The disability protests in the decade 1968-1982 : contesting the western-centric point of view

        The Anglo-Saxon countries are generally considered the main sites that generate protest and emancipatory projects at an international level. Some American and English associations used diverse means of protest (demonstrations, sit-ins, bus chaining, etc.) during the 1970s in order to defend their rights. Sociologists Sharon Barnartt and Richard Scotch listed 97 protests initiated by disabled people and deaf people in the United States between 1970 and 1982 (Barnartt, Scotch, 2001). The actions from the United States and from England share some common goals: the fight against charitable and paternalistic attitudes and discrimination, and the fight for access to self-determination and accessibility. However, mobilisations in the United States distinguish themselves by the way in which they defend a specific community organisation, that is, the centers for independent living founded on mutual aid and consumerism (Longmore, 2003). The English mobilizations distinguish themselves by the revendication of a social interpretation of disability (inspired by Marxism), by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation association (Shakespeare, 1993).

The period between 1973 and 1981 was identified by James Charlton as a crucial period for the disability rights movements at an international level (Charlton, 1998). We think it is necessary to extend this to at least the earlier date of 1968, identified by Michelle Zancarini as the time of a protesting trend at an international level, marked by politicization and aspiration to social change in several social sectors (Zancarini-Fournel, 2008)). The chronology of this protesting decade varies from country to country, but it could be said to last from the beginning of 1960 until 1981.

This decade (1960’s-1981) is characterized by the significant promotion of the disability rights concept at an international level. It starts at the end of the 1960s when several NGOs (Fédération internationale des mutilés, des invalides du travail et des invalides civils, International League of Societies for the Mentally Handicapped, International Society for Rehabilitation of the Disabled) adopt a program of social claims, and ends with the UN’s organization of the International Year for Disabled people in 1981, which also has consequences in 1982. These two factors – the political fervour and the promotion of the concept of rights – act as catalysts inside disability rights movements. In many countries they initiate the increase of a social culture of protest, the regular, large-scale use of protests inside the public sphere in order to defend their rights, and the building of new emancipatory utopias. The aspirations for the emancipation of disabled people that existed before 1968, now grew in size and became more radical during the decade 1968 to 1982. After this decade of protest, we note a period of temporary calm within movements that results in the decreasing use of protests or in their decreasingly subversive nature.

Studying the disability movements in three countries (Argentina, Brazil and Spain), we have discovered not only that there were protest movements of disabled people outside Anglo-saxon countries during this decade, but also that the level of contestation is sometimes much more intense than in the United States.

The disability protests in Argentina, Brazil and Spain (1968-1982).

We have provided a review of the protests that ocurred in three countries, Argentina, Brazil and Spain, that are mentioned by our sources. We have included the road protests, the hunger strikes, the sit-ins, as well as alternative protests (public concentration, chaining, interruption of a public cultural event, etc.). We are mainly referring to the respective disability associations’ magazines, but we also draw on the official and alternative press, as well as interviews with associations’ activists of that time. But this review cannot be exhaustive. The main limitation of this review is that the fight for disability rights may occur in the form of more general street protests made by trade unions or political parties. We do not account for these. The consultation of sources leads us to study the protests mobilized for disability rights, even if they were carried out by the physically disabled, the blind, the deaf, people with intellectual impairments, or their families. Some mobilizations are marked by the joint presence of several actors.

Between the three countries, Spain distinguishes itself by the important number of protests that take place between 1976 and 1982 (66). The majority are street protests (40) with a significant number of sit-ins inside administrative and religious buildings also taking place (16). We could only count ten radical actions in Argentina during the decade, and 25 in Brazil. If we measure the protest’s intensity in the light of the number of inhabitants of these countries during the mid-1970s (26 million in Argentina; 110 million in Brazil; 35 million in Spain; 212 million in the United States), the level of contestation is much more intense in Spain than in the other countries, include the United States.

The Brazilian protests are limited to only one type of action, the street protest. They are more various in Spain and in Argentina where the physically and sensorily disabled people are active in occupations of spaces (3 in Argentina), and hunger strikes (2 in Spain, 1 in Argentina).

Unlike the situation in the United States, in which the evolution of the protesting activity was related to outstanding issues of national disability policy, the temporality of the protests inside the countries we study seems to be influenced much more by the presence of dictatorships in Spain (until 1975), in Argentina (1966-1973 and 1976-1983), and in Brazil (until 1985).

The first mobilizations start in Argentina at the end of May 1973, when Hector Campora and Juan Perón come to power. This brings an enormous hope of justice and of reversal of the capitalist economic order to a part of the population. A similar shift happens in Spain during the second quarter of 1976, at the moment of the democratic transition following Franco’s death; and in Brazil after 1979, with the slow, progressive, and non-linear democratization of the dictatorial regime. In Spain and in Brazil, owing to the process of democratization, the radical protests continue until 1982, and even beyond this in Brazil, although some radicalness is lost through institutionalization. On the contrary, in Argentina, the protests considerably reduce their number and intensity from 1974 onward because of the political closeness of Perón’s regime and the establishment of the dictatorship in 1976. In 1982, while the Argentinian dictatorship is still powerful and oppresses all social movements, Spain has almost completed its democratic transition.

In the three countries, it is predominantly the physically and sensorily disabled people who choose to radicalize their modes of action. In Spain, among the 66 actions organized during this period, 52 are led mainly by physically disabled people (i.e. 79 %), and 6 by blind people (i.e. 9 %). The administrative authorities, and in particular Servicio de Recuperación y Rehabilitación de Minusválidos Físicos y Psíquicos (SEREM), are the main target of the sit-ins and the destination of many protest marches. In Argentina, the actions concern both administrative authorities and associations’ offices. The actions undertaken by the Frente de Lisiados Peronistas are particularly subversive towards the private associations AOI and COR and the charity ladies who are managing them. The Brazilian protests strongly differ from those in other countries by their mixed and moderate nature. The slogans shown during protests do not usually contain any direct accusation against administrative authorities, managing associations, or private enterprises. The Brazilian protests are generally seen from the point of view of the fraternity between social classes, while the Spanish protests are affected by stronger class tensions.

Divergent paths of emancipation.

During these protests, certain groups of persons with disabilities share their wish for equality and for emancipation from certain care and guidance (medical, familial, administrative, religious). Some disagreements exist, however, about the means by which one can achieve this equality and this emancipation. In Spain, there is a particularly strong tension between the promoters of a law concerning the social integration of disabled people, who also support the creation of a coordinating administrative agency, and those who categorically oppose this line, which they see as a differential and marginalizing treatment of disability. This group are also opposed to maintaining some specialized services, such as the sheltered workshops or shared residences. In each country, the disability rights movements mark the boundaries between the forms of equality they seek to obtain and the situations of inequality and dependence they experience.

These sheltered workshops are important targets for the Argentinian and Spanish protests. In Spain, several associations ask, during a meeting in February 1977, for the abolition of the private sheltered workshops, and for access to working positions within mainstream companies (Empuje, marzo 1977). However, most attacks are aimed at SEREM’s inefficiency, excessive bureaucracy, and lack of resources.

In Spain and in Brazil, the accessibility of public transportation and the city’s architecture is one of the main objectives of the protests. In Spain, those engaged are using special means of action to denounce the lack of accessibility to public transportation: the group named Minusvalidos Unidos organizes some sit-ins in front of the subway of Puerta del Sol in Madrid from 5th March 1976 and 26th November 1977.


Protest organized by Minusvalidos Unidos, in front of the subway of Puerta del Sol in Madrid. (source : Gabinete de Estudios y Asesoramiento,1979).

In Argentina, the topic of accessibility is not mentioned during the protests. This is explained by the small number of association activists familiar with this issue in 1973.

In the three countries, the physically and sensorily disabled people mobilized within the protests agree about the need to fight against paternalism and authoritarianism. They protest against the charitable and compassionate approach to disability and, to a lesser extent, the overprotective attitude of the families. In this way they show their will to master their destiny (Crespo, 2011). Unwilling to be part of the private charity any longer, they ask for the administrative bodies to take care of their needs, but they demand also to participate in the decision-making process with the officials, in order to have a more egalitarian relationship with the administrative bodies. To this end, their representatives attend certain decision-making administrative bodies at a local, regional, or national level.

On the contrary, contesting religious teaching seems to be a minority issue in Spain and is almost absent from discourses in Brazil. In Argentina and Brazil, some disabled people themselves rebel against the experience of professional rehabilitation, which completely ignores the choices made by disabled people. In Argentina in August 1974, in its fight against the current understanding of professional rehabilitation, the Union Nacional Socio-Economica del Lisiado (UNSEL) insists that is predominantly managed by private organizations and guided by scientific, paternalist, and charitable criteria. The disabled person is seen as a passive individual by this kind of rehabilitation, which is conceived as a set of actions to be achieved. This does not help her to better integrate into society and may even marginalize her further (Diario de Sesiones, 12 de septiembre de 1974). In Brazil, the Movimento pelos Direitos das Pessoas Deficientes denounces the limited technical training of the health and rehabilitation professionals, « who have inadvertently adopted a position of superiority towards their clients, by not asking for their opinions on their needs and their choices » (Movimento pelos direitos das pessoas deficientes, 1980).

At the same time as the English association UPIAS builds a radically social interpretation of disability, by totally separating it from the impairment, Spanish members of Minusvalidos Unidos doubt the medical definitions of disability. According to one member, we have to see the disabled « as a social group which is marginalized by society because of (?) its physical and psychical impairments » (Gabinete de Estudios, 1979). The question mark is used here in order to register doubt about ‘the fatal cause and effect relationship’ between the physical impairment and the marginal situation. That is, the Spanish member wishes to show that a certain physical defect « does not lead by itself to the social marginalization », as the contemporary capitalist society contributes to the marginalization of disabled people.

This decade (1968-1982) is marked by the radicalization of disability rights movements. The Spanish case differs from those in the other two countries by the higher level of radicalness, seen through the importance and diversity of the number of protests, the high level of conflicts with the police authorities, the importance of conflicts of interpretation regarding the cause of social marginalization of disabled people in the associative debates of 1976-1977, as well as the questioning of religious teaching by different groups. Nevertheless, no questions have been raised over the medical guidance in the process of professional rehabilitation. On the other hand, the Brazilian movements are marked by strong moderation of both action and demands, as well as by their taking place between different disabilities.

The results of our research lead us to relativize the originary and the original manner of the Anglo-Saxon protests within the growth of disability rights movements at the international level. To consider western countries as the first protest centers and creators of emancipatory projects for disabled people at an international level means adopting a western-centric point of view. Like Marcel Détienne, we think that it is possible to observe multiple inventions of emancipatory projects within distant societies from a chronological and spatial point of view (Détienne, 2000).

References :
Barnartt S. and Scotch R., Disability protests: contentious politics. 1970 to 1999, Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2001.
Charlton J., Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Crespo Lia, « A gênese do movimento das pessoas com deficiência », in Secretaria dos Direitos da Pessoa com Deficiência, 30 anos do AIPD (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo, 2011), p. 145-169.
Detienne M., Comparer l’incomparable, Paris: Seuil, 2000.
Diario de Sesiones de la Cámara de Senadores, Buenos Aires, 12 de septiembre 1974, p. 1847.
Empuje, Barcelona, marzo 1977.
Gabinete de Estudios y Asesoramiento, Minusvalidos Fisicos. Marginación y Opresión, Madrid : Grafiprint, 1979.
Longmore P., Why I Burned my Book and Other Essays on Disability, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Movimento pelos Direitos das Pessoas Deficientes, Carta Programa, dezembro de 1980.
Shakespeare T., « Disabled people’s self-organisation: a new social movement? », Disability, Handicap and Society, 8:3 (1993), 249-264.
Zancarini-Fournel M., Le moment 68. Une histoire contestée, Paris : Seuil, 2008.

For more information, read : Gildas Bregain, « An entangled perspective on disability history: The disability protests in Argentina, Brazil and Spain, 1968- 1982 », in Sebastian Barsch, Anne Klein and Pieter Verstraete (dir.), The Imperfect Historian : Disability Histories in Europe, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2013, pp. 133-154.

Une réflexion au sujet de « The disability protests in the decade 1968-1982 : contesting the western-centric point of view »

  1. Merci pour ce billet synthétique qui permet de mieux comprendre l’histoire de la conceptualisation du handicap et du rôle des collectifs de personnes handicapées dans les pays non occidentaux.

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