his poignant account, ‘Capitol Crawl,’ he acknowledged that some may have viewed the crawl as undignified for people in wheelchairs.


“But I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis. We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in,” Winter reflected, showcasing the unwavering resilience and determination of disabled activists.


Although this action is painful for some people, it is compelling. Four months after the protest, on 26 July 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on The White House lawn. This monumental event marked a significant step forward in the fight for disability rights. Capitol Crawl was effective because it built on a history of advocacy and legislative action.


Twenty years earlier in the UK, Alf Morris, the first Minister for Disabled People, had introduced the Disabled People and Chronic Illnesses Act, the world’s first law recognising and providing rights to people with disabilities. This was the culmination of fifty years of disabled British people’s struggle, including a National League of the Blind march and rally in London, demanding better working conditions and pay – and setting the stage for protest marches of the 1920s and 1930s, including the famous Jarrow March.


That was some early progress for disabled people in the UK and the world, but it didn’t stop there. There was another demonstration by disabled people in England in July 1992, protesting at the discriminatory treatment people with disabilities experienced when visiting restaurants or cafés, and the lack of protection against discrimination in public spaces.


These actions, including road blockades, continued in subsequent years, and only in 1995 were there changes to the law that prohibited discrimination based on disability in the workplace, consumer protection, and the right to accessible transportation.


The story of disabled activists has not only been about their own rights. In England, Rosa May Billinghurst, who had suffered from polio and used a modified tricycle chair, was a leading figure in the suffragette movement for women’s right to vote.


Despite her limited mobility, Billinghurst fought for equality for everyone in society, even after being thrown into prison multiple times. Finally, in 1918, the Suffragettes’ struggle bore fruit in the Representation of the People Act.


These examples illustrate that the pace of change can be disappointingly slow, and the struggle is often long, uphill, incremental and cumulative, but we can all support those who demand the implementation of legislation that is already supposed to be in force.


As a person with severe disabilities, Deepak Bhandari is entitled to personal assistance according to Nepalese legislation, but this support has yet to be provided. Initially, he sat in silence as a protest, but seeing no response from the government, he went on a hunger strike. Disability organisations, including the National Federation of the Disabled (NFDN), recognised his legitimate demands, and disability rights activists have joined him in solidarity.


In May 2024, the movement expanded to protests in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to express dissatisfaction with the government’s non-implementation of the right to personal assistance for those with severe disabilities. Large numbers of people, many in wheelchairs and riding 3-wheeler scooters, closed main roads with loud and eye-catching demonstrations. Unfortunately, local journalists reported arrests and violent police action, but the protests continued.


It has been reported that hundreds of disabled people, including those with deafness, hard of hearing, spinal paralysis, and autism, have participated in the movement. Activists warned the government that they would block main roads of the capital and were prepared to continue with hunger strikes if their legitimate demands were not addressed.


Finally, the government has agreed to spell out within 45 days how the right to personal assistance will be implemented, bringing the protests to an end for now. We hope that, thanks to his activism, the solidarity of the disability movement and concerted nonviolent direct action, Mr Bhandari and others will receive the support they need.