The Continuing Oppression of Disability: The Re-Institutionalisation of Disability Within Britain
Synopsis: British welfare cuts come primarily because they appease the deep-rooted but warped perceptions, beliefs and prejudices concerning unemployment, sickness and disability, of those holding extremely powerful positions within Britain.1
Author: Paul Dodenhoff Contact: Disabled World
Published: 2017-06-07 Updated: 2018-03-15
I have criticised Britain's welfare reforms regarding disability for a number of years now. For me and for many other people too, such reforms are not based upon any real economic thinking or strategy, nor a desire to save argued scarce resources, but based purely upon political ideology. The cuts come simply because they can. And they come primarily because they appease the deep-rooted but warped perceptions, beliefs and prejudices concerning unemployment, sickness and disability, of those holding extremely powerful positions within Britain.
From 2010 onwards, Britain's Government wanted to make a very large ideological point about the unemployed, about sick people and about disabled people. That first point focused upon the immorality of being out of work for any reason at all and in receipt of state support. Government perceive 'poor' people as being inherently lazy, and so much so that they need constantly 'motiving' into employment. This is arguably one of the key cornerstones of economic liberalism that poverty is primarily self-inflicted, caused solely by a lack of motivation to work or work hard. The second point was that Britain's welfare system is far too generous, where welfare payments are considered to be far greater than what people can earn from being employed. The third? That deliberately pushing people off welfare will make them become more independent, more self-responsible and much more pliable in accepting work as the 'right thing to do' - regardless of ability, capability or health condition.
So, are any of these allegations and assumptions concerning the laziness, evilness and immorality of sick and disabled people actually true? No, of course not. Since 2010 this Conservative led administration has never presented any evidence of any widespread abuse of Britain's benefit system, nor that streams and streams of disabled people are faking their disability. In fact, more taxpayer's money is consistently lost year-upon-year through official error than by benefit fraud itself. Neither has evidence ever been presented that Britain's welfare system is an over-generous one. In reality, for the vast majority of families, taking a paid job would leave them significantly better off than depending upon social welfare.
Mind you, who actually cares about 'facts' in a Britain where both its politicians and national newspapers have consistently presenting misinformation and half-truth's to its public for years? "Work will set you free" these welfare Nazi's shout, particularly if you housebound through a lack of mobility or ill-health, constrained by a problems concerning intellectual ability or troubled by mental illness.
The Problem with Disability?
In 2013, the British public certainly believed benefit fraud to be a big problem. A survey undertaken by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) at the time argued that the general public believed that 27% of welfare benefits were fraudulently claimed. The reality as usual is something very different. In 2012, Government itself estimated that only 0.7% of total benefit expenditure was actually due to benefit fraud - around about £1.2 Billion. That can be compared to the £1.4 Billion that Government estimated they spent on overpayments caused by official error. £1.2 Billion is still a substantial sum of money, I grant you, but hardly disastrous stuff when put into the context of Britain's total public spending per year, around £700 Billion.
In addition, the majority of the welfare budget is not spent upon sickness or disability as many Brits often argue, but upon pensions and 'in-work' benefit payments. Government figures for 2014/15 indicated that it spent just £3 Billion on unemployment benefits and £41 Billion upon Incapacity, disability & injury benefits. That compares to the £108 Billion spent upon pensions and the £44 Billion spent upon income support, family and tax credits. But if we have to 'top-up' working people's salaries with £44 Billion of welfare payments in order for them to make ends meet, aren't we looking completely in the wrong direction when focusing upon benefit fraud as being the main drain on national resources? Particularly when taking into consideration that the Work Capability Assessment was introduced in 2008 in order to eradicate disability fraud. An assessment process that also costs the British taxpayer more than it saves.
Arguably, 'in-work' welfare payments are used to subsidise British businesses, in order for them to continue paying artificially low wages to their staff. A Government sleight-of-hand that dips into taxpayer's contributions in order to subsidise the relatively well-off business community. While deliberately misdirecting public attention concerning the public finances to those who are easy and vulnerable targets. But helping to keep the wage bills of British business low still doesn't stop some of them from also breaking UK law in order to keep them even lower. Earlier this year, 700 UK businesses were fined for paying their staff less than the legally required national minimum wage. A minimum wage that is still pretty much impossible to live off as it stands at present.
But it isn't just low pay. Tax avoidance by UK businesses is estimated by Government to cost the Treasury at least £30 Billion each year, a figure that is 25 times the cost of benefit fraud. However, despite the size of that problem, Government is consistently slow in reacting to these systematic abuses of the system, while more than doubly quick to target the vulnerable and the needy for the perceived immoral behaviour of being out of work. So, while some people are playing a corrupted, economic system to the hilt for their own monetary advantage, sick and disabled people are by contrast constantly hit with a very large ideological stick simply because they dare to be......sick or disabled. And who is actually prepared to stop the authorities from perpetrating this false moral panic over sick and disabled people being scroungers and fakes, and actually risking lives by deliberately withdrawing state welfare from those who have nowhere else to turn to for help?
Even the UN has been proven powerless to intervene. The UN has already reported that something is very seriously wrong with Britain's state treatment of its poor, its unemployed, it's sick and its disabled. A deliberate and intentional erosion of the human rights of British citizens, yet it has repeatedly failed to do anything constructive about it.
Britain's Human Rights Abuses
Let's be clear that Britain now holds a very poor human rights record as regarding poverty, unemployment, sickness and disability amongst its own people. Not just in terms of failing to protect vulnerable people from the excesses of unnecessary but systematic Government intervention, but by making them an active target of public distrust over welfare provision.
Britain is now on its uppers according to Government, and therefore has to take tough decisions in order for us to live within our means. But despite sick and disabled people being the prime bearers of those tough decisions, tightening their belts by losing their mobility allowances, scooters or cars, despite suffering the 'bedroom tax' and despite forcing themselves into employment while perhaps not actually being fit enough for work, all these sacrifices have achieved nothing. In spite of the seven years of 'austerity' measures introduced within the UK, Government still managed to increase the overall national debt to over £1.7 Trillion - up by a third under their mismanagement since 2010.
Now I'm not a genius on economics, but even I can smell a rat here. The national debt up by hundreds of £Billions after SEVEN years of austerity measures, measures aimed primarily at sick and disabled people for being frauds and scroungers? Sure, there is a lot of ill-health and disability around, with most of it unfortunately 'acquired' as we go through life, some of which acquired through employment itself. But after seven years of austerity, nobody within the UK even manages to bat an eyelid at such an eye-watering increase in the country's national debt? Certainly, no politician dares to mention those figures and certainly, nobody within Britain's media dare question the cause of that massive increase?
Nobody dares because such debt is still only 80% of GDP. To put that into context, when Britain's welfare state was expanded after WWII, the UK's percentage of debt in relation to GDP was above 200%. Today, that very same welfare state is now becoming completely unaffordable according to arguments put forward by Government and it's so called 'think tanks', despite the overall national debt being just a fraction of 1940's levels. A national debt that is also significantly lower than many other major economies within the world, such as the US (over 100% of GDP) and Japan (over 200%).
In reality, the reason why Britain could afford to expand the welfare state after WWII was because it risked social revolution otherwise, a revolt from a war-wary public that wanted REAL social change and not wanting to go back to the drudgery of life before the war. Britain had no choice but to re-invest in its war-damaged infrastructure, but it also had very little any choice in having to appease a war-wary nation with the promise of social change - in order to keep them fighting. But the expanded welfare state and this massive re-investment project also had its critics, including Britain's war hero, Winston Churchill. In short, Britain's wealthy and its powerful didn't want change, they wanted the same old social order, the same old people in charge and the same old social system. They had to (reluctantly) agree to social change or fear the consequences.
And arguably Britain's 'elite' are still fighting against those very same social changes, seventy years on. One can almost hear old Winnie's voice in many of the arguments bandied about the current welfare benefit system, that it only "encourages dependency", or that "people can do more than they say" and that it is "overgenerous". The only difference now is that Britain's public are not emboldened by war, but have been softened up for years by bogus political arguments that suggest that running a country is very similar to running your own personal household finances. Where we must "live within our means" and "balance the books". Which is generally sound advice, but only if you are not dealing with millions of people dependent upon employment, millions dependent upon social care and millions dependent upon state support- and are able to print your own money, issue Government bonds or raise taxes in order to pay for it all.
As Winston would probably say if he was alive today?: "We shall defend our island from sick and disabled people, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight disability payments, we shall fight mobility cars and scooters, we shall fight in the job-centres and in the citizen advice centres, we shall fight against equality in parliament; we shall never surrender".
Disability as the 'New' Undeserving Poor
In nineteenth century Britain, its policy makers made a very clear distinction between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, and otherwise adhered to 'middle-class' morality. They deserved some level of help because their poverty was not considered to be their fault. In contrast, the undeserving poor earned their poverty by refusing to work or by not working hard enough. In essence these people were perceived to have rejected middle-class morality and middle-class values. If they were poor, it was because they hadn't tried hard enough. In contrast, disabled people were generally pitied and usually fell into the category of deserving of some kind of charitable or state support, although this often involved their incarceration and their wholescale removal from society through 'institutionalisation'.
Large numbers of disabled people were therefore locked away in institutions on the grounds that it was not only for their own good, but also for the good of society. However, many disabled people who lived in such hospitals, special schools and care homes are known to have suffered immense emotional and physical abuse. At the very least, such institutions regularly regarded their disabled residents as second-class citizens and showed them very little respect, denying them autonomy, choice and above all, dignity. Often they were subjected to humiliating 'rituals', harsh regimes and severe discipline, and with those in hospitals sometimes also subjected to cruel and painful operations in order to try find a 'cure' for their affliction(s). And we are not simply talking about adults here, but children too. Keeping them all invisible from society and denying them the actual identity of being a living, breathing, autonomous human being.
The subsequent dismantling of these institutions were not only in response to calls for such inhumanity to end, in an era were disabled people were beginning to fight for equality, but also a way of reducing cost to the state. Integrating disability back into the community was regarded as a much cheaper option for society as a whole, not only as a humane thing to strive for. Particularly within the UK, where the policy of deinstitutionalisation also quickly became a heavy handed way of manipulating social behaviour, by cynically batting back the reasonability of caring for disabled people back towards families themselves - in order to get them to look after their own.
A socio-economic plan originally termed 'care in the community' that quickly became criticised as simply being 'care BY the community'. A community who could be emotionally black-mailed and cajoled by the state into providing for the sick and disabled themselves, particularly if state support deliberately disappeared to a trickle. However, it's a policy that has ultimately failed. Despite the hype of high-rise welfare spending, large numbers of families do indeed look after their own. But they also depend on having some kind of financial or social help from the state in order to do so - something that is subjected to a benefit 'cap' once a disabled child reaches adulthood. And in many cases, forcing disabled adults away from the family and back into the state care-system.
With many families either not in a financial positon to take over the role of the state or in an employment position where they can't find the time needed to take up any slack in care-provision, we are quickly accelerating towards another social care crisis. Recently, British charities such asScope, Mencap, The National Autistic Society, Sense and Leonard Cheshire Disability joined together to reveal the scale of the crisis now facing more than 100,000 disabled people living within the community. Problems such as cuts to social care services, where services are now not even meeting the basic needs of washing, dressing or simply helping disabled people to get out of the house. With many actually using what little money they have in order to privately get the help to eat, or to get washed, or to get dressed.
Arguably, if reducing the cost of state support was a key driver of ending the institutionalisation of disability, and if "care" by the community has also failed to reduce the cost of disability care to the state, then it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that the powers that be, will be on the look-out for another cost saving solution. A move back to the institutionalisation of disability perhaps?
The Re-institutionalisation of Disability?
Today's policy makers clearly consider that the majority of disabled people fall within that nineteenth category of the 'undeserving' poor - if they are not in employment. We can see this in the political rhetoric concerning disabled people over the past few years. That disabled people are "able to do more than they say", that disabled people need to be "re-incentivised" and that over-generous welfare payments only encourage disabled people to become "dependent" upon the state. That's on top of calls for disabled people to work for less than the national minimum wage, or order to make themselves 'competitive' in the market place.
Therefore, if you are not too severely disabled, either physically or intellectually, and that is to be decided by the state itself not by the medics or associated professions, you are expected to go to work like everybody else. Regardless of capability, regardless of pain, regardless of mobility, regardless of ill-health, regardless of how dangerous that may actually be for you. And regardless of the lack of employment opportunities out there for you or any employment discrimination you may also face along the way.
This rather archaic, inhumane and brutal policy towards disabled people can easily be illustrated by the relatively recent case of Lawrence Bond, 56, who suffered a fatal heart attack on his way home from a benefits appointment - after being declared 'fit to work' six months earlier. Mr Bond suffered from extensive long-term health problems, including breathing difficulties and reduced mobility that made work an impossibility. But still, he had his Employment and Support Allowance cut following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), had already submitted two appeals against the ruling and was awaiting the outcome of the second appeal at the time of his death.
These events would be sad if they were rare, but unfortunately they are not rare and are actually becoming a regular occurrence within British society. They amount to the state endorsed, state sponsored and sustained state attack upon sick and disabled people that Nazi Germany would be proud of itself. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already admitted that up to September 2015 it kept no record of what happened to the recommendations made by the many internal reviews into the deaths of such benefit claimants. Reviews that are in addition to the campaigners, doctors and psychiatrists who had been warning for several years that the WCA was not only causing significant harm and distress, but seemed to be finding seriously unfit people... fit for work. Something that many also argued was primarily deliberate, due to Government pressure and target setting, and implemented in order to slash the numbers of people receiving disability welfare.
Despite being one of the world's top ten economies, Britain has certainly continued to cut its disability welfare funding since 2010. And it is the only rich EU country to cut its welfare spending as a proportion of GDP during the introduction of its 'austerity' package - to 27%. During the same period, France actually pushed up its spending from 32.7% to 34.3%, Germany from 28.6% to 29.1%, and Italy up to 30% (a country whose national debt is 130 % of GDP compared to the UK's 80%).
In 2016, a study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the Department for Work and Pensions will also be handing over more than £1.6 Billion over the next three years to those private contractors who carry out the Governments degrading and controversial WCA assessments. That's in addition to a state sponsored crackdown upon disability had already cost £66 million in tribunal appeals costs alone - according to figures released to the Labour Party in 2013.
Therefore, one has to question the logic of benefit reform that seems to be costing more than it will save, and targeted at a social group who arguably cost the UK far less than many other social groups. It also seems that Britain could still afford its welfare state if it really, really wanted to. It just seems that it doesn't want to. But where does that stand-point leave us? If families can't look after its sick and disabled, and if the state is determined to continually cut back on its support to those who depend upon it, including disabled people who are living on their own trying to remain independent - what comes next?
Last year, a UK Council in the North of England proposed to save £1.4m by 'remodelling' its services for those with learning disabilities, and primarily by moving some people who currently have their own homes, back into residential care units. T he proposals drew fierce criticism from campaigners who view it as a return to the institutionalisation of disability, or as some other people argued, the 'warehousing' of disabled people. And perhaps not only to reduce costs, but as a way of making people with disabilities 'invisible' again.
Rather worryingly, the Disability News Service (DNS) reported recently that the Government Minister for Disabled People, Penny Mordaunt, failed to oppose similar proposals to force disabled people back into institutions against their will. The DNS reports that Fleur Perry, editor of Disability United, had asked a question in the wake of the research she carried out earlier this year which showed that some NHS primary care organisations had quietly introduced policies that could see disabled people with complex indeed pushed back into residential care against their wishes. Instead of defending disabled people's right to live independently, the Minister actively seemed to dodge the issue completely, while defending the right of medical professionals to institutionalise those who they wish.
A Link Between Discrimination, Hate Crime and Welfare Reform?
For many years, I have been rather reluctant to mention these topics within the same breath. Of course they are all different topics and ordinarily they should be treated as such. However, that doesn't mean to say that we can't see similarities between them, particularly in their negative effects upon disabled people.
Discrimination over employment, over housing choice or over life opportunities certainly marginalises disabled people and keeps disabled people invisible within society. We still don't see that many people with a visible disability within in the workplace, we don't see that many disabled people on TV and we don't see that many disabled people within positions of power. This process of marginalisation, whether it is deliberate or not, helps to keep disabled people as every much as invisible as they arguably were in the bad old days of institutionalisation. But it's a process of discrimination that often also begins with a false accusation of some kind, that the disabled are perhaps not as productive as the able-bodied, or at least, generally more troublesome.
But hate crime directed at disabled people also marginalises and helps to keep disabled people invisible. It arguably sends out a very loud social message that disabled people are not wanted within society, that are not to be seen on the streets, upon public transport nor in pubs or night-clubs. Hate crime also begins with an accusation of some sort, that people are faking their disability, or that they are immoral or that they are ugly, freaks, weirdo's and even paedophiles.
As for welfare reform. Since 2010, we can easily make out that sick and disabled people have been disproportionately singled out and targeted for Government reforms. A recent study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) showed how welfare reform have significantly affected the already low living standards of disabled people, while finding evidence of a growing lack of opportunities in both education and employment. In particular, it highlighted how a higher proportion of disabled people have been affected by the Governments controversial "bedroom tax" in comparison to the able-bodied. A tax on the number of rooms you may have spare if receiving welfare.
Government has repeatedly argued that they are indeed targeting disabled people, but only in order to help them out of poverty and those who can work, helped back into employment. However, disabled people argue that they are actually being forced out of their homes after falling into the debt caused solely by the bedroom tax, or forced out of employment by losing access to mobility cars and transport that actually got them to work in the first place. While also losing access to legal support when faced with employment discrimination, bullying employers and colleagues. All of which arguably adds up to a backward step not a forward one, and one that also marginalises disability.
If we consider that discrimination, hate crime and welfare reform surrounding disability are all simply different faces of the same underlying problem, all based upon accusations of immorality, deficiency or deviancy and all leading to the further marginalisation of disability, then talk of the 'oppression' of disability becomes very real. It's a reality that may also be used to predict further intentional and deliberate actions perpetrated towards disability in the future, all of which dominate and oppress.
The possible re-institutionalisation of disability is one such concern, and one that needs to be confronted and defeated before it gains greater hold amongst the policy makers and the bean-counters. If we allow this abomination to return without a fight, then we will certainly be catapulted back into the dark recesses of humanity. A very real possibility within Britain, where disability is arguably abhorrent to those politicians who continually obsess about self-responsibility, productivity and work ethic?
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