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Disability in the U.K. Is Britain 'Fairer' After 5 Years of Tory Rule?

  • Published: 2015-11-14 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-10) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff examines whether disability in the United Kingdom is any fairer after five years of Tory rule.

Quote: "In effect, while disabled people have been subjected to the medicalization of physical and mental 'difference' for hundreds of years, they are now also subjected to a politicization of 'difference'."

Main Document

"Equality is at the heart of this Coalition Government. It is fundamental to building a strong economy and a fair society; and in these difficult economic times equality is even more important. As we rebuild our economy it is essential that we make sure we benefit from the talents of everyone in the UK. As we take the difficult decisions necessary to tackle the UK's record deficit we are determined to do so fairly, protecting the most vulnerable and prioritizing equal opportunities for all. This strategy is built on two principles of equality: equal treatment and equal opportunity." (Theresa May, Home Secretary and Minster for Women and Equality - The Equality Strategy, December 2010).

In politics, the Tory political faction originated with the Cavalier faction during the English Civil War. A Tory holds a political philosophy (Toryism) based on the traditionalism and conservatism, originally from the Cavalier faction in the English Civil War. This political philosophy is prominent in the politics of the United Kingdom, and also appears in parts of the Commonwealth, particularly in Canada. The term Tory or "Loyalist" was also used in the American Revolution for those who remained loyal to the British Crown. Today, the word "Tory" has become shorthand for a member of the Conservative Party or for the party in general. Some Conservatives call themselves "Tory" and the term is common in the media.

"Mr Cameron said his goal was to build a fairer, richer, safer Britain, where opportunity is more equal and poverty is abolished. "Some people say that there are no big ideas in politics anymore. But I think this is about as big as it gets," he said." (The Independent, 23 rd October, 2011)

"David Cameron- has set out his vision for how to tackle Britain's deep-seated social problems, as he sought to seize the center-ground of politics for a generation by delivering "true opportunity and real equality". The Prime Minister used his conference speech - delivered exactly five months after the general election - to set out plans to improve social mobility, end racial discrimination, reform prisons and tackle extremism. In an address which signaled a return to the "compassionate Conservatism" platform which saw him elected as Tory leader in 2005, he vowed to "enter those no-go zones where politicians don't dare to venture" by "taking on our big social problems".

(The Telegraph, 7 th October 2015)

So, there you go. There are literally hundreds of similar media extracts I could have used, all recorded in print over the last five years and all pretty much of a muchness. I.e., Blah de blah blah 'equality' , blah de blah blah 'fairness' and blah de blah blah blah 'opportunities' . Our David therefore clearly believes his party to be the true party of fairness and equal opportunities, and similarly sets out his stall as one that is creating a much fairer society. But after 5 years in power just how well as our David done in actually producing that vision of fairness and equality that he seems so passionate about? The following quote from that political magazine 'The NewStatesman' , may answer that question:

"A ludicrous article written by the Prime Minister in the Guardian- on Monday, claiming that "the Conservatives have become the party of equality," is so far-fetched as to appear to be a bad April Fools' joke come early. David Cameron's particular brand of Conservatism, implemented with even greater verve and vigor since May this year, has created the most unequal society I have seen in my lifetime. And yet his outlandish assertions seem to have been allowed to pass under the radar with little more than a whisper of discontent."

(The NewStatesman, 29 th October 2015)

Oh dear. However, many things have passed under the radar of us Brits and much of our mainstream media over the past 5 years, and without much discontent. For example, recorded incidents of disability hate crime continues to rapidly increase; in 2014 the UK became the very first country in the world to be investigated for human rights abuses against disabled people; disabled people have so far borne the main brunt of billions of £'s of welfare provision cuts; and recently it was revealed that thousands of sick and disabled people have died within a just a few weeks of being assessed as 'fit' enough to work. Facts pretty much ignored by many of Britain's newspapers, while much of Britain's public happily drift along, often much more interested in the football (soccer) results than what Dave and his political cronies are up to.

However, while David Cameron claims to be a man of equality and someone who stands up for hard-working people, under his leadership the Conservatives have actually done very little for hard working people, while instead, cutting corporation tax to its lowest rate ever, cutting the top rate of income tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent and raising the inheritance tax threshold. The Prime Minister has therefore used a lot of taxpayer's money, but only to help increase the bank balances of the rich, while targeting Britain's poorest for its most savage welfare cuts ever introduced in the history of UK economics.

So, a fairer society for Britain's disabled then?

No, of course not. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a public body set up to challenge discrimination and to protect and promote equality and respect for human rights. And every three years the Commission is required to report to Parliament on the progress that society is making towards that vision. A new report just been recently released by the Commission arguably not only makes mockery of the Governments political rhetoric, but makes very disturbing reading for disabled people within the UK, especially when compared to how other social groups have fared.

The report highlights that since 2010 there has been a very distinct backward step regarding disability, with:

So, if this was school report card, Prime Minister Cameron would be given an F (failed) on the subject of equality. An F (failed) on the subject of fairness, and a resounding F (failed) on the subject of equal opportunities for disabled people. But why the gap between David's vision and actual reality, if Dave's vision is indeed genuine?

The widening gap between rhetoric and reality

This is quite easy to answer. When people heavily influenced from a traditional 'liberal' or 'Conservative' background talk about 'equality' and 'fairness', they do not use those terms in a way that 99% of us would understand them. Most certainly, our David will believe in equality and fairness of a sort, but only in a highly simplistic version and one with a skewed definition, where he and his party believe that people are already born equal onto a completely level playing field. So what you make of your life is directly due to your own hard graft and effort (pure and simple). I.e., what you put in, that's what you will get out. Therefore, if you are rich, you have worked hard to be rich. If you are poor, that is due to a lack of motivation and effort.

It is really that simple for our Eton educated friend. Someone not actually born onto this mythical level playing field himself, but born into a world of visible advantage and opportunity, and a family who can trace their roots back to -King William IV.-

But the equal opportunities that David talks about for you and me are the ones that you make for yourself on this mythical level playing field - by primarily being motivated, self-responsible, innovative and competitive. Not opportunities brought about by pure luck of the draw, nor of being well connected or of being descended from Kings or Queens. Nor the lack of opportunities brought about by disability, discrimination, a lack of education or outright poverty.

Check out the following extract from 2010:

' Mr Cameron made clear that his vision of fairness was not about welfare handouts for all but about rewarding responsibility and hard work, while punishing the workshy and feckless. "You can't measure fairness just by how much money we spend on welfare, as though the poor are products with a price tag, the more we spend on them the more we value them. "Fairness means supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency," he said. "For too long, we have measured success in tackling poverty by the size of the check we give people. We say, let's measure our success by the chance we give." (The Express, 7 th October 2010)

That extract gives us a real insight into why we see savage government cutbacks on aid for the poor, while tax decreases are readily available for our richer citizens. Because our Dave believes that everybody is already born equal, therefore we should all be treated the same, regardless of our own personal circumstances and regardless of our actual household income. You will work hard for what you get, and you get nothing if you don't work hard. Our Dave will therefore not support the 'workshy', and by the 'workshy' he really means the unemployed, the working poor, the sick and the disabled. By supporting the poor (or the disabled) we make them dependent on us, and dependency is the antithesis of self-responsibility.

The politicization of difference

Most certainly, we should be supporting people out of poverty rather than just simply giving them a 'hand-out'. Disabled people in need will undoubtedly need state support from a number of different directions - education, employment training and opportunities, adequate housing and access to transport, for example. As well as financial aid and access to carers which help to offset the additional cost of disability and the often time consuming nature of disability itself.

However, while this Government has cut back on state aid for disabled people, there is nothing in place apart from rhetoric to actually support people into employment, nothing in place to tackle prejudice and work-place discrimination and nothing in place to increase social inclusion nor social mobility. Assertions supported by the new EHRC report.

The fact of matter is that both Conservative political rhetoric and policy now treats all disabled people as primarily 'feckless' and 'workshy', and have indeed set out to 'punish' people for not being in employment or incapable of finding employment. Which is one reason why the dreaded and highly aggressive Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is arguably in place. Not only to re-assess sick and disabled people who have usually undergone many intensive medical assessments already, but to harass and bully them for daring not to be in paid employment of some type.

In effect, while disabled people have been subjected to the medicalization of physical and mental 'difference' for hundreds of years, they are now also subjected to a politicization of 'difference'. Where being 'unfit' for work is not going to be an option that will be on offer for most disabled people in the future, just a signal that you are deviant from the norm of employment, and primarily by being feckless and workshy.

The latest EHRC report on fairness and equality really hit the nail on the head for me, by clearly marking out the discrepancy between the political rhetoric and actual reality for the majority of disabled people. While our Dave talks about being the party of equality, disabled people's human rights, living standards and opportunities have actually been eroded over the last 5 years by an highly cynical and aggressive 'sink or swim' offensive towards the perceived feckless and the lazy. A kick up the backside for Britain's already down trodden citizens, instead of a well needed and often deserved hand-up.

Oppression - the link between negative attitudes, hate and Government policy

When I first started my research into disability hate crime, I shied away from directly linking government and media rhetoric towards Britain's disabled and abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated towards disability. The reason for that is partly because disability hate crime goes back hundreds of years and it is therefore not a new phenomenon, just a continuation of an old problem. Additionally, there is little research conducted towards disability hate crime anyway, so we simply do not know as yet what actually causes some people to commit abuse, harassment or violence towards people with disabilities.

Certainly, any negative media or political rhetoric towards disability will not have helped the matter. However, even without this rhetoric, hate crime would undoubtedly still have been around and probably at a similar level as it is today - at least 75,000 crimes per year. Undoubtedly, when speaking to some disabled people who have had acts of abuse, harassment and violence committed against them, the 'scroungers' and 'spongers' tag has often been used by some of the perpetrators involved. So, we cannot simply ignore or rule out the possible role of negative government or media rhetoric influencing some incidents of abuse and violence.

Many people within society may indeed view government or media rhetoric as legitimate and trustworthy information, which in turn may work to validate their own instincts, belief systems and experiences. But since hate crime is an old phenomenon, there may be much more underlying the problem than simply negative rhetoric towards disability alone. For me, at the center of the problem, we should arguably place the concepts of 'oppression' and 'domination'.

The continuing oppression of the disabled

In 1990, Iris Marion Young put forward an analysis and model of 'oppression' that social groups may suffer, breaking the concept of 'oppression' down into its component parts of oppression, exploitation, marginalization, cultural imperialism and violence. This model is also extremely useful for analysing the way disabled people have been treated within the UK over the past number of years, be it via negative attitudes from the general public, hate crime itself or from government policy.

The concept of 'oppression' used in this context can therefore be described as stemming from the intentional or unintentional behavior of people that reduce the potential for other's to be fully human. Or to put it another way, actions and behavior that may make people feel 'less' human. However, this isn't just about behavior that treats disabled people in a dehumanizing way via 'hate', it also concerns the denial of assess to education, housing or employment, and access to other opportunities that may help the disabled to become fully human in both mind and body.

If we remind ourselves of the conclusions of the current EHRC report, we can clearly see that disabled people are not only subjected to increased bias and 'hate', but are being denied access to education, employment, a decent income and state welfare. We can also see that the EHRC report illustrates that while government rhetoric has set out to get as many disabled people into employment as possible, actual policy has failed miserably to do so. Arguably, this is due to there being no real mechanism in place to support disabled people into employment, apart from a heavy handed and brutal attempt to force as many disabled people as possible off welfare by simply bullying and harassing them.

Rather worryingly, we also hear increased talk by influential government ministers and from some Conservative MP's themselves, putting forward arguments that disabled people should be prepared to be paid less than able-bodied workers, in order to encourage employers to take on more disabled people. A situation that simply becomes the shameful exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, with the reasoning behind this logic being that disabled people are perceived as just not productive enough to be employable under the 'normal' terms that employers want.

The EHRC report highlights that disabled people are therefore becoming increasingly marginalized within society, not only by negative media and political rhetoric, but through decreased income, decreased opportunities, decreased assess to transport and through decreased social mobility itself. Since marginalization may be described as the confining or positioning of a social group of people to a lower social standing, and one that may also confine them to the edges of society itself. It is a process of exclusion that effectively positions certain groups as not only 'inferior' within society, but also makes that group largely 'invisible' within society.

Discrimination over employment is certainly one way in which disabled people become invisible within society, and by behavior that is largely hidden behind closed doors. Therefore we may have no real idea about the numbers of disabled people who may apply for jobs and not be selected solely because of their impairment. Previous research indicates that such discrimination does exist, and there is no reason to believe that this situation has significantly altered within recent times. And it is something that this government has continually failed to address.

Discrimination and marginalization may therefore expel whole blocks of disabled people from full participation in social life, which may not only create a situation of helplessness and powerlessness, but also a culture in which the disabled not only become invisible, but may be expected to remain invisible.

I see many incidents of 'hate crime' where disabled people are clearly not expected or wanted by the perpetrator to be seen out in public places such as parks, shops and on public transport. Additionally, I have heard a number of stories from parents with disabled children currently being educated in mainstream schools, being refused participation in school plays, school events or in school photographs, simply because other parents don't want to see a disabled child. But this is not just another form of discrimination, it is a type of cultural imperialism that marks out the boundaries of what is 'normal' from what is 'not normal' - and for what is regarded as acceptable behavior.

While the disabled make up a significant proportion of the UK population, the disabled are already generally considered as being deviant from the expected norms and established standards or measures of ability that are set in place via scientific and medical discourse. Discourse that now arguably also involves the political discourse or narrative of the disabled as being feckless and workshy.

These norms and expectations not only feed into all walks of life and may be displayed daily within our interactions with others. They are also norms and expectations that create hierarchies of superiority and inferiority that can have disastrous consequences for anybody considered to have a physical or mental impairment. We only have to look throughout world history to see thoughts of deviancy and inferiority taken to the extreme. From the segregation of mental impairment or illness into residential institutions, the rise of the 'Eugenics' movement in the early 1900's and the experimentation on disabled people in Nazi-death camps. Do we really want to go down that road again Mr Cameron? Because those are the seeds you are currently sowing, and we don't really have to do such digging to find some influential people who publicly suggest that disabled people should not actually be allowed to be born in the first place, or at the very least, serious restrictions placed upon their sexual behavior.

However, probably the most consistent daily form of oppression that disabled people fear is violence or threat from violence. Many disabled people live with the knowledge and fear of random, unprovoked attacks on their person or property. These attacks do not necessarily need a motive stemming from negative 'attitudes', but are behaviors often intended to humiliate, damage and in some cases, destroy the person.

There may be many reasons why violence is used against disabled people. Certainly, beliefs, opinions and values may play some role within such actions, but it is far too simplistic to say that holding negative attitudes towards disability is the sole cause. Not everybody holding negative attitudes towards race, sexuality, religion or gender is motivated to actually commit acts of violence towards those social groups, and there is no reason to believe why this should be any different concerning disability. However, it is clear that violence towards disabled people is not always opportunistic violence, but can be pre-planned and targeted, and often committed by people known to the victims - such as relatives, friends, neighbors and carers. A situation that undoubtedly has 'oppression' and 'domination' for some kind of personal gain, as its foundation stones. Be it material gain or psychological gain.

An unequal society for our disabled

Britain is a deeply divided and unequal society. While David Cameron's rhetoric says one thing, the actual facts say another. Disabled people are not the only social group to be worse off after 5 years of Conservative rule, but they are the social group that have arguably suffered the most over those 5 years. And anybody doubting that only needs to read the full version of the latest EHRC report. Not only have disabled people suffered from benefit cuts and the cynical political and media narrative of spongers and layabouts, but from decreased income, decreased opportunities, decreased social inclusion and increased poverty and deprivation.

So, are the Conservatives the true party of equality and fairness? I'll let you decide that one.

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