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Just What Exactly is Not Normal About Disabled People, IDS?

  • Published: 2015-09-15 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-11) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Iain Duncan Smith faced criticism recently for comments made in a parliamentary debate that appeared to suggest people with disabilities were abnormal.

Quote: "I'm not disabled but even I can see that the use of the term 'normal' in describing those without a disability could easily be taken to be offensive to those with a disability."

Main Document

Britain's Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, faced another barrage of criticism recently, this time for comments made in a parliamentary debate that appeared to suggest that people with disabilities were abnormal. In a discussion about employment rates with other MPs and about getting more disabled people into work, IDS is thought by many people to have actually revealed his real feelings towards disability:

"I think the figure is now over 220,000 ... But the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work."

So there you go. IDS has been criticized on a daily basis for years for his welfare reforms and political rhetoric that specifically target Britain's unemployed, and particularly for being lazy and welfare dependent. An immoral bunch of people that either don't want to work at all or who are certainly perceived as not putting enough effort into finding work.

A fair proportion of disabled people also get lumped by into this category by IDS and his department, leading to the conclusion by many disabled people that Britain's Government has in effect launched an 'witch-hunt' not only upon Britain's unemployed, but also upon its physically or mentally impaired. An ideologically driven witch-hunt, that kicks in regardless of personal circumstances or of any real acknowledgment and understanding of the efforts people actually put in to find employment. Actions primarily designed to 'motivate' or 'incentivize' people to stop claiming welfare in order to meet welfare reduction targets set by the Government.

We have had tens of thousands of complaints from both physically and mentally impaired people over the past few years that highlight many of the 'foul' means employed by British Job Centers and Work Capability Assessment Centers run by Atos/Maximus in order to reduce the number of people claiming welfare. Foul means that include the cynical targeting of people dying in hospital from terminal illnesses such as cancer, people lying unconscious in a coma or people with very severe mental impairment. All 'sanctioned' in some manner for not complying with the 'rules' set by IDS and his department - and primarily by not putting enough effort into finding employment.

Even recently, the dreaded IDS announced further reforms of sickness benefits that this Government hope will force up to another one million disabled people off welfare and into employment, thus aiming to shrink what IDS call's the 'disability employment gap' even further. Another million people that arguably IDS obviously regards as 'not' normal in some way, and fair game for harassment.

So, what exactly is not 'normal' about disabled people, IDS?

I'm not disabled but even I can see that the use of the term 'normal' in describing those without a disability could easily be taken to be offensive to those with a disability. While many disabled people may consider themselves to look or to behave a little different from the 'average', all of those I've talked to still consider themselves to be 'normal' people. Normal people existing in a world where there is so much diversity in looks, behavior, fashion, likes and dislikes, that using the term 'normal' in order to separate the able-bodied from the disabled simply becomes a negative, derogatory way of signaling that there are certain groups within society that are not only perceived as being different, but who are perceived as essentially non-conformist, deviant or inferior. People who are in essence, detrimental to the workings of society in some way.

To highlight how offensive the term 'normal' is used in such a context, try substituting the word 'white' for 'non-disabled' in a discussion about the numbers of people from ethnic backgrounds in employment, i.e.,:

"I think the figure is now over 220,000 ... But the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, white people who are back in work."

Does that one simple change make you feel highly uncomfortable? It should, and if IDS has actually made that remark instead of the one about disabled people, it's pretty certain that he would now be the ex- Work and Pensions Secretary and probably an ex-politician.

The opposite of 'normal' is undoubtedly the concept of 'not normal', 'abnormal' or 'deviant' - and anybody using those terms in order to describe any social group would rightly be accused of displaying some kind of prejudice. As we are all socialized into the ways of the world and into the dominate norms, beliefs and values that surround us daily within society, the descriptive language we personally use is arguably a good indicator of our own internal belief systems and the schema's we use in order to make sense of the social world around us. If somebody calls a disabled person a 'spaz' or a 'mong' (common language that many able-bodied Brits use in aggressive and abusive behavior committed towards disability) it's unlikely to indicate somebody who will be sympathetic or inclusive towards disability.

Similarly, if IDS can so easily slip into using the word 'normal' in order to describe able-bodied people in comparison to disabled people, and seemingly without a blink of the eye, then we may indeed get some indication of his internal belief system. Of course, only IDS will really know what actually is going on inside his head. But for a supposedly intelligent man and one who has great power and influence over the lives of many people within the UK, he continually and alarmingly tends to over-simplify the world as we know it. Not only by separating people into the black or white categories of 'hard working' people (the employed) and 'lazy' people (those not working) in the way that he does, but now in the way he distinguishes between the able-bodied as 'normal' people, with the insinuation that disabled people are therefore not normal in some way.

This over-simplification process is a dangerous one, because it means that politicians like IDS are either deliberately over-simplifying certain social or economic problems in order to manipulate social opinion that makes the introduction of such regressive social or economic reforms much easier to implement, or they may actually be expressing their own internal belief system (and one that is prejudiced up to the hilt). In IDS's case, he may be guilty on both fronts.

In the political world of IDS and his ilk, anybody not working or not working full-time is considered 'lazy'. However, in the real world not all people can find full employment even though they may want to, and not only because of ill-health or disability, but because of negative business attitudes towards age, race, disability and gender (amongst other things). Many employers in Britain won't even employ British workers now because they are perceived as being unproductive, a perception of 'un-productiveness' that IDS and his cronies have actually had a hand in creating themselves. Only recently as IDS has once again been seen to publicly criticize British workers for not being 'productive' enough - certainly something that is not helping Brits (abled bodied or disabled) to find employment.

Ending the 'something for nothing' culture

Every time we have a change of Government within Britain, both Conservative or Labor, this will generally mean a radical overhaul of employment law, trade union law, health care and social welfare. Each new Government comes armed with a battery of 'new' ideological changes and plans for 'efficiency' savings that are not only designed by political think-tanks into manipulating public behavior so that it falls into line with dominant political philosophy, but also about eroding Britain's welfare state to its pre- World War II level. A welfare state that was actually forced upon a reluctant political elite in the late 1940's in order to combat the ravages of World War II, as well as combating a legacy of poverty and deprivation left over from Britain's Victorian era. Amid fears that a war-weary population would not accept anything else than radical social change when the fighting stopped.

Although Britain's state run services had been under political attack for many years from the 1950's onwards, the process of dismantling Britain's welfare state arguably only began in earnest in the 1980's with the election of a new Conservative government in 1979. With the implementation of policy such as 'Right to Buy' which saw large numbers of socially rented homes moved to the private sector. Coinciding with (surprise surprise) British banks being given the go ahead to supply mortgages to potential home owners, as up to that point only Building Societies could supply loans for buying homes.

However, such ideological tinkering was not only developed in order to diminish the role of the state or to make highly profitable opportunities for banks, but to arguably also give people a 'stake' in society that kept them from causing trouble within society and/or to stop going on employment strike. However, while the policy was highly successful in most of those spheres, it also led to a massive increase in homelessness, as the numbers of social housing became almost non-existent. A situation that remains today.

One of the main problems with ideological driven change such as the above, is that it is predominantly short sighted. Being purely designed to drive through changes in social behavior aimed at producing instant and profitable opportunities for business investors - but where any possible negative and longer term consequences of such actions are not thought through properly, or simply ignored.

Similar policies with a serious ideological element to them include 'Care in the Community' , a policy of deinstitutionalization which treated and cared for the physically or mentally impaired in their homes. A policy that was not only in response to criticism of the big institutions themselves and the cost and management of them, but an ideological tinkering that looked towards the 'community' (and by community, they primarily mean families) to take care of their own. A policy that became quickly dubbed by critics not actually to be care 'in' the community at all, but care 'by' the community. A further rolling back of state welfare provision that puts increasing emphasis on families to care for its elderly, sick and disabled - with minimal (and slowly decreasing) state help. We can still see this policy in place today, in conjunction with David Cameron's vision of the 'big society' - a society where previously run public services are withdrawn but are now expected to be provided by the 'community' for free.

The Government's latest ideological weapon designed in order to roll back the state even further is arguably welfare reform that seeks to eliminate the 'something for nothing' culture. A culture that is argued to have been caused by an 'overgenerous' welfare system and one that is being systematically abused by fake claimants - those who could work if they truly wanted to. A welfare system that also erodes the 'work ethic'.

Britain's unemployed and its disabled have arguably been targeted the most by IDS's over simplification of the world into the 'hard workers' and the 'lazy', with the 'lazy' now perceived as anybody on welfare benefits that do not currently work for any reason (no matter what that reason is). No account is ever taken of the personal life stories of people, the battles that they might have had to face, their health conditions, their fitness for work, nor their problems against discrimination, inside nor outside employment. According to IDS's philosophy, if you are not in employment and are under the age of retirement, then this becomes primarily a moral issue. Therefore, it is your own moral shortcomings that is causing any poverty you may be in, and as such, you should not expect to be getting something for nothing from the state.

Of course, IDS argues that Government will still continue to protect the 'vulnerable' and the truly disabled from the ravages of poverty, while weeding out the 'bogus' amongst welfare claimants. But in reality, grown people with the mental age of 2 year olds, people with only a few weeks left to live and people so physically disabled that it will be unlikely for any employer to even think about giving them a job, have all been targeted for work capability assessments, put onto work programs and into job clubs. If you are not working for any reason, you are fair game for IDS. And we only need to remember Lord Freud's suggestion last year that the mentally impaired should be prepared to work for less than the state minimum wage - in order to judge which way the political wind is blowing as regards disability.

Such a vicious policy can only point to two possible motivators. Firstly, that Government does not really care what happens to its disabled and are only interested in rolling back almost all of the state's current responsibility for social welfare and health care. Thereby removing any 'safety net' that has previously been in existence - in order to re-vitalize a culture of ideological 'self-responsibility' and 'work ethic'. Secondly, our politicians are so consumed by personal bigotry and prejudice concerning certain social groups (and the Conservatives has been accused many times over the years of displaying racist, homophobic, disablist, sexist and religious intolerance) that it drives through policy primarily influenced by personal prejudice.

Britain's disabled people are one such social group that have continually been perceived throughout history as being 'deviant'. It should come as no surprise then if politicians like IDS still look towards our disabled with some disdain, and primarily for not being 'normal'.

History repeating itself?

Throughout history there is evidence of a consistent bias against disability and disabled people which has only really been seriously challenged over the past numbers of years.

For example, ancient Greece and Rome were strong advocates of infanticide for disabled children, throughout the middle ages disabled people were the subject of superstition and persecution as well as being targets of amusement and ridicule, and until the 1600's many disabled people in Britain were even rejected by their own families. The laws that were created in Britain also often mirrored our fear or deep distrust of the disabled, particularly those regarded as beggars and fakers, and highlighted by the statutes of 1388 which separated the poor into two groups - the 'deserving' poor and the 'undeserving poor'. By the 1700's, disabled people became increasing segregated from the rest of society and placed into a range of institutions, including hospitals, asylums, workhouses and prisons. And the widespread industrialization of Britain made life even harder for disabled people by removing any chance of work they may have had previously as cottage industries closed down and such work moved to factories, where the pace of work and harsh conditions were often unsuitable to disability.

Therefore, waged labor often became a way of defining the disabled from abled-bodied people, as paid factory work quickly became the 'norm' within Britain and anybody not within paid labor was seen as non-conformist and deviant, as well as dependent upon other people for help. We can quite easily hear this definition of 'normality' implicit within IDS's own political rhetoric, and certainly within his latest comments about getting more disabled people into the 'normality' of work.

However, there is a slight difference in this latest attack on the 'deviant' disabled. This time IDS and his Department of Works and Pensions are not only displaying similar historical prejudice towards disability as we have seen in the past, but are also seeking to redefine what disability is and what it isn't. In this way, a person's disability tends to disappear after the re-assessment process of a person's capability and fitness to work, with the only perceived block on employment being the disabled person's personal motivation itself.

While it's certainly important to get as many disabled people into employment as possible, this needs to be done sensitively and appropriately. At present IDS's approach to disabled people is simply a policy of sink or swim. This Government has constantly argued that we need to end the something-for-nothing culture. And that is the crux of the matter. Britain's unemployed and its disabled are currently under sustained attack in order to roll back the state provision of welfare to pre-second world war levels. However, such a short sighted approach will not only lead to hardship and suffering, but to an increase in needless deaths amongst disabled people. However, Britain's able-bodied should not relax either, as while it is Britain's disabled that are currently the target for IDS, within a few years, Britain's roll back of state welfare will also be aimed at Britain's able-bodied too.

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