Defiant Lives – The Battles of Our Yesterdays Mirrored In Our Today


‘Defiant Lives’ is the story of the rise of the disability rights movement in the USA, UK and Australia. Mik Scarlet went to a Demand Film preview of this groundbreaking film on 1 November

Photo of activist behind bars during a disability protest

Still from Defiant Lives of Alan Holdsworth behind bars.

It can be all too easy to go through life without knowing the battles that were fought to make that life possible. The fight to vote, the struggle to have worker’s rights, the list is endless, but most of these events are out of living memory.

The struggle for the rights of Disabled People, however, is not. It’s still on going, but if we are to go forward in our fight we must know our history. Enter Defiant Lives. This newly released Australian documentary charts the rise of the disability movement, from it’s birth in America as a movement to promote independent living through to the implementation of equality legislation in the UK, USA and Australia.

Featuring original historic footage and interviews with key figures in the disability rights movement, Defiant Lives captures the passion and reasoning behind the rise of the movement and highlights how so many of the rights that disabled people have today are due to the struggles of those pioneering early campaigners.

Photo of a man walking on the tracks towards an on-coming trainin protest at the exclusion of disabled people

Still from Defiant Lives of US disability protest.

I must admit I thought I knew the history of the disability rights movement, but I had my eyes opened to much of the original history in the US. The research behind the original footage meant the film painted a full picture of why disabled people had to start fighting, with the widespread institutionalisation of disabled people was shocking to witness.

The associated response from disabled people filled me with associated pride. I would say that that pride is the key driver of this documentary. That pride shone from each interviewee, from every person captured on the grainy footage of protests and from the audience in the cinema as they witnessed the battle that led to many of the disabled audience members being able to access the film at all.

Still of US disabled activist Hale Zukas with speech board, in conversation with his wife

Still from Defiant Lives of US disabled activist Hale Zukas

While it charts the march towards gaining equality legislation and independent living, it doesn’t always do it chronologically. This does become confusing in places as the quality of the historic footage varies, meaning that when the film jumps from 90’s UK to 70’s USA you can miss the move.

Once you get your eye in, however, you notice things like advances in wheelchair technology or the changes in age of the key protagonists you soon are lost in the gradual march towards disabled people’s voices being heard, and more importantly listened to.

I did note that several key figures who are still alive were notable by their absence, such a Mike Oliver who came up with the term Social Model of Disability as a way of talking about the social barriers to full inclusion that disabled people face. He attended the same screening I did but should really have been in the film. These are little niggles.

Photo of film-maker Sarah Barton smiling at the camera

Film-maker Sarah Barton

On the whole Defiant Lives is a triumph. By capturing a civil rights movement in such as way as to allow audiences to feel the passion and commitment to a fairer future for all disabled people the duo behind the film, Sarah Barton and Liz Burke, have created a document that all of society, and especially disabled people should see.

I especially hope that many young disabled people get the chance to see Defiant Lives, to both understand where the disability rights we’ve enjoyed stem from and to enthuse them to be more active. As the world seems to be shrinking away from the commitment to equality for disabled people, fought for by disabled people and charted in Defiant Lives, it is the new generation of disabled youth that will have to take up the battles of previous generations.

This documentary provides a how to guide to winning through in a battle for equality, proves it can be done and makes it clear that when things seem darkest this is when people tried their hardest, and won.

Defiant Lives should be part of our education system, as it proves that even those who society deems as most unable can triumph and prove that ill-informed attitudes and stereotypes can be blown away through sheer force of will and a dedication to never give in.

It proves that getting out there and demanding your voices are heard can change the world. The sad thing is it also proves that if you don’t keep fighting those gains can be lost in the blink of an eye. Today, Defiant Lives is as much a call to arms as it is a historic document.

To arrange a viewing of Defiant Lives contact –