A photo in black-and-white of a wheelchair burning.
Photo by Phil Dexter

Reasonable Adjustment – The Disabled Armed Resistance Movement

Artist Justin Edgar tells us more about his personal connections to the movement behind his forthcoming exhibition, Reasonable Adjustment – The Disabled Armed Resistance Movement and why, for him, this work is so relevant right now…

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author. They are not necessarily shared by Unlimited.

My connection to RAD

At art college in Portsmouth in 1993, we had to do a photography project which documented an element of the environment around us. I began to notice the RAD logo in places. I’d seen it before in Birmingham where I’m from but I didn’t really know what it was. I was intrigued but that was before the internet so you couldn’t just Google it. A sociology student friend told me about RAD and their activity. There was a lot of cult graffiti and images popping up at that time like Shepard Fairey, Invader and early Banksy. I decided that for my visual awareness project I would take photographs recording RAD graffiti, and in the holidays when I was back in Birmingham, I found more in the underpasses there. I also visited my brother who was at University in Sheffield – and noticed it seemed to be concentrated in urban areas. People liked the logo and copied it, most probably they weren’t even disabled but realised it stood for something – it was anti-establishment. I was intrigued and the photographs led me to research RAD, that’s when I began collecting the items that audiences will see in the exhibition.

I come from a long line of pacifists – my grandad was a conscientious objector in World War One and my Mum used to sell white poppies for the Peace Pledge Union on the streets of Birmingham. As a child I would go with her and she’d get abuse from people who thought she was polluting the message of Remembrance Day. It’s a great irony how people are angered by the notion of peace and non-violence, just witness all the hatred and ridicule of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear disarmament – I find that very strange. I don’t condone the violent actions of RAD, but I can understand the frustration of those who got involved as they were faced with a situation which was patently ridiculous and were compelled to fight back. All of us have anger inside but it’s whether or not we choose, or are able, to suppress it that makes the difference.

Dave McCauley

For those who don’t know, Dave was an activist with cerebral palsy who died when his own Molotov cocktail fell on him. I met Dave’s family for a documentary strand called The Slot which I directed for Channel Four in 1999. This was a five-minute programme that some people might remember going out directly after Channel 4 News. The item was never broadcast because of an extended news about the death of Ernie Wise but I stayed in touch with them over the years and tried and failed to get funding to make a feature film about Dave. I’ve learnt that the narrative structure of film is not always the best way to tell certain stories. When the opportunity came along to develop this as a visual arts exhibition it felt like the right medium to tell the story not just of Dave but of the movement as a whole.

The conversation with Dave’s family about using the wheelchair he died in as part of the exhibition was a difficult one, but they understood what I was trying to do and gave their blessing. Dave was a deeply driven man and seeing his chair in the exhibition is very powerful image – he would have loved it.

In common with Dave, I also grew up in a deeply politicised left-wing family. It’s interesting, that with anyone who commits such extreme acts in the name of protest or belief, there is something else driving them. It’s not just about the cause, I’m not a psychotherapist, but I believe a lot of drive and anger comes from childhood, perhaps a sense of not being listened to and getting angry about that. People with congenital disabilities perhaps have that sense of injustice thrust upon them from birth.

RAD vs DAN

It’s odd that there isn’t more coverage about RAD. If you look at Direct Action Network (DAN), it could be argued that their non-violent protest was much more effective. DAN were probably one of the most fundamentally successful protest movements the world has ever seen. Their actions contributed directly to the establishment of the Disability Discrimination Act, and they are a disability studies subject in their own right. The lack of knowledge about RAD is probably symptomatic of a more general apathy and disinterest by society and resultantly the press in disability. I’m sure many of us have experienced such apathy, sadly. Perhaps the success of DAN stole their thunder somewhat too.

Another factor is that the early 1990s, like today, was a time of many different protest groups. By the time RAD emerged there was very little appetite in the news media for coverage of another. Try finding coverage of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and even the poll tax rioters – there is very little indeed. History belongs to the hegemony and a lot of groups who attack the system end up written out of it. Anyone remember the Walsall Anarchists of the 1890s for example? That’s one of the reasons I wanted to mount this exhibition, to make known an important piece of history that is being forgotten.

Why now?

Really my inspiration was the timing, Boris Johnson will probably end up Prime Minister and he says he wants to put Brexit behind us and move forward as a nation, but the issue is that 48% of the nation are angrily opposed to Brexit. The next five years are going to split the country even further. I attended the Shaw Trust launch at the House of Lords recently and had to fight my way past both anti and pro-Brexit protesters, plus Extinction Rebellion. It’s crazy out there.

This is nothing new- I lived through the sharp end of the Thatcher era in the 1980s. We had better all buckle up because Johnson is not the type of leader who will bring the country together. Like Thatcher, he will drive it apart. There are going to be a lot more movements, perhaps like RAD in the next few years, just witness the rise in sectarian violence as a result of Brexit. The exhibition says something about a similarly divisive era of British politics and how such dogma can lead to tribalism and violence. Remember that we live in an era of political assassinations, so it seems deeply relevant to be looking at RAD right now.

I wanted to tell the story as plainly and clearly as possible, presenting the story of RAD and letting the audience make up their own mind. The exhibition will have a factual feel and aims to contextualise why RAD did what they did. The group who have always been at the bottom of the pile in society are disabled people because we have less power, money and influence. Disabled people have bore the brunt of nine years of Lib Dem/Tory austerity, putting together this exhibition at the same time as reading Frances Ryan’s excellent Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People gave me the sensation that history is repeating itself, as disabled people were marginalised and ignored during the Thatcherite meritocracy.

Part of the exhibition is devoted to showing how current protests groups are using the internet to tap into what RAD did. For example, the work of Disabled People Against Cuts. There was also the pranking of Esther McVey when she was Work and Pensions secretary. To me that is interesting because something that politicians and governments have a hard time answering back to is humour, perhaps because they don’t have a sense of humour of their own, or if they do they’re not allowed to express it. Taking the piss is a very powerful weapon.