Monday, 30 January 2012

Welfare Reform and Disability Discourse

I’ve been meaning to write about the government’s Welfare Reform Bill for a while now. But then I’ve been meaning to do lots of things for a while now.

To be honest, I’ve felt a little under pressure to comment on it. There’s a lot of noise out there about it and so far I’ve kept quiet. I think some people think this is a bit odd, especially given that I’m not shy about commenting on other issues that are less close to home. But it’s precisely because it’s so close to home that has made me reticent. In simple terms, it’s yet another fucking thing we have to worry about. And really, we don’t want, or need, another thing to worry about.

As far as the bill goes – specifically the changes to Disability Living Allowance – I’ve no idea whether reform is needed. But of course, if you look at anything hard enough you can always find something to tinker with. There’ll always be some mean-spirited bean counter who can make a case for reform. That shouldn’t surprise us.

What I do know for certain, however, is that many disability campaign groups are opposed to the reforms. And really, that’s good enough for me.

What I despise most about this bill, about this government, is the way they’ve managed to ramp up the hatred – and it is hatred – towards disabled people. I’m not of the opinion that the government solely creates this hatred, by the way. I think it’s there and I think it’ll always be there. There are a lot of hateful, ignorant, spiteful people out there and, in effect, they’ve just been given more of a green light to talk negatively about the disabled. And boy, are they going for it.

The government allows these attitudes to prevail, of course, because it makes it easier for them to push reforms through. That’s the grubby world of politics for you.

As we’ve all seen, negative attitudes towards the disabled are now everyday fodder for the mainstream media. In The Sun last week Rod Liddle wrote a column about the ‘fake disabled’. You can read that here. And as a follow-up, and partly as a defence of Liddle, James Dellingpole wrote this piece here.

They, and their supporters, defend those pieces on the grounds that they’re quite clearly talking about people who aren’t actually disabled. They’re not talking about genuinely disabled people. This, it seems to me, is quite disingenuous. The first thing I have to ask is: what is it that motivates both of these high profile writers to be so determinedly vitriolic about something that, in reality, accounts for very little in financial terms? I’ve seen figures bandied about that suggest that only 0.5% of disability benefit claims are fraudulent. Yes, it’s a problem. But surely not enough of a problem. Why not, instead, focus on real villains, real fraudsters?

The second thing that bothers me about this ‘debate’ is that something fundamental is being missed: the flipside. How come, whenever there’s a discussion about disability benefits, there’s never any mention of those disabled people who either don’t claim benefits at all or not everything that they’re entitled to? How come there’s never any mention of people who, while disabled and perfectly entitled to benefits, fight against the odds to work?

To get personal for a moment: my father lost his left leg, above the knee, in a motorcycle accident when he was 34-years-old. That was thirty years ago. He doesn’t claim benefits and he doesn’t even, even though he’s fully entitled to one, have a blue badge for his car. He works and he’s always worked.

Or my ex-father-in-law who was almost killed during military service forty years ago. Who, despite losing an arm and an eye, went to university and trained to become a teacher. Which he did for many, many years.

Or the group of severely disabled people I met who have formed their own group to help themselves and other disabled people live as full lives as possible, without help from other sources.

The thing is, while I know these are just personal examples, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that there are many more disabled people out there like them. People who, like my father, probably don’t even think of themselves as disabled. By working, by getting on with their lives, they’ve continued to contribute their taxes and taken nothing from the state.

(I’m not saying, by the way, that that’s how it should be. If I’d lost a leg or an arm or an eye, I can’t imagine I’d be so willing to get out there and work. That’s just the kind of people they are.)

Like I say, what I find most depressing about this issue is that, of all the things in the world to be worried about, people are worrying about disability benefits. It’s the wrong target. And it’s the wrong target partly because we’re such a long way from talking about disabled people in a way that’s positive and inclusive. Whenever we – and it is we – talk about them as we do, we merely ensure that they remain in the margins, as outsiders for us to project all of our spite and fear and hatred and misunderstanding on to.

I’d like to suggest that we leave them alone. And find someone else to pick on.

NB: I think I should make clear(er) that I'm not suggesting that the ideal is that disabled people should get jobs and not claim benefits. Far from it. Disabled people should be perfectly entitled to benefits and not made to feel that they shouldn't be. The personal examples I used above were simply to provide an opposite view to those extreme, black and white, views espoused by Liddle and Dellingpole. And yes, I'm well aware that many disabled people claim benefits *and* work.

Further, I don't write these blog posts for a living. I write them quickly - very quickly - when I've got a few minutes to spare. So you'll have to forgive me if they're not always watertight.


  1. A very well written piece.

    My job involves arranging adaptations in people's homes in Norwich so this is a subject close to my heart. (I'm lucky enough to love my job) Many of the people I meet may be entitled to Disability Living Allowance (or Attendance Allowance if older) but choose not to claim it.
    Others are claiming it and it helps them greatly, in their day to day lives.

    The way sections of the media are demonising the disabled is terrible and seem to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for this Government's 'victorian' type policies.

  2. Paul - a top piece. Having disabled parents (who incidentally also chose not to claim) your final paragraph hits the point perfectly. The "them and us" and our failure to talk positively about disability.

    Let's face it, there but for the grace of God....who knows when any of us will be on "the other side".

  3. Hi Paul - interesting post - must confess I don't know the details of this debate. However, if the proposals make it harder for Maggie to get the support she so obviously needs then they are shameful and wrong.

    Maybe there are border line cases where it's hard to say how disabled someone is (I don't know). Maybe we should ask people who consider themselves able-bodied "would you like this condition and if not why not?" At the very least it might make more people realise how much we take our abilities for granted.

    That aside, it doesn't take much to see that some people need considerably more help than the state is currently providing. Credit to those who battle on but that does not entitle us to say everyone should display such fortitude. After all, how many of us would do the same in similar circumstance?

    Whatever our financial problems, this country should not put the burden of austerity on our most vulnerable.

  4. PS: Quite agree with your note Paul, - "Disabled people should be perfectly entitled to benefits and not made to feel that they shouldn't be." There should be no stigma attached to disability.

    Furthermore, the disabled should not have benefits withdrawn if they manage to find work (many might not be able to do that without the benefits).

  5. Excellent, closely argued piece. I agree that the defence used for people like Liddle is disingenuous at best.

    I would also argue that even the 'free speech' defence is disingenuous in this particular case. The medium is the message, and just selecting disability as a topic in that sort of op/ed piece, which operates by putting up scary straw men, makes a statement in itself. There are lots of other things to write about.

    What's deeply disappointing right now is the way societal discourse seems to be shifting away from 'blame the bankers' towards 'blame the spongers'. I was heartened that the Tories did not get an outright majority (in the days before Nick Clegg showed his true colours). But since then, we seem to have lapsed into Thatcherite victim-blaming. The response to the financial crisis could have gone either way - right now, it seems to be more regressive than progressive.

  6. The U.K on a whole is becoming very nasty in particular towards the disabled and every other group the media does not like.

    The Sun, the excuse for a Newspaper which Liddle, writes for seems to have gotten worse since the Coalition Goverment has come in to power.

    The thing that really angered me was a comment I read from a Tory Councellor who said the disabled were unwashed and if they don't like they should go to North Korea in relation to the recent demonstrations against cuts in benefit for the disabled.
    I appologise if I have not qouted this correctly

    All people like Liddle, do is give the bully something to think about.