Britain's Unproductive Disabled: A Continuing Moral Panic?
Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on prejudice and discrimination that paint U.K. disabled as lazy and unproductive.1
Author: Paul Dodenhoff Contact: Disabled World
Published: 2017-12-12 Updated: 2018-03-15
Disability charity Scope has called on Chancellor Philip Hammond to withdraw his "totally unacceptable and derogatory comments" aimed at disabled people, after he suggested that Britain's sluggish productivity could partly be blamed on having more disabled people in the workforce. While addressing a treasury select committee, Hammond stated:
"It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people - something we should be extremely proud of - may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements."
Several MPs also voiced their disgust at the Chancellor's comments, including Labour MP John Mann, a member of the committee, who said the chancellor's remarks were "appalling". Via Twitter, he said: "....chancellor just linked low productivity growth to the labour market and specified the increased employment of disabled people."
Arguably, we should not be too surprised by the Chancellors rather prejudiced remarks, when over recent years, we have witnessed Britain's disabled people accused by both Government and Britain's media of either exaggerating their disabilities or faking them completely. Something that is reported to be one of the key drivers of Britain's welfare reforms - driven primarily because of Britain's 'over' generous welfare system, and one that is eroding the 'work ethic'. And quite obviously, disabled people are generally not to be trusted to be telling the truth as regards what they can do and what they cannot. A premise of the insidious Work Capability Assessment.
At the very least, British disabled people are largely perceived as being UNPRODUCTIVE. Full stop, end of story. But where does that perception actually come from? Clearly, employment or 'work' is an important activity to individuals in terms of supplying an income, but it is also important in the way we define or categorise people - whether we like it or not. Therefore, 'Work' gives us much more than just an income, it also gives us an identity and it's arguably an identity that overrides many other aspects of our lives. Listen to any TV game show or meet somebody new for the first time and 'what we do for a living' will often be one of the first questions or queries that crop up. Work defines us, gives us social contact with others, puts us in positions of dominance or sub-ordinance - but also categorises us in terms of social/economic class and social status or influence.
The 'unproductiveness' of disabled people is something that has arguably been around for a very long time. It's certainly not new to Britain's shores. Colin Barnes in his book 'Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination: A Case for Anti-discrimination legislation', argues that disabled people being excluded over employment can be traced back to the industrial revolution, and the changing nature of work. As work became concentrated into factories, disabled people who eked out a living previously in Britain's more artisan cottage industries, were now denied access to the factory floor. However, as Barnes also points out, Britain's rough treatment of disability goes back much further than the industrial age, and we only need to read the Bible, the Torah and the Quran to highlight that god him or herself also wasn't overly keen on disabled people.
But excluding disabled people to employment opportunities arguably creates both an economic dependency and a perception of unproductiveness that perhaps would not exist otherwise. It also adds to Britain's deep-rooted, perpetual moral panic over the 'laziness' of its citizens. Where public anxiety or alarm is generated in response to a problem that is represented as threatening the moral standards, beliefs and values of society in general. Clearly, the continuing political and media furore over disability benefit fraud doesn't help to dampen down any public anxiety that some (if not all) of its disabled citizens might be sat at home on their lazy bums, receiving over-generous welfare payments. While the rest of us are forced to work hard for a living. Phillip Hammond's recent comments also do nothing to eradicate that perception.
My own small research project(s) has certainly highlighted to me at least, that some employers will discriminate against disabled people, perceiving some as not being 'suitable' for the roles that they may have on offer. Sometimes this may indeed be due to misperceptions over an inferior work rate. Sometimes over health-related issues, training problems or negative co-worker and customer/client reactions. And I'm not the first person to pick out such trends, a number of larger studies have also found the same. But Phillip Hammond's comments above are interesting in light of a Government who claim that welfare reform has motivated more disabled people into the workplace than would have been the case otherwise. Yet now also blame those very same workers (and other marginalised groups) for decreasing national 'productivity'. Talk about a double dose of discrimination.
I've highlighted for some time that Britain's poor are generally regarded by those in power as being 'immoral', 'lazy' and in need of control - so it's not only disabled people. But it is an immorality that is extremely deep-rooted. For example, Matthew White's analysis of poverty within Georgian Britain (1714 - 1830) argues that:
"Though the vast majority of people claiming (poor) relief in the 18th century were needy through no fault of their own, certain sections of society nevertheless believed that poverty was caused by the bad habits of the poor: their preference for drinking and gambling, for example, or through their own simple laziness. To reduce the rising cost of poor relief some people argued that the act of receiving charity itself should be made less attractive and hence less likely to be sought after."
And if we go back even further to the 1500's and 1600's, Sara Byrnes argues that: "Vagrancy had always been a concern in sixteenth century England, resulting in the passing of four anti-vagrancy bills in 1547 alone. This resulted in legislation so harsh that a person charged with vagrancy could be sentenced to two years enslavement...." Vagrants or beggars who became classed as the undeserving poor, and quoting the work of Linda Woodbridge (2001), people who "were the idle, the ones that feigned disability, the foreign, the homeless, and the wanderers".
Clearly, the notion of disabled people 'feigning' disability is not a new thing. As we all are probably aware, within recent times we've seen British newspapers selling similar notions to the general public. So much so, in 2011 the National Union of Journalists' (NUJ) issued a statement urging journalists to "support and sustain fair and balanced reporting of matter relating to disabled people". In short, the NUJ argued that the "continuous drip-feed" of stories promoted a "range of inaccurate and generalised accusations against disabled people" that had led to them being "demonized" in the press as "work shy" and "scroungers" causing hostility, discrimination and physical attacks. A hostility generated primarily by a moral panic over the continuing deviancy of disabled people.
In 2012, a survey conducted by the charity Scope suggested that half of disabled people and carers felt attitudes to them have worsened, with many blaming media coverage and negative Government about benefit cheats. This is something still largely disputed by Government itself, but it is undeniable that some disabled people seemed to suffer abuse, harassment and violence where the words 'scrounger' or other similarly derogatory terms where used by the perpetrators. Even my own, admittedly tiny research, has picked up on cases where disabled people were arguably targeted for the same reasons. However, whether or not the perpetrators of such crimes actually believe that some disabled people are indeed faking their disability or are simply using such things as an excuse, is open to debate. One thing is clear, that disability hate crime goes much further back than arguments over negative Government or media rhetoric. But even so, we should not be dismissing the experiences of many disabled people so easily.
In 2011, Inclusion London commissioned the Glasgow Media Group and the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research to carry out a study to analyse the way the media report disability. The study indeed found that there had been a significant increase in the reporting of disability in the print media from 2004-5 to a comparable period in 2010-11. In addition, there had also been a reduction in the proportion of articles which described disabled people in sympathetic and deserving terms, while stories that document the 'real life' experiences of disabled people had also decreased. Some disabilities were particularly prone to be seen as largely 'undeserving' of sympathy, such as those with mental health conditions or other, 'hidden' impairments.
Ironically, while it is the Conservative Party who historically have often been found to bark most loudly about laziness, unproductiveness and a diminishing work ethic, it is also the only political Party that has never wished to see full employment within British Society. According to Party dogma, while welfare benefits simply cause people to become lazy and dependent, full employment only drives up wages. Therefore, for those of a Conservative nature, the concept of 'work ethic' clashes head-on with the aim of full employment. So attaining full employment is never, ever seen as a good thing, despite continually hounding people for being out of work. Something in itself that may be sending out a confused set of social messages.
Phillip Hammond's recent remarks also send out a very mixed set of social messages, remarks that have rightly been condemned. But it does arguably give us some clues into the way the collective mind of Government works. And that mind is either extremely woolly or one of simply wanting to have its cake and eat it - taking unfair advantage of its power in order to 'sell' a set of ideological beliefs to the wider public that have no actual basis in fact nor reality. Deliberately using propaganda and creating moral panics in order to sell a programme of beliefs that are primarily rooted in the ideology of 18th century economics, as well as its associated prejudices, assumptions and negative representations.
As I argued earlier, British disabled people are now being hit by a double Government whammy of prejudice and discrimination that paint disabled as lazy and unproductive - now both in the workplace and out of it. Clearly, this level of propaganda is highly dangerous, signalling a Government not only continually out of touch with reality, but also hell-bent on hounding disabled people into an early grave.
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