Disability Rights Commission: From Civil Rights to Social Rights

Publication Date01 December 2008
AuthorNick O'Brien,Agnes Fletcher
Date01 December 2008
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 520±50
Disability Rights Commission: From Civil Rights to Social
Agnes Fletcher* and Nick O'Brien**
This paper argues that, although originally conceived as part of the
`civil rights' agenda, the development of disability rights in Britain
by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is better seen as a
movement towards the realization of social, economic, and cultural
rights, and so as reaffirmation of the indissolubility of human rights in
the round. As such, that process of development represents a concrete
exercise in the implementation of social rights by a statutory equality
body and a significant step towards the conception of disability rights
as universal participation, not just individual or minority group
entitlement. The paper considers the distinctive features of that
regulatory activity. It asks what sort of equality the DRC set out to
achieve for disabled people and where, as a result, its work positioned
it on the regulatory spectrum. From the particular experience of the
DRC, the paper looks forward to considerations of general relevance
to other such bodies, including the new Equality and Human Rights
The establishment of the DRC in April 2000 marked the first addition to the
institutional coverage of equality in Britain for nearly a quarter of a century.
The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities
ß2008 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2008 Cardiff University Law School. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*Freelance consultant (former Director of Policy and Communications of
the DRC)
** Liverpool Law School, UniversityofLiverpool, Chatham Street,
Liverpool L69 7ZS, England (former Legal Director of the DRC)
1See K. Monaghan, Blackstone's Guide to The Disability Discrimination Legislation
(2005) 387±409.
Commission (EOC) had existed since the mid-1970s. Much had changed in
the intervening period, both politically and socially, and legislative
innovation was in the air: the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2001 was
about to give effect to the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence
Inquiry by introducing a new positive race duty for the public sector; the
Human Rights Act 1998 was due to come into force in October 2000; and
many of the key provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the
DDA) were still to be phased in incrementally, including extensions to cover
education in September 2002 and the removal of physical features of
premises in 2004.
Nurturing these first shoots of innovation, the Hepple
Report, which appeared in 2000, provided an authoritative review of the
enforcement of anti-discrimination law in the United Kingdom, set in a
broader regulatory context.
When the DRC first emerged as a serious prospect in the government
White Paper that preceded the Disability Right Commission Act 1999, the
then Secretary of State, David Blunkett, made it clear that the DDA and the
DRC had been and would be, respectively, very significant advances for the
`civil rights' of disabled people.
As he put it in his foreword, `The
Government is committed to developing comprehensive and enforceable
civil rights for disabled people' and to taking forward the recommendations
of the Disability Rights Task Force (DRTF), which had also reported on
`how to secure comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled
At the same time, Mr Blunkett affirmed that there would be `great
benefits to society and to the economy as more disabled people are enabled
to live as equal and productive members of society', the implication being
that the achievement of `enforceable civil rights' would be the means
necessary and sufficient to securing that aim.
In an international, and especially a European context, this emphasis on
`civil rights' might be taken to denote an exclusive concern with the rights to
life, to a fair trial, to freedom of expression, to freedom from torture, and
freedom of religion, at the expense of broader social, economic, and cultural
rights, such as the rights to education, to housing, to health and social care,
2 id., pp. 13±24.
3B.Hepple, M. Coussey, and T. Choudhury, Equality: A New Framework, Report of
the Independent Review of the Enforcement of UK Anti-Discrimination Legislation
4DfEE, Promoting Disabled People's Rights: Creating a Disability Rights
Commission fit for the 21st Century (1998; Cm. 3977).
5 id., p. 3.
6 id.
ß2008 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2008 Cardiff University Law School

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