Baroness Jane Campbell

Life peer

CV in brief:  Education:   Career:  Independant Living Strategy Group | Justice Advisory Group |  National Centre for Independent Living  | London Boroughs Disability Resource Team | London Boroughs Joint Disability Committee | Greater London Council   Find Baroness Campbell online:   Twitter  |  House of Lords biography    Exclusive interview at the House of Lords, 12 March 2018

CV in brief:


Career: Independant Living Strategy Group | Justice Advisory Group | National Centre for Independent Living | London Boroughs Disability Resource Team | London Boroughs Joint Disability Committee | Greater London Council

Find Baroness Campbell online: Twitter | House of Lords biography

Exclusive interview at the House of Lords, 12 March 2018

Like many Disabled people who grew up in Great-Britain in the 1960s, Baroness Campbell, you were perceived as being different, so therefore given, so-called "special" treatment!

My early life was pretty bad for a child who felt she was no different from her sister, other than I couldn't walk and I didn't understand why I couldn't go to the same mainstream schools like her and my friends in the road. After all, I played the same games with them, (except for climbing trees and running away from adults), read the same books and enjoyed the same TV programmes. 

In England, most children with disabilities went to Special Ed schools, where you did not get an education as there was no formal curriculum for us. There were only two schools in England that were willing to accept "clever disabled kids, where they could learn and achieve formal qualifications". This enabled a very small number of disabled people to enter University. My school was for children who were predicted to die within months, maybe a few years. There was no expectation of us whatsoever. The aim was to keep us amused during our expected short lives.

The first 16 years of my education were grim. I was a frustrated and angry child because I was perfectly able to learn and achieve like every child of my age who didn't have a disability. But there was simply no way of gaining an opportunity to show the world what I could do, as everyone was focused on what I couldn't. So I spent many years receiving physiotherapy to stretch my arms and legs for no purpose other than to "look more normal", along with hours and hours of sewing, drawing, rudimentary English and maths, basket weaving and arts and crafts. Not exactly demanding on the brain!

Thankfully when I left school I went to a new college to catch up. There, I got my O and A-levels before going to University. I managed, within 3 years, to catch up enough to University. I left with a BA honours, followed by a Masters, in political history. I was determined to show the world that the so-called “vegetable” had a brain!

It clearly shows the importance of giving everyone an appropriate inclusive education.

Absolutely, it was a bizarre system that had no basis in evidence or reality. Segregated education made most disabled people dependent and unable to cope with the mainstream world when they left school. Hence, they became dependent on expensive state provision, because they couldn't cope independently and needed the state to look after them in more separate provision like special workshops, day centres or residential care. 

You became a disability rights activist shortly after leaving uni. What was the defining factor?

I remember the first day that the penny dropped. A friend of mine encouraged me to attend a conference. She asked: "Have you heard of the disabled people's movement? They are having a Conference to recruit disabled people to campaign for changes in education, employment and social access, why not come along,?"

I wasn't that keen because I didn't want to go back to being corralled with a load of disabled people. I was too busy trying to fit into the able-bodied world, pretending I was the same as everyone else. That’s what you did when you wanted to be accepted and treated like an everyday citizen. It never really worked, because it was exhausting denying my disability-related needs and struggling to do everyday tasks alone - denying a part of myself.

However I am a naturally inquisitive person and I was intrigued by the notion of campaigning for rights, having studied and fought for women’ rights at university, so I went along. I listened to Vic Finkelstein, a disabled man from South Africa, who had fought against the apartheid and had to flee the country or be imprisoned. On arriving in England, he said: "I don't know why I was fighting apartheid out there, when people with difference are facing the same in the UK. He encouraged us to rise up and demand our human right to be part of society and not segregated away in special schools, institutions or our homes.

He explained that disabled people weren't the  problem; that it was not our individual disability that prevented us from getting in a building, or on the bus, it was the way able-bodied people built them and people’s attitudes towards us that saw us as a tragic problem to deal with by doctors or special places.  He explained the notion of social oppression and how able-bodied people had created an environment for them which did not include disabled people and we had to fit in or be looked after by ‘professional’. He explained that social attitudes towards us were based on how to cure us, instead of what we could achieve if given the right support and environmental modifications, like ramps instead of steps and help to be productive we could be liberated from the shackles of dependency-creating services. He told us not to be ashamed of ourselves or other disabled people. Only we could make things change if we came together as the social movement to demand a voice our own. He reminded us that we were the experts in our own situation, not the so-called experts. Like traditional charities, doctors, and other disability experts who spoke on our behalf. He called this disability theory “the social model of disability.”

It's such a simple notion, but it hadn’t occurred to me. From that day, I became a radical disability activist and joined every demonstration and disabled ‘people only groups’ that was going to fight for change. We began by fighting for equality of access and equality of treatment.

How did you decide that Parliament was the right place to be? 

Campaigning for the Disability Discrimination Act made me interested in the parliamentary process. I realised that's where we eventually needed to be to have the power and influence that people do in government, to make lasting laws for wholesale change. That was my political awakening.

I had studied political feminism at university, for my master's degree. I felt that there was no difference between women's equality and disability equality.  They benefited from legislation outlawing discrimination against woman and we had to do the same.

How did you end up in Parliament?

As disabled people became more confident and more visible, it became obvious that we would want to come into politics. But the journey to becoming an MP was fraught with discriminatory barriers that the process is possible for someone with a severe disability like me so I decided to apply to become an appointed member of the House of Lords. In addition, I didn't want to join a party as I felt it would confine me too much. I wanted to be part of the Upper Chamber, which is the reality check on the executive. I wanted to be someone who would scrutinise legislation and decisions made by politicians.

I also wanted to be a part of a group of people who would the chosen for to our experience and our knowledge in a particular field. So you have top judges, doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc, to ensure the Government produces laws which are fit for purpose. I really knew about disability from a rights perspective, rather than from the traditional model of looking after disabled people.

The Lords were ready to take us on. But not too many: they only wanted one or two!  We have the same problem as women. The establishment don't mind one or two, but once you start becoming a mass, they get a bit scared, because they think that we will begin to change things in a way that is too much to cope with. Gradualism is the name of the game. 

You were a vocal supporter of remaining in the European Union. As a disability activist, what are your concerns, with regard to Brexit?

I have many concerns with Brexit. On just a matter of principle, we are better together in Europe than apart. I've always been an inclusionist. I don't want to see countries competing with one another, which leads to friction and issues that are based on division. I have been excluded in my lifetime, just an individual, so I know the price of exclusion. Although that was at an individual level, if you magnify it, it shows what will happen within and between communities.

America is hunkering down and becoming 'America First’. That's quite a troubling road to go down. Although Countries have huge differences, we should learn to live together and to be tolerant of one another. Only then will it foster good relations between individuals.

I've grown up with Great Britain, I've studied and I've learned a lot about the second World War and how even though, we are a tiny country, we can punch way above our weight. Those days aren’t gone but we need each other more now, as a world, than we did centuries or even decades ago.

From a disability perspective, the European Union has fostered very good laws for us. I base most of my work on the European Convention on the Rights of Disabled People.

I want all that to be retained in our British law. This government thinks EU disability laws are a duplication of the laws we already have. I don't think that's correct. There are some duplications and there's quite a lot that doesn't fit within our legal system, but we should bring it over and deal with it afterwards. Disability laws shouldn’t be thrown out before we've even commenced that process. 

Gender equality is one of the things you worked on. The recent #MeToo movement still has a lot to do to properly include disabled women. How can we address that?

There are tensions between the women’s rights groups and those for disability. For instance, we have different perspectives on the issue of carers. We talk about mothers with disabilities having the support they need to care for their children, and not to have victim-status of our children being described as child careers as said by the women's movement. We need to support disabled people to care for themselves and to care for their children.

The women’s movements look at us from a perspective of needs, not rights of inclusion. I'm trying to educate them to have a fully inclusive model. They've been accused of doing the same on issues of race and with transgender people.

That's why I became a commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. There are many groups that share different characteristics but have a common goal, which is equality for all.

I have been prominent in the #ourtimenow media campaign, which is more appropriate to an inclusive agenda. It's our time for all of us as marginalised or oppressed by those who hold power. Coming together is difficult. For instance, women's meetings, conferences and rallies are often held in places that are not accessible to disabled women. This is something I flag regularly.

Since I’ve been at the House of Lords, I’ve worked in a more collaborative style. I've put away the banners and the billboards and picked up the pen and my voice as my rallying tools. I liaise with all those legislating on all rights for equality, making sure our issues are included. 

How do you choose how to fight your battles? How do you know what's going to be most efficient?

I have years of experience in finding out what works and what doesn’t. I'm very selective in what I do. I choose issues that will have the most effect on all people's lives. I choose to do things I can add value to from working in politics for the last 10 years.

I leave the campaign organising, or the big access issues, to my colleagues now because they are in a much better position to do that. They are involved in all the meetings. I can't get involved in everything, I'm one person. If I think I can give added value, from my perspective of being here, then that's how I make my choices.

I also choose things that are going on in other movements. I pick up the phone and say, "I hear you're running this campaign. How many disabled women are involved in this”?

You hear that sigh on the other end of the phone. But since they are talking to Baroness Campbell and not Jane from down the road, they know they can't ignore me. If they do, I will have no hesitation in shaming them in Parliament, in a speech. So, I have to use the stick and the carrot. I prefer using the carrot, but don't get me mad because I will use the stick.

Does the sheer volume of rights you are fighting for ever feel overwhelming?

Every day, I'm absolutely terrified of the agenda before me. I don't let anybody know. You must feel the fear and do it anyway. You mustn't show the fear and do it badly.

I’m never going to change the world, but if I can change a little bit here and there, and that makes some difference to people's lives, then, I’ll feel that I've done my job. That's all any of us can do, really.

Luckily, there are other people like me around the world. Technology has really helped me, as a disabled person, to reach out to people in other countries. There are some fantastic disabled women out there.

We're all a journey. I can't see my destination, but my journey is going in the right direction so far. There are twists and turns at the moment because we have a government that isn't particularly helpful when it comes to disabled people's needs. The economy has taken a huge hit, and when the economy takes a huge hit, disabled people disproportionately get hit harder.

What's your advice to disabled people who want to go into politics?

You've got to understand two things: (1) you have to work incredibly hard, nobody gets into politics and does well who doesn't work hard. (2) You've got to be a team player.

Don't go into politics to build your own ego, or to give yourself a name. If you're going to be remembered after you leave, then you will have to be a team player. None of my work is genuine Jane Campbell, it's a collaborative of other people's ideas.

If you're a team player, you will do well. If you're not, you'll only go so far. So, work hard, be a team player, bring people in, don't separate yourself from your colleagues and your friends that went with you on the way because you will need them. 

Lastly, you need to keep your feet on the ground, so stay connected with your roots. I make sure that I am with my friends and people from my community as much as I am here. Otherwise, my work is rubbish.

As an able-bodied person, what can I do to further the rights of disabled people?

Start by opening up your life to people that are not just a reflection of yourself. Look at your house. Could you get somebody in your house that is a disabled person? Does a wheelchair fit in your front door? If it doesn't, will you make a ramp, so they can come and have a coffee with you? Invite people into your life, don't just do it in your work. How many of your friends are disabled, black, gay, elderly? Maybe you should start looking beyond your own type.

Know us, be with us, and then you will be our ally, but don't do things on our behalf without us being with you. We have this very strong saying in the disability movement, Nothing About Us Without Us. If you do some things without asking us, then it would be wrong, it would be invalid. We hate charity. We love self-help, or mutual support.

Thank you. So, that's all my questions. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Many disabled women feel that they're not as good as non-disabled women, because they don't look right. There's a huge pressure on women around the world to look and sound pretty and attractive and funny and active and sporty.

Start with loving yourself, because unless you believe in yourself, you'll never be believed by other people. That has been the secret of my success. I was very lucky to grow up in a family, and have friends around me, who absolutely loved me for who I was. That has given me the confidence and strength to go through the hard times, face down sexism and disablism, get through the days when I'm being ignored at the check out, the days when people ask the person standing next to me what I'd like for a drink, etc. I just think, “well, actually, they're missing out, because, I'm a really cool person.”

Whatever you may look like, if you believe in what you want to do, and you like yourself, then other people will fall in love with you.