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Sean McGovern: disability rights activist who will be greatly missed

January 27, 1957 – May 6, 2020 My memories of Sean and the Remploy struggle by Claire Glasman, WinVisible

I MET Sean McGovern more than 20 years ago at some meeting we attended.  

He spoke from the floor as a union rep for the Remploy factory in Brixton, where he had previously worked.  

In contrast to union men who seemed dour and bound by their institution, Sean was cheerful and upbeat, with a twinkle in his eye — and of course disabled, which to me was a bonus.  

Soon after that we started going out, and were in a relationship for a few years.  

He was living at his mother’s, Delia McGovern, in Stockwell, Lambeth, whom I also got to know. Later he moved to his own flat nearby.   

Sean died on May 6 2020, aged 63, within a day of her death.

As a young man, he’d become disabled from a head injury in a physical attack, and had spent time in hospital and rehab. 

He was hemiplegic affected down one side but nevertheless he learned a building trade and became a carpenter-joiner (he had spent the criminal injuries compensation money).  

As a progression, he did a degree in construction management. However, he could not keep to that. He joked that when he got to the building site, he could not get up the ladder.

Sean’s work ethic was to be strictly nine to five, whereas I was involved in community campaigning, and we sometimes clashed about what to do at weekends.  

My background was special school and Great Ormond Street Hospital, both institutions with communal living by disabled children and young people, where we were no longer isolated in the family (some children there had been rejected by family and were in care).  

Without these institutions, I would have been deprived of the company of other disabled children where, together in numbers, we formed our collective resistance to the disability discrimination we felt.  

But I was ignorant about the Remploy factory workers, assuming they must be disadvantaged by being in “sheltered employment.” 

Sean said angrily: “What do you mean — they’re unionised!” He meant they had protections which many other workers don’t. 

It turned out that their employment was not that “sheltered” or different. People worked relatively full hours for low pay, while management enjoyed expensive company cars and other perks.  

This was the underlying reason why Remploy was dubbed “too expensive” — without that layer, the work done by disabled employees making school furniture and other government supplies, was productive “value for money.”

Liz Sayce, who was chief executive of the disability charity Radar (which merged with other groups to become Disability Rights UK) headed a review for the government which condemned sheltered employment as outdated and backward.  

The Remploy workers, originally 9,000 strong, were facing an alliance of the government, Remploy management and disability charities agreeing on a programme of factory closures in batches across England, Scotland and Wales.

A long struggle followed. In the Remploy factories, union membership was either Unite or GMB. 

In May 2007, third-sector charity news reported: “The GMB union is threatening to stage demonstrations outside the headquarters of six disability charities behind a joint letter to the national press at the weekend in support of government plans to close up to 30 Remploy factories employing 5,000 disabled workers.”

The chief executives of Leonard Cheshire, Radar, Mencap, Mind, RNID and Scope wrote to the Guardian on Saturday welcoming Remploy’s plans to focus its resources on supporting disabled people into mainstream employment.

The letter said that while Remploy factories had been “of real benefit” in the past, disabled people were more likely to be happy working in “the inclusive environment that the rest of us take for granted.”

GMB national secretary Phil Davies said that Remploy’s workers had been “stabbed in the back” by the letter, and condemned “the grotesque scene of the leaders of six disability organisations scuttling around media studios calling for the handing out of redundancy notices to disabled workers.”

Les Woodward of the GMB criticised disability figures for telling disabled workers what’s best for them. It was a class divide.

WinVisible was among the groups which backed the Remploy workers, many of whom were women and women/men of colour.  

As expected or planned by the government, by February 2015, around two years on from the last factory closure, of 1,507 Remploy staff made redundant (those still remaining after previous closures), only 774 were in waged work. 

Of course disabled people were going to face discrimination in the jobs market. We heard of evictions and suicide by people who had lost their friends and community and felt they had no prospects.  

In 2015, the DWP sold Remploy to Maximus, the notorious US company that does assessments of employment and support allowance.

At that time, a GMB spokesman said: “The GMB continues to support the exit of Remploy employment services from government ownership to the private sector. We are determined to work with the new partner to build on the open, transparent and respectful relationship we currently have.”

Remploy is an employment agency arranging individual placements. People placed in work in supermarkets, etc, reported various problems: exhaustion with the unadapted workload, feeling alone and unsupported.

We have faced similar issues with social care and supported accommodation.  

Day centres being run down and sold off by councils to developers, with the justification that they are outdated. So older and disabled people, people with mental distress, no longer have somewhere they can meet up in groups for peer support.  

The sell-off of flats for visually impaired people with communal areas.

Scope closing residential homes and breaking up people’s closest relationships. 

Let us at the grassroots determine what is best for us, and what transition is to be made, if any, with the resources we need and deserve.

Sean will also be sorely missed by his friends at WinVisible, the Crossroads Women’s Centre, and Payday men’s group. Seeing people at meetings, he was always warm and welcoming.

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