"Very few people would disagree that disabled people either in the UK or elsewhere have historically suffered from stigma and prejudice, being exposed to deep-rooted negative attitudes, structural and interpersonal discrimination, unfair treatment and violence."
On Thursday (9th June 2016) Britain's Disability News Service broke the news that the UK government is set to face a grilling from UN investigators this week (Wednesday 15th and Thursday 16th June) over its alleged breaches of the human rights of disabled people within the UK. An UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights will examine this government's record on welfare benefits, employment, housing, health and education. Before anybody gets over-excited, this meeting is simply part of a programme of regular reviews of countries that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976. However, if the committee does its job properly (one of 10 UN bodies that monitor human rights) it should publically unleash formal, international criticism of the UK's programme of austerity and welfare reforms aimed at disability, for the first time.
The UN has arguably been slow to react to the level of sheer brutality that British disabled people have faced under 6 years of Conservative Party rule, and despite evidence that a formal UN investigation has been under way for some considerable time now, even very mild criticism of the UK Government's wayward stance on disability has so far failed to materialised. The meeting in Geneva this week could therefore be a very important one for disability activists within the UK, being a good opportunity for the UN to finally pull its finger out and do something constructive. An opportunity for the UN to display to disabled people within the UK that they are actually listening to them and that the UN will not allow itself to be talked out of, or bullied out of acting over human rights abuses by the British government.
Britain's poor record on disability
The UK's record on social welfare, employment, housing, health and education since 2010 is not only shockingly poor, but well documented. In 2014, the influential Papworth Trust released a report that made depressing reading, not only by highlighting that disabled people experience much lower economic living standards than non-disabled people (together with 40% of disabled children living in poverty) but how they also disproportionately face living in deprived areas and in poor housing.
Here is a breakdown of the report:
As well as benefit reform, these are some of the key areas that the UN committee will undoubtedly be addressing this week, hopefully asking serious questions about why disabled people are much worse off under the present government than they arguably were under the previous one. Many of the disabled people I have spoken to in recent times not only report to being financially worse off compared to 2009 and primarily because of welfare reform, but have also been made to feel generally 'unwelcome within society' itself. Welfare reform that has actually made it harder for some disabled people to either go out to work or to simply carry on working. Welfare reform that is also argued to have hardened public attitudes towards disability.
Disability as a lifestyle choice
Earlier this year, disability charities publically blasted David Cameron for a statement he made during Prime Ministers questions in the House of Commons, where he stated that claiming benefits is a 'lifestyle choice'. This is a myth that has been raised many, many times since the Conservatives gained power in 2010, and arguably a continuation of the eagerness to create a perception amongst the general public that the 'work ethic' amongst us Brits is rapidly diminishing, making us far too dependent upon state welfare.
The current government has not only embarked on a deliberate propaganda exercise since 2010 (in conjunction with certain sections of the British media) in order to scapegoat Britain's unemployed and disabled as fraudsters and scroungers, but has pushed forward brutal, extreme ideology and policy aimed at 'eradicating' disability completely. A cynical rebranding of disability as a 'life style choice' in which impairment, pain or a lack of mobility is automatically by default, not viewed as a barrier to employment. With physical and mental Impairment downgraded as something to be merely worked through, and arguably considered by the powers that be, to be little different than simply having a cold, a headache or tummy-ache. An obnoxious and ill-conceived attempt to bludgeon sick and disabled people into employment by hook or by crook, were unemployment or any form of perceived unproductiveness is now simply considered to be sheer laziness and/or a lack of personal motivation.
A newly recreated and deliberately misleading social stereotype, but one that builds upon previous negative social representations of immorality and deviancy previously associated with disability. Very few people would disagree that disabled people either in the UK or elsewhere have historically suffered from stigma and prejudice, being exposed to deep-rooted negative attitudes, structural and interpersonal discrimination, unfair treatment and violence. So, the methodology and ideology underlying current welfare reform fit a pattern of prejudice and oppression that is quite well established.
Erving Goffman (1963) defined stigma as 'an attribute that links a person to an undesirable stereotype, leading other people to reduce the bearer from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one '. While Gordon Allport (1949) defined prejudice as ' an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group '. Although originated some years ago, both definitions are perfectly valid today, particularly towards disability, where disabled people may indeed be perceived as 'tainted' with 'objectionable' qualities. One of those objectionable qualities being laziness.
It's no secret that I have been a harsh critic of the current Government since they gained power in 2010, not only over welfare reform that was always more about ideology than it ever was about 'austerity'. But reform that has arguably also played upon the stigma and prejudice that already surrounds disability, and simply in order to put pressure upon the British public to reject social welfare completely. Reform that has led to the deaths of many vulnerable people, people who either took their own lives because of the stress and anxiety of living under brutal welfare cuts, or simply starved themselves to death through lack of money.
Reforms that are often argued by the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) to be successful at getting more disabled people back into employment, but reform in reality, actually hinders many disabled people from continuing to work or find new work. Not to mention those who claim they have been targeted for abuse and violence, accused as scroungers and benefit frauds. The Papworth Trust report also highlighted the high levels of abuse, harassment and violence that disabled people come up against on a daily basis. Abuse, harassment and violence that is not made any easier from a government playing the cynical benefit fraud 'card', and played simply in order to frighten the British public into agreement over a 'declining work ethic' and an 'overgenerous welfare system'.
NatCen's 32nd British Social Attitudes report released last year, highlighted that public support for welfare spending has indeed been in long-term decline. In 1989, 61% of the public agreed that government should spend more money on welfare benefits. By 2009, this figure had fallen to just 27%. NatCen came to the conclusion that the public is now relatively unsympathetic to spending on benefits for people of working age, with the view (a viewed shared by 52%) that benefits for unemployed people are still too high and may discourage work.
Therefore, one has to question the morality of British politicians who know about the many problems caused by their reforms and the subsequent hostility they have generated towards sick and disabled people, but who also continue to happily ramp up the pressure on disabled people in order to force as many of them as possible off state welfare. Not only by pressuring welfare claimants directly but also by manipulating the rest of us via dodgy statistics, lies and half-truths, that in all aspects are little more than state propaganda.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels once explained something about using such tactics:
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."
The key point being that such propaganda can only be maintained for a certain length of time, before the consequences become visible and all too apparent. Lies repeated time and time again, and solely aimed at making us feel so insecure about the social world, that we, the British public will simply fall into line with any old nonsense recommended to us by our leaders - and with any dissent simply dismissed as the actions of extremists and left-wing loonies. In reality, the majority of consistent dissent over disability welfare reform has come from disabled people themselves, a social group deliberately and intentionally marginalised, excluded and side-lined by Britain's government since 2010. But a social group that simply refuses to lie down and die, and refuses to roll helplessly back to the Eighteenth Century (despite the venom of Prime Minister Cameron & Co)
In recent years, I have become increasingly shocked by the avalanche of lies that British politicians of all sides tell to the poor and the vulnerable. It has become common to witness British politicians alter their 'message' according to whatever social group they are directly talking to at the time - and therefore often contradict themselves. Lies dressed up as facts, and lies that get blatantly covered up with another lie, and then another - all without apparent shame and often without much public protest. Which brings us to the question, are we really that gullible that we will simply believe any old nonsense that our politicians tell us? In general, I believe that answer to be yes.
After all, lies, half-truths and the misrepresentation of statistics are also the basis of the advertising and marketing industry, manipulations aimed at making a person feel so insecure that we can be easily maneuvered into buying any 'product' the advertisers wish. So, in reality we are quite use to being socially manipulated and manoeuvred by other people, and often without our conscious awareness. In 2015, £20 Billion was reported to have been spent on advertising within the UK alone, simply in order to get us to buy one product or another. Nobody spends £20 Billion on advertising and not expect it to have some kind of impact on the British consciousness. Similarly, political public relations ( PR 'spin') is also costly, but similarly spent in order to make us feel so insecure about the social world that we can be easily manipulated into buying the political message, the ideology and the policy.
In 2015, Documents obtained by the BBC illuminated that the Conservatives spend over £100,000 each month on Facebook alone, and as much as £3,000 in individual constituency campaigns. In the run up to the 2015 general election, the Observer newspaper revealed that the Conservatives ignored Electoral Commission recommendations and increased general election spending by a whopping 23%. Currently the Conservative party itself is also under criminal investigation for breaking electoral rules over campaign spending on key marginal seats during the 2015 general election. And government sources indicate that spending on Government communications is estimated to be around £263 million in 2015/16. So, we Brits are arguably subjected to more 'spin' that the average domestic washing machine.
People as amateur scientists
In 1955, George Kelly presented a theory for understanding behaviour, suggesting that people act like amateur 'scientists', conducting personal experiments that test out their perceptions and interpretations of the social world. Kelly thought that we actively make sense of the social world by interpreting events as they confront us, and by comparison with past events. From this, Kelly considered that a person's personality is primarily built up from simple black or white 'bi-polar constructs' of the social world, concepts arranged along a single dimension with two opposite extremes - such as good-bad, composed-anxious, agreeable-hostile, elated-depressed etc., etc. A philosophy of constructive alternativism where there is only one true reality, but a reality experienced from one or another perspective (Kelly 1955, cited in Butt, 2007).
People may therefore use their subjective and individual experiences to develop a set of 'short-cuts' about the social world, which in turn help them to make sense of the world around them. We could argue that there are certainly people within British society who do seem to view the world in its most simplistic, 'bi-polar' form, where social groups are simply viewed either as: good/evil, moral/immoral, hardworking/lazy or truthful/deceitful, with very few shades of grey in between. Politicians are particularly good at deconstructing the social world into 'bipolar' attributes, perhaps aiming to appeal to those with a more straightforward view of the social world. Propaganda dressed up as facts, and where lies and misrepresentations may become viewed by many, as reliable and authoritative Information.
The Annual Edelman Trust Survey gives us some insight into how much nations actually trust their government, businesses and media. This year, the survey concerning the UK produced some very interesting results indeed. Overall confidence in the UK government was found to currently higher than 50%, although more than 28% percentage points lower for people on low incomes compared to those at the top end of British society. Similarly, trust in the media was far greater for higher income groups than they were for social groups with low incomes. So, in general, the British public may tend to trust what they are told by both its government and its media, but with a very clear divide between rich and poor.
So, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
In general, disabled people tend to live in poverty. Figures taken from the annual Family Resources Survey (which is funded by the DWP) consistently show that absolute poverty for households containing a disabled person continues to rise, while households that do not include any disabled people continue to fall. Disabled people who do work are often in low-paid employment and are generally paid less than able-bodied workers. In 2014, Lord Freud, the government's minister for Welfare Reform, even suggested that disabled people should be paid less than the UK's national minimum wage - at something like £2 an hour. A green light for the further exploitation of disability, and a remark that Lord Freud ended up having to apologise for.
Certainly, we may be more inclined to trust our government and our media if life is generally going good for us, particularly if government and its associated media arm keep on telling us how well the economy is doing and how much better off we all are under a Conservative government than a Labour one. However, life is clearly not so good for many low income Brits at the moment, including disabled people.
In 2015, official government figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) highlighted that the gap between rich and poor keeps on getting wider, with the gap in wealth owned by the UK's richest and poorest households growing by a third since 2006 to a staggering £4.9 Trillion! Additionally, between 2012 and 2014, the richest 10 per cent within the UK held assets, property, cash and pension funds worth nearly £5 Trillion, while the poorest 10% (including many disabled people) owning just £5.7 million.
Figures published by The Trussell Trust earlier this year show that foodbank use within the UK also remain at record levels and continue to rise. With the trust providing 1,109,309 packs of emergency food supplies in the 2015/16 compared to 1,084,604 in 2014/15. Partnered by the University of Hull, the Trust also released research that highlighted that welfare benefit delays and benefit changes remain the biggest and actual cause of foodbank use, accounting for 42% of all referrals, with foodbank use highest in areas where there are more people unable to work due to long term sickness or disability.
In a further step towards visible fascism, the DWP began stationing 'employment advisers' at foodbanks some time ago because they were 'concerned' that the phenomena of foodbanks would only encourage laziness and dependency. With this sort of wayward logic, what we have within the UK is not simply a government completely out of touch with reality, but a cynical, extremist and deliberately divisive regime. A regime that knows precisely what it is doing and one that actively promotes an short-sighted, self-interested, oppressive and highly exploitative society - and one operating primarily on the philosophy of 'I'm all right jack, stuff you'. It basically doesn't care if they make the lives of sick or disabled people intolerable by their actions or even contribute to their deaths, because that is ultimately the fault of people themselves for being 'lazy' and 'unmotivated'.
Disability is not a lifestyle choice
I'm not a psychic, but in Geneva this week the UN will undoubtedly face a highly manipulative, scheming and slippery British government, and one who will try to soften its aggressive political message in order to bamboozle UN investigators over its human rights abuses. A government who will argue that they do care about disabled people, presenting figures on how much the UK actually spends on disabled people each year (an argument always put forward by the DWP). The UN will receive a barrage of (misleading) statistics that 'prove' how much disabled people are better off under a Conservative government than previously (an argument that Cameron uses himself). The UN will also receive a lecture on morality and how evidence presented from British campaign groups, activists and the UN itself is inaccurate, misleading or taken out of context. It will undoubtedly be a sublime, master-craft in shameless British propaganda and human manipulation that Herr Goebbels would probably be proud of himself.
In reality and if we cut through the propaganda, beginning in 2010, the current British government launched a vicious and brutal campaign against disabled people that was not only aimed at taking social welfare away in order to 'motivate' them to work, work more cheaply, work longer hours or work harder, but a campaign aimed at stigmatising and scapegoating disability in order to sell further welfare cuts to the British public. So, as far as I'm concerned, it is now crunch time for the UN over this issue, where the UN needs to stand up, put up or shut up. If it is not prepared to stand up to human rights abuses committed by the current British government, then it might as well go away and fade away. Serious International criticism and International pressure is the only way the current UK government will even remotely consider changing tack on welfare reform that is actually killing British people. It is now time for the UN to stop pussy-footing around, stop collecting mountains and mountains of data, and actually do something constructive. Because ultimately, the UN should know full well that disability is NOT a lifestyle choice.
G.W Allport 'The Nature of Prejudice', 1949.
T. Butt (2007) 'Individual Differences' in Langdridge, D. and Taylor, S. (2007) (eds) Critical readings in Social Psychology. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.
E. Goffman (1963) Stigma. London: Penguin
Office of National Statistics