By Tony Baldwinson, disability rights historian and activist

Although much has been written, rightly, about Alf Morris’ work with disabled people, there was one aspect that had remained lost until it was revealed by new research being done in Manchester this year.

This lost connection was not a fault of Alf Morris himself – twice in the House of Commons he paid tribute to the work of this lost group. And he gave them their full name – the National Campaign for the Young Chronic Sick (NCYCS).

Before Alf Morris’ new law in 1970, thousands of disabled people in Britain were left in hospital beds for all their lives because there was no provision for independent living. If the family couldn’t cope, then the only other place to live was in hospital. And unless they were young children, disabled people once they reached 16 years of age were moved into the geriatric ward, where they were expected to stay for life.

In hospitals, disabled people were called the young chronic sick – “young” meaning adults under retirement age. In hospital you were either “young” or “old”, there was nothing in-between.

Marsh Dickson and Dorothy Dickson were a married couple in the 1960s. Dorothy was a disabled woman, and they both worried that if anything happened to Marsh, then her only option would be to be taken away to a geriatric ward. They both dreaded this, so they set up the National Campaign for disabled people like Dorothy, the Young Chronic Sick.

The NCYCS wasn’t a big organisation – it had no staff or office or celebrity patrons. It had some links to the Chelsea constituency Labour party in London, at least through Marsh Dickson who was a known member.

The breakthrough in the research this year was finding a book – an autobiography written by a disabled woman who was in one of those hospital wards in the 1960s, desperate to get out and live in a flat of her own. She was Pamela La Fane, and stuck in bed almost all day she came across a letter in a magazine written by Marsh Dickson about this new campaign, traced by research to the New Statesman, 18 March 1966.

Long story short, she joined their small committee and agreed to write a pamphlet for the campaign. When the rest of the committee read it, they said it was too good for a pamphlet, and it was printed instead as an article in the Guardian newspaper. Further research traced that modest mention to her article, Growing Up Geriatric, 23 Dec 1966.

Pamela La Fane had to write her article using the pen-name Michele Gilbert. She was exposing the abuse and neglect of disabled people in hospitals and feared reprisals if her identity was revealed.

This article caused a national scandal, with more letters in the newspapers, and the BBC approached Pamela La Fane to ask if she’d make some documentaries with them. This time, with support, she used her own name. Further research found the specifics of the  three programmes – they were broadcast on BBC1 on 6, 13, 20 June 1968, 10.30pm. 

So, as Alf Morris fully credited the group in his speeches in the House of Commons, the evidence of neglect and worse that they had assembled and the solutions they proposed were fed into the drafting of the landmark new law, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.

It is likely that there is still much more to uncover and learn about the NCYCS and the campaigning by disabled people for independent living. The Grove Road project by Maggie Davis (Hines) and Ken Davis in 1976 in the Midlands is one example. In Manchester the pioneering example in the 1970s of June Maelzer, a disabled mother and single parent who organised her own care support is another example.

Coming up to date, the very high number of deaths in care homes of disabled people as well as of elderly people during the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a brighter light on independent living. Disabled people living in flats and houses, some needing to shield, with community-based care support such as personal assistants have shown us again that a much safer alternative is possible.

Fifty years on from the new law by Alf Morris in 1970, the campaigns by disabled people for independent living have remained crucially important, saving lives in 2020.

References:

Alfred Morris and Arthur Butler (1972) No Feet to Drag (ISBN 9780283978678)

DPA – Disabled People’s Archive, a GMCDP resource with Archives+, Manchester Central Library, St Peters Square M60 2LA.

June Maelzer Obituaries (2004) The Guardian, The Independent. (online)

Maggie Davis and Ken Davis (2019) To and From Grove Road (ISBN 9781913148089, free online)

Pamela La Fane (1981) It’s a Lovely Day, Outside (ISBN 9780575030145)

Tony Baldwinson (2020) Alf Morris MP and the campaigning by disabled people that led to the 1970 CSDP Act (ISBN 9781913148119, free online).

Photograph: Pamela La Fane