Origins of Disabled Peoples’ International

Human-dictated audio of this page.

HCK Modern Logo

Present day logo for the Funktionsrätt Sverige [Swedish Disability Rights Federation], formerly the Handicappförbundens centralkommitté (HCK) from 1972 through 1993.[1]

CCD Logo

Present day logo for the Council for Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), formerly known as the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH).[3]

Rejecting Assumptions

The 1960s and 1970s saw the formation of wide range of organizations of disabled persons in Canada and across the world. Organizations for disabled people were certainly nothing new; the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, for example, was founded in 1918. This new wave of organizations, however, was distinguished by an increasing move towards multi-disability representation and a profound shift in how disabled people defined themselves in relation to society. This redefinition of disabled identity was integral to the founding of Disabled Peoples’ International.

In 1964, the Handicappförbundens centralkommitté (HCK), or Disability Federation Central Committee, was formed in Sweden to promote disability rights and integration. The HCK took issue with the medical model of disability, whereby disabled people were unable to fully participate in society as a direct result of their inability to perform certain physical or mental tasks. The medical model of disability, it was felt, treated disabled people as sick and stressed rehabilitation and/or healing as a prerequisite for full participation in society. The HCK argued forcefully that the problem in fact lay with society’s tendency to assume that disabled persons could not participate in society. These attitudinal barriers led to the construction of cities littered with physical barriers that hindered movement, excluded disabled people, and reinforced the perception that they were functionally incapable of living regular lives.[2] These ideas resonated with many disabled people and disability organizations worldwide.

By the late 1970s, all ten Canadian provinces had organizations of disabled people operating at the provincial level. Many of these were themselves associations of several uni-disability groups, with young mobility-impaired people particularly prevalent in membership numbers. In 1979, they united and formed the only national multi-disability organization in Canada, the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH). A headquarters was established in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The COPOH focused on advocacy and lobbying, couched in the consumer movement, and sought to represent the interests of people of all disabilities.[4]

RI Canada Stamp

Canada postage stamp issued in May 1980 in recognition of the upcoming Fourteenth World Congress of Rehabilitation International planned for June in Winnipeg.[5]

Henry Enns and Jim Derksen, Singapore, 1981

Henry Enns (left) and Jim Derksen (right), DPI First Assembly, Singapore, 1981.[12]

Demanding Self-Representation

Rehabilitation International (RI) is a worldwide organization founded in 1922 devoted to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. With member organizations in more than 100 countries, it is comprised of service providers, government agencies, academics, researchers, and advocates both with and without disabilities.[6] Both the Canadian COPOH and the Swedish HCK were member organizations in 1980, when RI announced it would host its upcoming World Congress in Winnipeg. Many in the COPOH and HCK believed that RI was too tightly focused on a medical model of disability that defined the disabled as sick and needing treatment. The members of a number of disabled associations worldwide had, conversely, come to see themselves through a social model of disability. Disabled people, they argued, constituted a distinct social group with common needs and interests and a desire for self-representation. They felt that medical professionals controlled the leadership of RI, with comparatively little practical input from disabled people themselves. The COPOH decided to move to change that at the 1980 World Congress and planned a strategy to agitate for greater participation and self-representation of disabled people.[7]

RI held its Delegate Assembly meeting on June 20-22, just prior to the start of the formal Congress. At the Assembly, Bengt Linqvist, a visually-impaired member of the Swedish delegation, introduced an amendment calling for a change in the RI definition of “organizations of disabled people”. The amendment stated that at least 50% of the delegates representing such organizations should be people with disabilities and called for the establishment of a committee to explore the implications of having all member organizations accept a 50% disabled (the language used at the time was “handicapped”) governing policy. Were this accepted, 50% of the RI Delegates Assembly, and therefore a significant share of the decision power in the organization, would be in the hands of disabled people.[8]

The amendment was defeated sixty-one to thirty-seven.[9] Lindqvist announced the results at a COPOH information-sharing meeting being held at the Congress. Henry Enns, a RI delegate from Canada and member of the COPOH, later said that the feelings of frustration and anger felt at the defeat of what many were calling the “equality amendment” sparked a bond of group solidarity among the 250 disabled people from 40 countries then in the room. The RI vote, he recalled “made it clear that there would be no changes made in the immediate future. This made the handicapped delegates realize that the only way they would gain a voice was to form their own organization”.[10] After an impassioned discussion, the group agreed that a worldwide autonomous organization of disabled persons was needed in which disabled people would make the decisions about how to best represent themselves.[11]

Founding a Movement

An Ad Hoc Planning Committee, with representatives from Canada, Costa Rica, India, Japan, Sweden and Zimbabwe, was elected to work out the form that this new organization would take. Henry Enns and Jim Derksen of Canada were both elected to this committee.[13] Over two days of meetings, the committee drafted a proposal for a founding philosophy, structure, and leadership configuration. The COPOH organized another meeting of over 300 disabled delegates on June 26 where the planning committee presented their proposal. The new organization would be named the World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities (WCPD). It would be composed entirely of people with disabilities and be multi-disability.[14] The proposal stated that the coalition would “be based on the philosophy of equal opportunity and full participation of handicapped people in all aspects of society as a matter of justice rather than charity”.[15] Membership in the WCPD would be “open to all organizations ‘OF’ handicapped people. This means that the decisive control of the organization should be in the hands of the handicapped. Decisive control means a majority of the governing board or council as well as the general membership be handicapped”.[16]

The proposal was unanimously accepted.[17] The delegates then elected a formal Steering Committee for the WCPD with two representatives from seven regions of the world. Henry Enns was named Chairperson and Bengt Lindqvist of Sweden named Vice Chairperson.[18] There was much to do. The Steering Committee met again in October 1980, in February 1981, and in August 1981.[19] Throughout these meetings, they made a number of key decisions. They agreed to change the name of the organization to Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI), prepared a Constitution based on that of the International Labour Organization, and decided to hold a World Congress of disabled people to truly inaugurate DPI on the world stage.[20] The title DPI will be used in the remainder of this exhibit, including for the period when the organization was termed WCPD.

The Steering Committee decided that the first DPI World Congress would be held in conjunction with the United Nations in November 1981 in Singapore. Singapore was then an emerging economy and was thought to be a good practical balance between the first world and the developing world. The date was also important because the UN had declared 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). A UN IYDP fund had been established, a likely source of critical funding, and the IYDP drew attention to disabled people’s issues around the world.[21] It would be the perfect time to introduce the world to Disabled Peoples’ International.

DPI was founded as a social movement and represented the social model of disability and a rejection of the medical model of disability. This was an important philosophical principle, which had had prompted the split with Rehabilitation International. The founding members repeatedly drew attention to the contemporary UN figure that 10% of the world population was “handicapped”, roughly equal to the population of India.[22] This was no niche group. This enormous group of people of course lived very different lives depending on where they lived and their particular disabilities. Yet the founders of DPI strongly felt that all disabled people nonetheless shared a common overlapping set of concerns and sense of identity. “In the world today there are several international organizations which work in the field of disability”, Henry Enns explained. “Most of them specialize in one particular disability such as blindness, deafness, etc. and represent the interest of professionals and service providers. DPI is the only international cross-disability organization in which disabled people have a decisive control”.[23] Jim Derksen, from the founding DPI planning committee, later contended that, “rehabilitation tries to change the disabled person to accommodate society. Our organizations accept that many disabilities are permanent and tries to change society so that it accommodates disabled people”.[24]

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Carleton University Disability Research Group. Research, interview, text, and design by Ryan Patterson.

Ryan would like to thank the Mennonite Central Committee for their generous support, the archivist team at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives for their invaluable assistance and acess to records, Chantel Fehr for providing helpful digital records, and special thanks to Professor Diane Driedger for her time, insight, and encouragement.

[1] Funktionsrätt Sverige Logo, 2019, .jpg, Swedish Disability Rights Federation, Sundbyberg, Stockholm, https://funktionsratt.se/om-oss/in-english.

[2] Diane Lynn Driedger, The Origins and History of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) 1945-1985, MA in History, University of Manitoba, 1987, p. 25-26. Available through the University of Manitoba thesis repository: https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/xmlui/handle/1993/9408.

[3] CCD Logo, 2019, .jpg, Council for Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), Winnipeg, http://www.ccdonline.ca/en.

[4] Ibid, p. 29.

[5] Canada Post Office Department, designed by Rolf P. Harder, printed by Ashton-Potter Limited, issued Mar 29, 1980.

[6] “The Story of RI Global”, Rehabilitation International, http://www.riglobal.org/about/history/(accessed August 2, 2018).

[7] Diane Driedger, The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples’ International (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 31. Available for digital loan on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/lastcivilrightsm00drie/page/n3.

[8] Henry Enns, “Organizational Development of World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, Steering Committee, Winnipeg”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 1; Driedger, Origins and History, p. 40.

[9] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 40.

[10] Enns, “Organizational Development of World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities”, p. 1.

[11] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 32; Driedger, Origins and History, p. 50.

[12] Diane Driedger, Henry Enns and Jim Derksen, Singapore, 1981, 1981, .jpg, “Celebrating our Accomplishments”, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, http://www.ccdonline.ca/media/socialpolicy/booklet2011/photo-enns-derksen.jpg.

[13] “World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities (W.C.P.D.), Proposal drafted by seven-member committee, presented and unanimously accepted on June 26, 1980”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 1.

[14] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 36; Driedger, Origins and History, p. 44.

[15] “World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities”, p. 1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Enns, “Organizational Development of World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities”, p. 1.

[18] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 44.

[19] Diane Driedger, “First VS Report From Diane Driedger, Disabled People International, Winnipeg”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, pp. 1-2.

[20] “Steering Committee, Disabled Peoples’ International, Burlington Hotel [Dublin, Ireland], Sunday 19th October 1980, 5pm”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 1.

[21] “World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities”, p. 3.

[22] Enns, “Organizational Development of World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities”, p. 1.

[23] Henry Enns, “Message from Mr. Henry Enns, Chairperson, First Congress of Disabled Peoples”, no date, Bangkok, Thailand, MCC Canada Files 1985, Volume 4516, 324 R, 1985, Disabled People Concerns 1981-1985, p. 1.

[24] Jim Derksen, “Speech at DPI Dakar Leadership Training Seminar”, Dec 1982, MCC Canada Files 1985, Volume 4516, 324 R, 1985, Disabled People Concerns 1981-1985, p. 5.