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The 'Lazy Cow' Effect: Why Employer's Attitudes Towards Disabled Workers have Deteriorated Since 2010

  • Published: 2016-01-10 : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Disturbing issues concerning the modern day experience of disabled people within the workplace.

Quote: "I was frequently referred to as special because I needed work-place adjustments and a particular type of chair. This made other employees angry at me..."

Main Document

Research collected across the public, private and voluntary sectors by the Public Interest Research Unit over the past 4 years and just published recently, raised some very disturbing issues concerning the modern day experience of disabled people within the workplace.

Most of interest to me was how attitudes of both employers and employees towards disability are argued by this new piece of research to have deteriorated since the Conservative Party first gained power in 2010. A government that has made a concerted effort to get more people into the world of employment, although arguably through bullying and harassment via the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), together with the clinical removal of welfare benefits. The study suggests that there has been a notable deterioration in the actual terms and conditions offered towards disabled people by employers themselves, and in the quality of employment that is offered to disabled people. All argued to be caused by a negative impact of employment legislation changes introduced since 2010.

Shoring up the work ethic

Since 2008, both political and media rhetoric has largely been negative towards disability, particularly over the low numbers of disabled people within employment (less than 50% of working age disabled) together with an measurable increase in media stories negatively linking disability to welfare fraud. Rhetoric that has arguably been carefully orchestrated in order to drive through further welfare reform, by negatively painting the 'unemployed' as both lazy and unmotivated and the disabled as charlatans. Tactics designed to create divisions between those in employment and those who are not, and mainly in order to sell welfare reform to the wider general public.

However, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government that came into power in 2010 only picked up where the previous Labour administration had left off after its introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). An assessment of disability argued by many to be purely an attempt to 'redefine' disability itself, and primarily in order to get as many disabled people as possible re-classified as 'fit for work'. Causing some wags to quip that the WCA was actually performing miracles, because people once formally diagnosed by doctors as having a recognised disability or illness that made them completely unfit to work, where leaving the WCA offices now completed 'cured' on the word of an well paid 'assessor'.

What the WCA does is to monitor people in terms of what they are still capable of doing after being taken ill or after having acquired a disability - rather than focusing on what the person cannot do. Which is fair enough up to a point. But I don't think you can simply force sick people and disabled people back into employment just because you want to - that alone will not make them 'fit' enough for work, and certainly not 'fit for purpose' as some employers would undoubtedly feel.

Unfortunately, after speaking to many disabled people over their experiences of the WCA process, many researchers (including myself) have come to the conclusion that it is indeed a humiliating, degrading and hostile experience whose sole aim seems only to bully and harass as many disabled people as possible, hopefully motivating some or all of them into actively looking for paid employment. All non-working disabled people have to go through the WCA regardless of severity of disability, and where even the most severe are repeatedly threatened with the WCA every few months or so. In many cases where disabled people have been found fit for work by the WCA, subsequent appeals have found that they are not. That in itself speaks volumes.

Therefore, it is rather interesting that while the current government (via the Department and Works & Pensions) is callously trying to force as many disabled people into the world of employment by simply removing welfare payments from them. A new research study has come out highlighting that recent government changes to employment law may actually be working against disabled people in the opposite way. Changes that have eroded disabled people's employment rights, not only putting them at greater risk of exploitation within the employment world as regards terms and conditions, but also actively eroding any protection towards employer discrimination that disabled people previously had, and any protection against bullying & harassment in the workplace that disabled people may have been able to call upon. Discrimination that already denies disabled people assess to jobs, and bullying that already causes many disabled people to leave employment.

So, what the hell is going on in the collective and seemingly confused mind of the current British Government? Do they really want to get more disabled people into work or not? Overall, I fear that this government does not. They may want disabled people off welfare, but what those people do after that is arguably of no real concern to David Cameron nor to the DWP. If some find work under poor employment contracts and poor working conditions, fine. If not, who cares & what can they do about it anyway?

Certainly, the DWP is on a mission to instill the 'work ethic' into both Britain's deviant unemployed and disabled, but they are on a mission to give all of us 'workers' a good kick up the bottom. British people have for many years been called lazy and unproductive by our 'Conservative' friends, which is why concerns over a deteriorating work ethic has been circulating the land since I was knee high. This links in with bogus concerns over Britain's welfare system, which is continually argued to be over generous, creating a dependency culture that produces work shy and lazy people.

However, what these arguments ultimately boil down to is the old 'liberal' ideals and ideology of non-government intervention in the affairs of the individual, where the individual is viewed as primarily self-interested and self-responsible. A vision where self-interest creates wealth if individuals are left to their own (greedy) devices within a free market economy, but a self-interest that produces negative results like dependency on welfare or charity if government or private interventions disrupt those free-market principles.

Britain's welfare system only really kicked in after World War II, but if you read reports such as the Beveridge report released in 1942, you get a real sense of unease about those future welfare improvements. Improvements that were only put on the table to temper the ravages of war and to encourage a war-wary population to carry on fighting.Reading the Beveridge report in the cold light of day, a report that laid the foundations for the modern welfare state within Britain, we can see that Beveridge himself had an overriding obsession with the 'idleness' of Britain's poor. Which according to Beveridge could be reduced by providing widespread employment for all its citizens. Something that would also intentionally or unintentionally drive up wages and improve the living standards of the generally unworthy.

World War II not only decimated Britain's infrastructure but it radically altered the way people thought. People wanted a better life than the one they had before the war and no way where people going to go back to a pre -World War Britain, and Britain's political elite reluctantly acknowledged that. Therefore, since its introduction the welfare state has continually been under attack and erosion from those who see it as an anathema to the principles of the 'free market' and of self-responsibility. From the 1980's onwards, both Conservative and Labour Administrations have been concerned with reducing the welfare state as much as they possibly could during their term of office.

In the Britain of the near future, it is guaranteed if you fail to work either through laziness, sickness or disability, there will be no state welfare to fall back upon, as our politicians have already stated in black & white that the days of "something for nothing are over". Plans that are already in place to 'encourage' all of us Brits to take out personal insurance in order to cover periods of unemployment or sickness.

Therefore, if you can afford to be unemployed, ill or disabled in this future British utopia - fine. If not, tough luck. Britain's welfare state is therefore in its death throes and gurgling quite ominously.

The deviance of unemployment and unproductivity

I've raised concerns in the past over the DWP's apparent disinterest and lack of concern over the high level of unemployed people and disabled people committing suicide after having their welfare benefits sanctioned or after going through the WCA process. I've also raised my concerns over the historical experience of disabled people within the UK, experience that actively 'created' disability as deviance from the norm, hid disabled people away making them virtually invisible within mainstream society, and certainly invisible within the workplace where they were considered to be 'unproductive'.

Arguably, there is no apparent concern about the deaths of disabled people because they are primarily perceived by our political elite as being generally worthless - not only for being physically or mentally deficient but for being morally deviant. A three pronged deviancy that makes disabled people useless and unmotivated within the workplace, and therefore of no economic value to our wealth hungry elite and their cronies. And this is not just a case of our political leaders and business leaders simply being completely out of touch with reality, but simple old-school jackboot style bullying, and good old fashioned domination and oppression. Domination and oppression as practised by our evangelical politicians that force disabled people to go to work despite ultra-exceptional personal circumstances, or if already in work, pushed by their evangelical business friends to work harder and faster.

Since 2010, the DWP have constantly banged on about 'work ethic' and 'productivity', where we Brits, either employed or not employed, abled-bodied or disabled are simply perceived as just not 'hard working' enough for our 'non-working' but extremely powerful elite. However, it is Britain's unemployed and disabled who are primarily targeted for not only being lazy and unmotivated like the rest of us, but to the point of moral deviancy. My instincts over the past number of years dictate that within the UK we are not only currently witnessing a continual rolling back of the welfare state, but also a rolling back of the fundamental human rights of all British citizens. One has to certainly fear what the current political establishment have in store for us that needs them to completely abolish our human rights protection first. As well as demolishing employment legislation that the rest of Europe currently enjoy, and will continue to enjoy once ours has finally disappeared up the DWP's fat backside.

But in particular, it is disabled people and Britain's unemployed who have clearly come under most fire from the political establishment over the last 5 years. However, this may simply be a continuation of the historical dominance and control over 'poor' people by the British state that began many hundreds of years ago. A dominance that come from viewing non-working people and disabled people as primarily an antithesis to the 'liberal' values of self-responsibility and work ethic.

Therefore in the eyes of our political leaders, welfare and charity become basically an anathema - something that will only encourage dependency and laziness in those without motivation. Charity or welfare that are not perceived as an last resort 'safety net' for those people unfortunately meeting hard times, but an unearned loophole that the unscrupulous poor will automatically want to take advantage of - rather than working hard for their daily bread. For example, British 'food banks' are now currently targeted by the DWP, who station DWP 'officials' at many of them in order to 'advise' the poor about entering employment. No doubt by taking them to a darkened room and shining a bright light in their eyes while whispering in their ear, 'we have many ways of making you work'.

It is very clear to me that while government may talk about creating opportunity and equality for disabled people, current government rhetoric and legislation is actually pushing disabled people back into the very margins of society - and where they may be perceived by our privileged political elite as historically belonging to. If that is the true aim of Mr Cameron & co, and I think there is strong evidence to suggest that, it's an example of oppression and dominance that is instigated at the very top level of society, within its state institutions, but filters quickly down to the general public at large to become part of the daily interactions of ordinary people.

Within the UK over the last 30 years, improvements towards disability had slowly been made, but we were only ever at the beginning of that journey, nowhere near its end. Arguably, a sudden and general deterioration of the way disabled people are treated quickly kicked in after the global banking crisis of 2008. The reason for this I haven't quite resolved, but we can hazard a guess and say that it that looks unlikely that a backlash towards disabled people has been driven purely by austerity and a need to save money. Possibly it is a backlash to the actions of disabled people themselves, a group who have traditionally been outcast and perceived as the lowest of the low, but who over the past 30 years have organised themselves into successful activist groups, lobbyists and collectives who fight for anti-discrimination laws, equal rights, equal opportunities and equal pay.

We abled-bodied Brits have historically wanted to be viewed as 'top dog' within the world. But in order to be seen as the superior human beings we undoubtedly are not, we need inferior groups to compare ourselves to, and to abuse in whatever way we design. So, these pesky disabled people may have been getting far too big for their boots in the eyes of our political elite - by demanding this, demanding that and demanding the other (especially the other). So, divisions within society had to be made and all easily achieved by a big dollop of political scapegoating, and an even bigger dollop of media lies.

Divisions generating a perception of the disabled as scroungers and fakes, thereby helping to increase hostility towards disabled people. Hostility that has always been there, although normally bubbling under the surface of daily life.

Disability Hate Crime

Currently, this government estimates that 75,000 'hate crimes' are committed towards people with a perceived physical or mental impairment each year. And nobody knows why. My own research indicates that the actual figure will eventually be found to far higher than the estimated 75,000. My estimates are based upon an amalgamation of studies undertaken by various respected disability organisations over the past 5 years. Studies indicating that anything between 25% and 50% of disabled people surveyed or interviewed have admitted to researchers that they have been the victims of abuse, harassment and violence because of their disability - and usually on more than one occasion. Admissions that are not easy to make.

As an abled-bodied researcher researching disability hate crime, I know how difficult it is to try to get people to talk about or write about their experiences of abuse, harassment and violence. Often people volunteer to be interviewed or volunteer to send in accounts of their experiences but cancel later, and primarily because the actual process of simply recalling such memories is sometimes just too painful. Disability hate crime is not just about attacking 'vulnerability' as some academics would like us to believe, which is a mind blowing explanation in itself, but also about attacking a person's validity to be part of the local or global community.

Identity is a complex ball game made up of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, religion, interests, likes and dislikes. Being born with a disability or acquiring a disability has always been argued to overshadow those other aspects of our identity - if you are disabled, that is your one and only identity. Therefore, disabled people get upset that not only do they get an unwanted identity imposed upon them, but an imposed identity that somehow seems to authorise any abuse, harassment or violence that some dingbat wants to dish out. Hate crime 'caused' by just one single aspect of our character or personality that can eat out our very soul. Especially when we look at the perpetrators themselves, who are often not exactly the most perfect physical specimens on offer nor the very sharpest tools in the box. The latter being something I'm quite sure that the political and media propagandist takes blatant advantage of when on a mission to scapegoat one section of society or another for their own political ends.

While certainly some Brits may take great delight at picking on 'vulnerability' for their own advantage, whether it's in the school playground, at work or on the streets, disability hate crime is an phenomena that almost has a ring of normalcy about it - as if it's an legitimate and authorised behaviour whenever disability is spotted in public. Arguably a social throw-back to the institutionalization of disability, where members of the public either don't want to see disability in public, or feel that disabled people should not be seen in public.

In terms of numbers, we are far more likely to get a better indication of the true figure of disability hate crime in years to come. Disabled organisations such as the Disability Hate Crime Network have done wonders in working with the police and local authorities to encourage disabled people to actually report the crimes committed towards them, so the actual number of incidents being officially recorded is now going up and up. The only thing that will possibly stop this is a backlash towards disability aimed at forcing disabled people back into the very margins of society, creating a kind of 'learned helplessness' where any fight for equality and fair treatment is practically knocked out of people.

And that fight for equality may well have taken a very firm kicking according to the recently released Public Interest Research Unit report, 2015

Deterioration in employer's attitudes

This new study identified 22 major cuts to equality and employment law during the last 5 years which has negatively affected disabled people, including the doubling of the normal qualification period concerning unfair dismissal protection, abolishing employer liability for failing to take reasonable measures to prevent employee harassment, and non-implementation of the Equality Act 2010 on discrimination.

My own small, local study undertaken in 2014 indicated that employers will indeed discriminate against disabled people, primarily for seeing physical and mental disability as problematic in the workplace, and for the specific reasons below:

(Dodenhoff, 2014)

However, when I spoke to employers off the record, very few saw their behaviour as actual discrimination, but just logical behaviour that makes legitimate business sense in terms of their 'business needs'. By trying to avoid any potentially disruptive employee problems and/or increased costs of buying specialist equipment, or in terms of having to give potential employee's time off for sickness or hospital appointments. Most employers were quite horrified by any suggestion that they were actually being 'disablist'.

In addition, the employers I spoke to also admitted to being reluctant to employ other social groups too, such as those over the age of 50 (possible health problems or not being motivated or flexible enough) and women with children (childcare issues and possible future pregnancy). Similarly, this was not considered as actual discrimination but simply just smart business sense.

Therefore, if my small study is mirrored throughout the business world and throughout the UK, then no wonder there is a deliberate erosion of equality and employment laws by government. Probably as an over-simplistic incentive to industry to employ more disabled people. But if anything, it will only encourage unscrupulous employers to want to take advantage in order to make a quick buck out of disabled people, who may become seen as part of a new 'reserved' labour force. People who employers they can hire and fire quickly and cheaply as needed. At the very least, it gives employers an even stronger hand in discriminating against disability.

Over the past two years we have had a number of Conservative linked political figures suggesting that disabled people are just too expensive to employ - and that they should therefore work for less than the national minimum wage in order to make themselves 'competitive' in the market place. However, the minimum wage is something that is easy for employers to circumvent anyway, by placing in their employees contacts terms and conditions that put pressure on employees to do unpaid overtime in the fulfilment of their normal duties. By setting extreme and unrealistic targets and goals, employers can easily pressurise employees desperate to stay in employment, getting them to work unpaid overtime that will take them well below the minimum wage as it stands at present.

Therefore, negative changes in employment law will naturally only lead to further discrimination against disabled people, as unscrupulous employers take advantage of disabled people who may become even more desperate to be employed and to stay employed, and without any recourse to justice nor equality.

The Public Interest Research Unit report highlighted that the attitudes of employers towards disability had indeed got worse within recent years, not better. And according to one respondent in the study, the notion of "disabled people being lesser than able bodied people seems to have permeated into workplaces". However, I would argue that the notion of disabled people being less than the able-bodied has been a dominant feature of workplaces over many years. Although with 50% of disabled people of working age now in employment, such attitudes may be much more noticeable and much more vocalised today than they ever were before.

One of the more potent reasons for this is argued in the study as being the welfare benefit fraud narrative generated by our politicians and by their media associates, which "has spilled over into work place itself". And why would it not. If my own study suggests that employers do effectively discriminate against disabled people, then why would their employee's be any different? Particularly if disabled people are not only perceived as being non-productive in the workplace, but now essentially ripping off the welfare state and us hard working taxpayers who pay for it all. Nice one David Cameron.

This new study highlighted negative attitudes towards disability in the workplace that appeared to be derived in part from the benefit fraud narrative, a narrative that also regards disabled workers as being a 'burden' on other people, lazy or simply faking or exaggerating disability. I have heard many wheelchair users complain that they feel that the able-bodied are constantly monitoring them in case they move their legs too vigorously, with some actually being accused as exaggerating their impairment if they can. Accusations that are not just linked to the benefit fraud narrative, but to a perceived laziness and moral deviancy. Something I term the 'lazy cow' or the 'lazy sod' effect, an effect of negative political and media rhetoric that implies that the disabled are inherently deviant.

The Guardian newspaper article below highlights this perfectly:

The abuse started for Helen Adams (not her real name), a senior administrator at a major UK charity, after her boss watched her get out her of wheelchair. The 40-year-old has multiple sclerosis and struggles with mobility, but on a "very good day" she says she was able to walk in the office. "I went to lunch and a manager who'd seen me walking earlier yelled at me across the busy room to get out of my wheelchair because 'I wasn't really disabled'," Adams recalls. "I was so shocked and upset that I didn't know what to say. I said nothing. The rest of the day, people were looking me up and down and tutting at me." Over the next few months, the harassment spread throughout the office. "People started pressing all of the lift buttons when they saw me coming, then they would close the doors so the lift would go all over the place while I waited there," she says. "All the while, I could hear people on the floor above and below me shouting "Lazy cow! The stress led Adams to go on sick leave and start twice-weekly counselling".

(The Guardian, 6th January 2016)

Shocking stuff taking place within a charity that clearly illustrates the danger of the benefit fraud rhetoric, particularly in a society where disability is highly misunderstood anyway.

However, such negative attitudes may also come from fellow workers who may simply view disabled workers as getting some kind of 'special' treatment that fellow able-bodied workers don't get. For example, one respondent in the new study remarked that 'I was frequently referred to as special because I needed work-place adjustments and a particular type of chair. This made other employees angry at me'. And it will. If employee's feel that other employees are receiving special privileges or perks that they are not, then jealously and resentment will be generated.

The study also highlighted that such negative attitudes have contributed to rising levels of discrimination by employers, and, in particular to an increasing reluctance by employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. A reluctance that stops employers from employing disabled workers in the first place or leads to disabled workers being unable to cope with their work environment. Something else that my own research has highlighted to me.

If we move away from negative attitudes towards disability itself and take a closer look at quality of jobs that the disabled are being offered, it equally raises some disturbing issues over government legislation changes that make it less likely that disabled people will be able to find employment or stay within employment.

A General deterioration in job quality.

The Public Interest Research Unit study highlighted a substantial deterioration not only in the terms and conditions of jobs offered to disabled people but also in the quality of those jobs. This included decreasing job security, work intensification, and of course the abuse and ill treatment of disability that has been highlighted above. There was also fewer opportunities for career development, less management support and an increased reliance upon monitoring and discipline.

While government may argue that their changes in legislation are aimed at all workers (which is bad enough in itself) the general deterioration in terms & conditions and in job quality is argued by the report to have had an extremely disproportionate impact on disabled workers. As I argued above, if government and the DWP truly want more disabled people actually in employment, why have they brought in changes that will undoubtedly force many disabled people out of work? Is there some kind of method in the madness, or is there just some kind of madness in the method?

In a similar vein, the impact of zero hours and casual contracts on disabled people have caused particular problems. The study highlighted the disproportionate effect on disabled workers of being on call on every day for a shift, and not knowing when you will be working or for how long. Having a disability is not only time consuming but can be expensive. Having unpredictable employment contracts and unpredictable working hours may not be suitable for disabled workers truly wanting to work and truly trying to do their best for British society.

In addition,the study highlighted problems with employment agencies. Employment agencies appeared reluctant to take on disabled workers and just as reluctant to make adjustments for those that they did take on. This is particularly difficult in a society where if you are looking for employment, it is more than likely that the jobs you are interested in will be held by employment agencies, agencies that need to put forward candidates that are more likely to be accepted than others, for their own business needs (especially if they are up against other employment agencies). Therefore, employment agencies will indeed discriminate against some candidates - that is what they do.

In a similar vein, there are fewer career development opportunities, as well as some reduction in opportunities in training for disabled people in employment. The study argued that it appeared that organisations over the last four or five years had in general cut the resources they put into staff training and development, and in many cases the career development needs of disabled workers had not been taken as seriously as those of other staff. Disabled people are generally seen as potentially more troublesome and in some ways more transient that able-bodied workers, so less effort is put into keeping them.

Finally, the study found an increased emphasis on monitoring and discipline of employees that effected disabled people more than abled-bodied workers. While support and employee engagement appeared to have been generally cut, the focus on monitoring and discipline seemed to have increased. This is undoubtedly a measure based solely because the dominant position of employers who can now take advantage of the erosion of employment legislation. Employers can drive through negative terms and conditions of employment that they would not have been capable of pushing through otherwise, and simply because they can. Many employees desperate to work will accept anything simply in order to get a foot in the door. However, once through the door, employees face unrealistic targets and goals that employers feel they can get away with - simply because who is going to stop them? Again, this may be harder felt by disabled employees.

Conclusion

This article questions the true motives of the British government who claim they are only trying to get more disabled people into employment via the aggression WCA. A government that at the same time has introduced employment legislation that will ultimately only do the opposite. So, is there a confused political policy over disability here, or is there something more going on?

Certainly, this government (and the previous Labour administration) want less people receiving welfare - particularly disabled people. What happens to those people left behind will arguably be of no particular concern. My view is that Britain's political elite, be it of the Conservative Party's right wing or of the Labour Party's right wing, simply don't give a damn about sick or disabled people. These politicians are extremists pushing a pure economic agenda, whilst doing the bidding of lobbyists and business leaders or supporters who are only interested in one thing - wealth creation at any human cost. Disabled people are seen as unproductive in the workplace and primarily a burden on society, so have no real relevance to these ideals of wealth creation. In short, sick and disabled people are effectively an abomination to the business world.

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