The Future We Want: Demanding Rights for People with Disabilities during the Spanish Democratic Transition (∗)

By Mercedes del Cura

“Achieving 17 goals for the future we want” is the theme chosen in 2016 to celebrate the International Day of People with disabilities. The slogan reminds us of the gap that in spite of the great steps which have been made towards integration and recognition, still exists in creating a more inclusive and equitable world. A society in which people with disabilities will be able to decide about their lives, taking an active part in political processes and decisions that could affect them.

In the case of Spain, the political discourse during the democratic transition period built the foundations towards an inclusive future. Franco’s death in 1975 opened up public interest for intense social and political participation; social movements became an essential tool for building a democratic country1. Concerning the stigmatisation of disability, a change of discourse and representation could be observed. Critical attitudes already existing in the last years of the Franco regime became more visible2. Aware of the chances and possibilities that the changing political context could mean, people with disabilities put pressure on the future leaders of Spanish politics to resolve the model of weakening, paternalistic protection in practice under the dictatorship3 and to ensure the incorporation of people with disabilities into a society of citizens.

At the end of the year 1976, people with disabilities started public mobilisation and the following demonstrations became something like a regular institution that accompanied political change until the end of the transition period. Activists used the media to make their demands public; they took part in street protests convened by neighbourhood associations, political groups or by groups of disabled people; they participated in hunger strikes, sit-ins inside churches and administrative buildings4. The longest sit-in took place in the head offices of the Rehabilitation and Re-education Service for the Physically and Mentally Disabled (SEREM) in Barcelona, lasting a total of 45 days during the winter of 1978 5.
Protest by people with intellectual disability and their families in 1978. On the banner that led the march “Subnormal people demand a place in society” could be read and behind it, “a silent, marginalised minority shouts from its solitude... Justice! Social justice!” (Source: Asociación por la memoria histórica del Partido del Trabajo, Archivo Histórico,
Some of the activists who participated in these mobilisations belonged to the formal associations created under the former dictatorship, but most of the participants came from the new grassroots movements, which gained strength especially by people active in the field of physical disabilities. This movement demanded the participation of people with disabilities in political decision-making and, moreover, required actions and steps towards integration regulated within the general legislative framework6.

People with disabilities wanted architectonic barriers to be removed and public transport and housing to be adapted; they wanted to finish protected employment and guaranteed access to the free labour market; they wanted an unemployment benefit for those who could not find work and the inclusion into the Social Security System. They also requested to abolish SEREM because it had already been proved to be inoperative and it was in itself, due to its specificity, a marginalising element of politics. They defended that their needs should depend on an overall action by the government, funded by the General State Budget.

These mobilisations were not always well received by the public authorities. Some actions were not authorised and there were confrontations between activists and police. Additionally, supporters of people with intellectual disabilities had to face the criticisms that they were seen as manipulating and politicising disabled people. Supporters argued that these criticisms had to do with the general misconception that persons with intellectual disabilities were not able to make their own decisions and simply enjoyed a civil right recognised by the new constitution7.
People with physical disabilities from the “MinusválidosUnidos” group demanding adapted public transport during a neighbourhood protest organised in Madrid in 1976 (Source: Triunfo, nº 715, 1976)
In spite of the critic and the obstacles activists had to face, their direct forms of action showed an immediate effect. Political parties became interested in disability rights and included demands for emancipation in their campaigns for the first democratic elections in 1977. However, once the elections had taken place subsequent political implementation was missing which led to the impression that the interest in disability rights had been functionalised in order to win votes more than to change institutional settings.

The new Constitution, passed in the winter of 1978, included an article that established the public authorities’ obligation to give specialised attention to and ensure the same rights for people with disabilities that was granted to all citizens:

“The public authorities shall carry out a policy of preventive care, treatment, rehabilitation and integration of the physically, sensorially and mentally handicapped who shall be given the specialised care that they require, and be afforded them special protection in order that they may enjoy the rights conferred by this Title upon all citizens” (art. Nº 49).

Again, the positive discrimination implied by this article was not well received by all people with disabilities. If the demand for equality fixed in the Constitution really included “all” Spaniards, why was it necessary to add a specific article of this type?

The same year the Constitution was passed, Ramón Trías Fargas – a Catalonian Member of Parliament and father of a child with Down syndrome – convinced the Parliament to create a special committee to analyse the situation of people with disabilities. This technical report should be used as a basic document for a draft legislation on disability. The committee’s work, which was advised by the formal associations (with proposals that implied less radical changes than those demanded by the base groups), culminated in the promulgation of the first Law on Social Integration of the Disabled in 1982 (Ley de Integración Social del Minusválido, popularly known as LISMI). The law was strongly influenced by the 1971 and 1975 United Nations’ declarations on the rights of disabled persons.

The LISMI was a law with a specific welfare approach, which aimed at the improvement of rehabilitation and social services. Beyond this, it laid down integration measures directed at creating equal opportunities for people with disabilities. For instance, the law obliged public and private companies to include a minimum percentage of people with disabilities in their staff; it stipulated their access to free education in the ordinary education system; and established home-based care programs in order to avoid closed institutions.

Although this was the first time that subjective rights for people with disabilities were established, the law was criticised from its beginnings. Activist considered that it was still a “discriminatory” measure and that it lacked funding to carry out effectively the proposed integration measures and services. The fact is that LISMI did not manage to accomplish all its aims and it became necessary to develop additional regulations in the following years to make the law more effective. However, despite its shortcomings this law -applicable until 2013- laid the foundations for the development of the future public disability policies8.

The advances made during the democratic transition period did not cover all expectations formulated by the people with disabilities. However, important changes were achieved that showed positive effects in their everyday lives. Especially significant for this historical experience was the insight that working together and speaking with a united voice is extremely important in order to increase influence in the decision-making spheres.

(∗) Activism by people with disabilities is one of the issues explored by the Group of Social Studies of Medicine (University of Castilla-la Mancha) in a three-year national research project aimed at analysing discourses on disability and socio-cultural changes during late Francoism and the Spanish democratic transition. [Project title: El discurso acerca de la discapacidad en el tardofranquismo y la transición y su influjo sobre el proceso de cambio socio-cultural en torno a la normalidad corporal y mental. Funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Spain)]

Recommended Citation:
Mercedes del Cura (2017): The Future We Want: Demanding Rights for People with Disabilities during the Spanish Democratic Transition. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 1.

[1] Sánchez León, P. (2011), Radicalism without representation. On the character of social movements in the Spanish transition to democracy. In: Alonso, G & Muro, D. (eds), The Politics and Memory of Democratic Transition. The Spanish Model. New York-London: Routledge, pp. 95-11.
[2] Del Cura, M. & Martinez-Perez, J. (2016), From resignation to non-conformism: association movement, family and intellectual disability in Franco’s Spain (1957-1975), Asclepio, 68 (2), p. 149. doi:
[3] Martínez-Pérez, J. & Del Cura, M. (2015), Bolstering the greatness of the Homeland. Productivity, Disability and Medicine in Franco’s Spain (1938-1966)”, Social History of Medicine, 28 (4), pp. 805-824.
[4] Bregain, G. (2013), An entangled perspective on disability history: the disability protests in Argentina, Brazil and Spain, 1968-1982.In: Barsch, S.; Klein, A. & Verstraete P. (eds.), The Imperfect Historian. Disability histories in Europe. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, pp. 133-153.
[5] Guillén, A. (1994), La Participación. In: Vilà i Mancebo, A. et al., Crónica de una lucha por la igualdad: apuntes para la historia del movimiento asociativo de las personas con discapacidad física y sensorial en Catalunya. Barcelona: Instituto Guttman, pp. 63-69.
[6] Giralt, F. (1978), Los minusválidos. Barcelona: Dopesa; colección “Los Marginados”.
[7] López Iglesias, J. (2014), 50 años con las personas con discapacidad intelectual. Madrid: Plena Inclusión.
[8] Moreno Bonilla, J. M. et al (2012), 30 años de la LISMI: un recorrido de inclusión. Madrid: CERMI

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