BEven before reaching the opening titles of Then Barbara Met Alan – the one-off BBC drama illustrating the fight for the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which aired on Monday night – Barbara graffitied “piss on pity” on a bus stop and refused to go for a drink with Alan because, in her words, she would end up getting drunk and giving him a blowjob. It is immediately an instruction to the public to reject its preconceived ideas: it is not about disabled people as one might think.
The story of how disabled activists – led by Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth – used direct action to push for Britain’s first Disability Civil Rights Act is a story you’d be forgiven for not have heard before. Disability history is not taught in schools. It is not dramatized for entertainment and is rarely the subject of documentaries; on the odd occasion the subject is on UK screens, it’s likely to have come from the US – as in the 2020 documentary Crip Camp. As a result, I’d bet most of the British public thinks that disability rights were introduced in the 1970s along with other anti-discrimination laws, such as those legislating against gender and racial prejudice, and were created by benevolent authorities granting rights to grateful persons with disabilities. .
As Then Barbara Met Alan shows, that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Take That topped the charts and Rachel and Ross were “are they going, aren’t they?” in Friends, people with disabilities in the UK still had no basic rights enshrined in law. This meant that it was perfectly legal for a company not to hire someone because they were deaf or for a bus to have no ramps and not be able to pick up passengers in wheelchairs. These moments of daily inequality are expertly represented in the show and the lives of the characters. When Barbara and Alan are arrested for protesting the lack of disabled access, they have to be kept in a police van because the cells are not accessible. It’s a moment of irony that shows just how absurd discrimination is once you really start thinking about it.
One of the most striking parts of the program comes when Barbara and her friends decide to protest the ITV Telethon, a charity show that raised money for disabled charities but really served to reinforce negative stereotypes about the “pitiful crips”. Interspersed with real historical footage of bewildered host Chris Tarrant and the protesters, it captures in a few scenes how for decades British society was content to hand out charity to its disabled citizens but not rights. When change happened, it was not because of benevolent politicians and media organizations, but because of the fury and power of wheelchair users who threw themselves under buses. Their demands were both uncompromising and banal. While activists chant to passers-by: “We want what you have! Civil. Rights.”
That Then Barbara Met Alan is built around a love story between two activists and is in itself refreshing and subversive. A society that often sees people with disabilities as asexual, passive and dull understandably sees no need to give them access to pubs, cinemas or concerts. At an early date, we see Alan and Barbara stopped from entering a restaurant because there is no ramp. As a sign of what’s to come, Alan insists on challenging the manager, and a waiter quickly brings a table to the sidewalk so the couple can at least have their date outside. “We fight every battle,” implores Alan Barbara. “Do you understand this? Every battle.
It would be a mistake to watch the series and think the story is over. As Alan himself said, after storming the House of Commons when the DDA was finally passed: “It won’t be enough. But it will be a start. Anyone with a disability who has recently been denied employment illegally, was denied health care during the pandemic, or was left to get wet on a train because there are no accessible restrooms knows this. Very good. Research published this week by Euan’s Guide, the disability access charity, found that 59% of people with disabilities think the pandemic has made access worse. Progress is a slow game.
And yet I can’t help feeling a little hope. Watching Then Barbara Met Alan, I was struck not only by the power of disabled activists, but also by seeing their story told in the mainstream. It was central to disability rights on prime time television, performed by actors with disabilities and created by storytellers with disabilities. By the time the real Barbara was onscreen in the final scene — with a ramp symbolically coming out of a bus to finally give her entrance — I was crying. For what we have earned. For what has been taken from us for decades, and still is. For the activists who have given so much for my generation and those who do so today. Roar through the streets and kiss your lover. This is what disability looks like – and the battle continues.