"The terms 'sponger' and 'scrounger' have been reported to have been commonly used towards the physically disabled in public acts of abuse, harassment and violence against them."
As many people know, I first became interested in disability hate crime many years ago after hearing of many horrific incidents of abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled. Over recent years I have also become equally concerned over successive British Government's and their treatment of disability, particularly concerning welfare reform. However, many people (including myself) have normally separated the phenomena of 'disability hate crime' (abuse, harassment and violence motivated by bias and prejudice) from issues such as disability welfare reform.
This is basically because disability hate crime is a research area that is a relatively new field. At this moment in time we are still taking baby steps as regards understanding the possible motivation(s) underlying abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled and as such the picture is still hazy. Partly the problem stems from the situation that nobody seems to want to fund research into the motivation of why people perpetrate 'hate' towards the disabled, so there are very few researchers interested in the topic, and partly because nobody may really know where to begin or what line of inquiry is best to take. Additionally, on a surface level, abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards disability, seems so far removed from government welfare reform, no matter how abhorrent those reforms may be to those affected by them.
However, if we take 'bias and prejudice' as a starting point for discussing the possible motivating factors underpinning hate crime, as many researchers of abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards race, religion and sexuality indeed do. Then this may not only be a logical place to begin, but may mark out 'disability hate crime' as the flip side of 'discrimination' against disability, because acts of discrimination may mirror the components of bias and prejudice found in 'hate crime' itself. If we decide to discuss disability hate crime in the same breath as discrimination (the unjust or prejudicial treatment of disability) then we may also consider any cruel or unjust exercise of authority that the disabled may also be faced with, as this may also contain similar elements of bias and prejudice. If bias and prejudice towards disability can be argued to underpin all three of these phenomena, then a link between discrimination, welfare reform and disability hate crime itself may indeed be drawn.
Certainly, many disabled people believe they have been unfairly and unjustly targeted by Britain's political system and by its media associates for being potential benefit frauds, a method of state 'scapegoating' that could certainly be seen as abusive and oppressive. Arguably, the foul and damaging rhetoric used by Britain's politician's and the media against its sick and disabled, has not only been intentionally engineered in order to sell radical welfare reform to the British public, but some disabled people complain that negative rhetoric of this type has also motivated actual incidents of abuse, harassment and violence against them.
The implementation of work capability assessments (WCA) within the UK within recent years, is also an area where many disabled people feel they have been grossly and unfairly targeted by the state, and almost to the point of victimization. Government actions that are argued to have driven some disabled people to commit suicide. Government actions that therefore may also carry an element of abuse, harassment and arguably, a degree of psychological 'violence' about them.
While we should be careful not to pin abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards disability solely upon negative government or media rhetoric as regards benefit fraud, because disability hate crime has been around for a very long time and may be a highly complex phenomena. It is still hard to deny that some disabled people may indeed have come under attack from the general public, suffering abuse, harassment and violence that seems motivated on the surface by public angst over the perceived fraudulent behavior of some people pretending to be sick or disabled in order to receive state welfare. Whether these attacks would have still taken place within a totally different social, political and financial climate is open to debate, but it's highly likely they may have, albeit with different excuses for the perpetrators behavior. As I said previously, disability hate crime is not a new phenomenon and the disabled have come under public scrutiny, attracting abuse, harassment and violence for many centuries.
However, it is without doubt that while the current UK government and their media associates may not have actually caused the phenomena of 'disability hate crime' as we understand it, any government playing the benefit fraud card will have certainly not have helped the situation either. Acts that will be the equivalent of pouring oil on fire. Additionally, we should not ignore the fact that current welfare reforms may not actually be about saving the UK money at all, but are ideologically driven actions motivated chiefly by fear of an eroding work ethic, and more specifically, by deep-rooted, negative attitudes held towards Britain's poor, including its disabled.
Large sections of the 'poor' (including many of the disabled) are generally perceived by our politicians as being lazy, deviant, unproductive or unemployable. Topliss (1982) was one of the first social scientists to argue that the disabled themselves are indeed perceived to have an inability to meet the production function and social norms that are often expected of employed workers. And it was only last year that Lord Freud, a government welfare reform minister, suggested at a Conservative party conference that some disabled workers were simply 'not worth' the UK national minimum wage, and perhaps should be paid just £2 an hour. A suggestion again tied to the belief that the disabled simply cannot meet the employment expectations and needs of UK employers.
It should come as no surprise then that the disabled may bear the brunt of any political or social backlash towards an eroding work ethic. In January this year I wrote an article for Disabled-World arguing that negative attitudes towards Britain's poor and its disabled are indeed not a new thing, and can be traced back as far as medieval times ('T he Idle Poor - A Shift in Perception of Disability'). Negative attitudes that are motivated primarily by a fear that (poor) people are generally lazy and will do anything to avoid work, happily living off the efforts of others by pretending to be sick or disabled. We only need to look at the US and the UK within fairly recent history to find such attitudes consistently expressed towards its poor, particularly with the development of the social category of the 'underclass', a whole social group made up of 'poor' people that many academics and politicians regard as primarily shiftless, immoral, workshy and lazy.
Additionally, the widespread and deeply embedded practice of goals and targets within the 'workplace', something that has been in place for more than a 100 years, also indicate that there is a constant, ongoing concern about the amount of effort or work ethic that people, particularly 'poor people', will commit themselves to. The concept of 'team working', and the offer of incentives or bonuses are often put to us in order to encourage us to work harder or faster and to be more 'productive' - social pressure, sanctions or incentives that are designed solely to combat any possible innate human laziness.
However, within Britain itself, this long established fear of laziness of the 'poor' arguably came from two different angles. Generated first from a medieval Christian religious perspective that was fearful that 'the devil will find idle hands to use' , and secondly from pre-industrial attitudes about social class or social caste. That some people are born to rule and others are born purely to serve. Whatever the reason, any modern social system that is primarily built upon paid 'work' and 'employment' arguably needs willing workers to keep that system alive, and consistently throughout British social history we can easily pick out rhetoric and legislation that mirrors the media rhetoric we hear today and the political arguments we hear today.
While the global recession of 2008 undoubtedly caused the UK financial problems, arguably it's a fear of 'idleness' that primarily drives current welfare reform within the Britain, reforms that have hit the disabled the hardest, and reform that is often supported wholeheartedly by the 'poor' themselves. Support manipulated by a long-standing fear that some people want something for nothing, a situation that sets a bad example to others, and an example that will ultimately erode the work ethic within other's if not challenged. It is a fear that sells welfare reform to the British public by drip feeding misinformation into the psychology of every, ordinary individual about the immorality of others.
Below are extracts from a short speech made by the current Prime Minister, David Cameron on the 22nd April this year, in the run up to the 2015 General Election. It's a short speech, but one where the Prime Minister doesn't hold back from outlining the 'real' reasons for welfare reform:
"... This goes to the heart of the country we are trying to build: One based on the principle of something for something, not something for nothing......where those who put in, get out......where hard work is rewarded - where we make work pay".
"... Because this should be a country where you know that your hard work will be rewarded by a decent, fair amount......that you're better off in the office, on the shop floor or at the factory than you would be sitting at home."
"... hardworking people should be able to keep more of the money they earn"
"... I believe passionately in reducing poverty. And the best route out of poverty is this: work".
"... Since we came to power we've got more people working than in our history"
"... The Labor Party? Really? The name's an offense under the Trade Descriptions Act"
"... the mum turning down a job offer because it's just not worth it.....the dad making sure he doesn't exceed 16 hours' work a week so it doesn't affect his tax credits.....the child who's asked what he wants to do when he grows up - and says 'nothing'."
"... that's giving more people than ever the dignity, the satisfaction, the security of bringing home a wage. Yes - the party of work - the real party of labor - is us, the Conservatives..."
The Effortful Citizen
In 2009, Stephen Gibson wrote a marvelous research article entitled 'The Effortful Citizen: Discursive social psychology and welfare reform' . Gibson illuminated that the current welfare reforms were actually set in motion not by any recent Conservative government, but by the election into power of New Labor in 1997. A Labor government that sought to reinstate the responsibilities that individuals need to 'prove' in order to claim welfare benefits, and a Labor government with an overt concern for the 'morality' of its poorest citizens. Gibson quotes the work of Heron & Dwyer (1999) who themselves quote the words of Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform under New Labor, expressing his concern for the 'cancerous impact that much of welfare has on people's motivations'.
It is the motivations of Britain's poor towards employment that all British governments seem to be highly wary of, no matter what color the political party or from what era. Governments who consistently make sweeping assumptions and generalizations about the nature of human behavior without little evidence to back those assumptions up. For example, there is very little sociological evidence to suggest that there are whole social groups within the UK who intentionally set out to avoid employment in order to live off welfare instead, and very few people spend their whole life totally dependent on welfare benefits (despite the public perception otherwise). In 2012, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a highly respected organization, published a study testing the argument that there were generations of the same family that had never worked. Researchers were unable to find such families.
Despite these facts, the British public often hold seriously mistaken beliefs about unemployment and welfare provision, and public opinion is shown to be repeatedly wrong on issues such as benefit fraud. For example, NatCen, a charity that has been monitoring people's social, political and moral attitudes since 1983, found in 2014 that 77 per cent of the British public actually believed that there are large numbers of people falsely claiming benefits within the UK. Additionally, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London in 2013 highlighted that 29 per cent of the general public believed that £24 of every £100 spent on welfare is fraudulently claimed. The actual official estimates of benefit fraud are just 70 pence out of every £100 spent, a massive difference between public perception and reality.
Certainly, we may argue that negative political rhetoric and media rhetoric about welfare benefit fraud has had the desired effect, influencing public opinion and additionally, manipulating public support for radical welfare reform within the UK. It may come as no great surprise if the British public actually blame people on welfare benefits for their own misfortune. For example, in 2014 NatCen found that over half of the British public agreed with the statement that 'most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one ', with many believing that 'unemployment benefits are too high, discouraging people from finding paid work' .
Negative attitudes towards unemployment
Going back to the research of Gibson, he cites the work of Furnham (1983) who found that employed people within the UK generally hold negative attitudes towards the unemployed, with their employment situation primarily perceived as being due to simply a lack of effort in finding employment. Something which obviously has not altered since that research was undertaken in 1983. It's this perceived lack of 'effort' by those not working that Gibson is particularly interested in, research undertaken before the current Conservative government even began its first term of office in 2010.
Gibson's research builds on the work of social psychologists who analyze the 'interpretative repertoires' that people use in their daily interactions with each other - a system of language, terms and expressions that are used to characterize or evaluate social behavior, actions and events (Potter and Wetherall, 1987). One such repertoire is the repertoire of 'effortfulness' in which Gibson argues people use in order to address issues around the accountability of unemployment. Gibson's research particularly highlights the terms or figures of speech in which ordinary individuals use to refer to the unemployed, terms that generally describe a lack of effort and laziness - such as workshy, idleness, layabout, sponger, parasite and scrounger.
The terms 'sponger' and 'scrounger' have been reported to have been commonly used towards the physically disabled in public acts of abuse, harassment and violence against them. While Gibson is not addressing disability directly in his research, it is interesting that the participants in his study are not just talking about holding people accountable for their unemployment status, but that they actually feel 'entitled' to publicly comment on this perceived lack of effort in others. The fact that they are in employment signals a green light to many, 'authorizing' them to comment and make assumptions about the behavior and morality of others who are not. It's as if people are looking at their own life circumstances and saying 'if I can do it, you can too'.
Gibson found that the 'effortfulness' repertoire was not just used to comment on individuals perceived lack of effort in finding employment, but on the welfare system itself. Research indicating that many people believe that the British welfare system is a 'joke', a system that is being easily and systematically abused by a lot of lazy people, and therefore a system in need of radical reform. Gibson argues that a view of society is also being constructed by those who use the 'effortfulness' repertoire, and chiefly constructing society specifically into two distinct groups - 'the hardworking' and 'the lazy' . People who use this repertoire in their daily interactions also generally agree that the welfare system is indeed right to monitor claimants in order to weed out those people who are not genuine. In this case the welfare state itself is being 'authorized' by the general public to monitor the perceived 'morality' of its claimants.
Interestingly, it is government that may come under the heaviest fire from the British public for failing to protect a system that is widely perceived as being systematically abused. Any government will therefore be held accountable by the British public for failing to stop any perceived abuse of the system, and so much so, that any negative political and media rhetoric employed about welfare recipients may actually come to be seen over time as a double edged sword.
Of course, participants in Gibson's study do make allowances for the disabled who claim benefits and are who not in employment for genuine reasons. However, the study does orientate itself to the notion that there are people out there who believe that there are some amongst the disabled who may not be so genuine. For which, Gibson cites the work of Lynn & Lea (2003) to draw a parallel between the way the 'bogus' disabled are perceived and the way 'bogus' asylum seekers are perceived.
We can therefore safely make the assumption that there may be many amongst the able-bodied who would wholeheartedly agree that the British government is indeed right to monitor disability in order to protect the welfare system from abuse. However, protecting the welfare system is something that the general public may also feel compelled to do themselves. Disabled people who are wheelchair users often complain they are being monitored by the ordinary British public, experiencing negative comments and abuse from people if they happen to move their legs too vigorously while using their wheelchair, or are spotted getting out of their wheelchair without assistance.
It's a public fear of the 'bogus disabled' that will certainly have implications for people fighting the implementation of work capability assessments , a fight that as so far failed to gather any real support from the wider British public.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg
Gibson's work leaves us with the big question of whether negative political rhetoric and media rhetoric about welfare really drives public opinion, or if politicians are merely responding to public opinion. Certainly, as we can see from the above, the general public have been found to be generally wrong about the extent of benefit fraud within the UK and about the cost of it to the taxpayer. While Gibson's study is not an extensive study, at the very least it highlights that arguments about welfare are often tied up with common sense assumptions or mistaken beliefs about human behavior and individual psychology. Those common sense assumptions and mistaken beliefs have to come from somewhere. Partly, they may come from long established and deep-rooted notions of the innate laziness of 'the poor' that have circulated within Britain for hundreds of years. Partly, they may also come from the half-truths and misinformation presented within the political sphere itself, blatant propaganda taken up and disseminated by our national media.
In 2012, research by the University of Kent indicated that media coverage of welfare in national newspapers from 1995 to 2011 were indeed heavily skewed towards negative representations of welfare claimants. Research that also supports the belief that negative media coverage generates social stigma about receiving welfare, and that political opinion may have an effect on whether we view people as deserving of welfare or not. In 2013, research polls commissioned by the Trades Union Congress (T.U.C) also suggested that an intentional media campaign by government ministers was turning the general public against welfare benefit claimants, and primarily by feeding 'myths' to the public about those who rely on those benefits.
This concept of the 'deserving' poor and the 'undeserving' poor is a very old one. However, in recent years the portrayal of the poor may have changed slightly from one describing them as either 'deserving' or 'undeserving' of help, to one categorizing them as either 'hardworking' or 'lazy'. For example, during the recent general election with the UK, we saw countless references within the election manifestos of both the Conservatives and Labor to 'hardworking' people and families - references to people who want to 'get on' in life by 'working hard'.
By intentionally referencing 'hard working' people like this, politicians and the media are doing two things. Firstly, they are separating society into two very distinct social groups, those who are hardworking and those who are not. Secondly, they are arguably also blaming the poor for their own poverty, insinuating that if you happen to be wealthy, you are wealthy purely through hard work and endeavor alone. By contrast, if you are not wealthy, that is because you have not worked 'hard' enough in your life, something that is your own fault.
But is this 'hate crime'
Professor Barbara Perry has written extensively in the area of hate crime, although not specifically about disability hate crime itself. However, Professor Perry in 2001 probably came up with the best and most comprehensive definition of hate crime during her research on 'doing difference'. Perry argues that hate crime:
"... involves acts of violence and intimidation, usually directed towards already stigmatized and marginalized groups. As such, it is a mechanism of power and oppression, intended to reaffirm the precarious hierarchies that characterize a given social order. It attempts to re-create simultaneously the threatened (real or imagined) hegemony of the perpetrator's group and the 'appropriate' subordinate identity of the victim's group. It is a means of marking both the Self and the Other in such a way as to re-establish their 'proper' relative positions, as given and reproduced by broader ideologies and patterns of social and political inequality" (Perry, 2001: 10).
There is a lot going on within this definition that needs to be teased out. Firstly, while Perry specifically mentions violence and intimidation, these are merely the tools (or mechanism of power) that are used to reaffirm or maintain a given social order. Secondly, people who employ acts of violence, intimidation (or indeed abuse) are attempting to maintain or recreate the traditional dominance of members of the perceived social hierarchy or social order, over those they view as inferior. A social order where the dominant 'rule' over the already stigmatized and marginalized. Finally, violence, intimidation and abuse mark out, re-establish or maintain the social boundaries between the different social groups within that social hierarchy, social positions that have been long established over time through social and political history.
While lumping 'hate crime' in with 'discrimination' and 'welfare reform' may not be to everybody's liking, there is certainly no doubt that all three phenomena may cross over with each other to some extent. Welfare reform is arguably a continuation of the process of stigmatizing and marginalizing certain social groups, and marking out those social groups as 'deviant' and 'immoral'. Rhetoric surrounding welfare reform may also help maintain mistaken but common sense assumptions held about the unemployed and the disabled. Common sense assumptions driven by deep-rooted and long established beliefs created over time, and motivated by deep-rooted patterns of social and political inequality.
Therefore, hate crime, discrimination and welfare reform may all be mechanisms of power and oppression that help to maintain the established social order. Different 'faces' of power and oppression, although the tools employed in each case may be slightly different ones. But mechanisms of power and oppression that are not just employed by government or by state institutions, but by ordinary individuals themselves within their daily interaction(s).
If we take a more conventional definition of 'hate crime' like those used by the police. While we may not automatically view abuse, harassment and violence as 'tools' used in a process that reaffirm or maintain a given social order. We still take the identity or social membership group of the victim as the chief motivating factor behind the incident or crime. If we argue that 'discrimination' and 'welfare reform' are similarly motivated by 'bias and prejudice', it is a bias and prejudice motivated primarily by the victim's social identity that is the main cause of the problem.
While people have many 'identities', some visible and some not, disabled people often complain that the able-bodied will often see a person's disability long before they see any other aspect of their identity. It is that person's disability that arguably becomes the chief descriptor of a person, not race, gender, religion, sexuality or nationality. It is one that is also increasingly being tied into the identity of either being a 'hardworking' or 'lazy' person.
Hate crime as psychological violence
One of the problems of 'hate crime' is that we may often view it as being simply about physical action, face to face, and about people being physically intimating, being verbally abusive or committing acts of outrageous violence. However, 'hate crime' is also psychological, exposing the disabled to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression and in some cases post-traumatic stress. Hate crime against the disabled also effects the wider disabled community not just the victim concerned.
'Hate crime' may therefore not always need to be physical, face to face or committed towards specific individuals in order for us to regard it as 'hate crime', particularly if psychological violence is involved. If whole sections of Britain's disabled are also being wildly categorized as potentially lazy, shiftless and immoral, and chiefly in order to manipulate public opinion. Our politicians, government and popular media may be employing a form of psychological violence that is actually on a par with 'hate crime' as we more commonly define it. Psychological violence that has certainly been argued to have induced anxiety and depression in some of our disabled, driving many to commit suicide.
As we have seen above, the ordinary British public may indeed blame the unemployed for their own misfortune, and these are primarily moral judgments made about those out of work for whatever reason. However, similar moral judgments are becoming increasingly common within the UK linked to disability itself, where ill-health and sickness are becoming increasingly seen as being caused by 'deviant' or 'immoral' behavior - behavior such as alcohol or drug abuse, smoking and obesity. Ill-health that is becoming viewed as primarily self-created.
However, you only need to read the posts on any disability Facebook page to get a feel for the damage that has been caused by individuals making assumptions about the moral behavior of others. Assumptions arguably motivated by deep-rooted and long established prejudice directed not only towards the 'poor' within British society, but deep-rooted and long established prejudice directed towards its disabled. A prejudice that may not just drive abuse, harassment and violence towards the disabled, but discrimination and welfare reform too.
Furham, A. (1983). Attitudes towards the unemployed, receiving social security benefits. Human Relations, 36, 135-150.
Gibson, S. (2009). The effortful citizen: Discursive social psychology and welfare reform. Journal of community and applied social psychology.
Heron, E, and Dwyer, P. (1999). Doing the right thing: Labor's attempt to forge a new welfare deal between the individual and the state. Social policy and administration, 33, 19-104.
Lynn, N., and Lea, S. (2003). A phantom menace and the new apartheid: The social construction of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. Discourse and Society, 14, p425-452.
NatCen, London EC1V 0AX
Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routlege. New York. 2001
Potter, J., and Wetherall, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology. Beyond attitudes and behavior.
Royal Statistical Society and Kings College, London.
Shildrick, T., MacDonald, R., Furlong, A., Roden, J., Crow, R. (2002). Are cultures of worklessness passed down the generations? Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Turn2Us and The University of Kent. Benefits stigma in Britain.
Topliss, E. (1982) Social Responses to Handicap Harlow: Longman.
I have been writing articles for Disabled-World for a number of months, trying to raise awareness of my project, and hopefully raise issues that need to be raised as regards disability hate crime, and other connected disability issues. I have also been working voluntary for a local teaching enterprise since 2013, researching and developing employability and assertiveness courses to be delivered within disadvantaged communities. I became Research and Development director for this enterprise in Oct 2013 (again on an unpaid basis) and have also recently completed my first formal, adult education, teaching qualification.
Any individual or organization interested in funding or co-funding my PhD research, can contact me via: firstname.lastname@example.org
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