Don’t fall into a Tory trap by using disabling language

DISABILITYHOW vulnerable are you? Would a gust of wind blow you over? Do harsh words leave you in tears? Does exposure to the doublespeak of Tory MPs bring you out in hives?

Or are you a fighter, a survivor, a thick-skinned trooper who cares for others and champions the causes you believe in?

Your answer probably says something about your outlook on life. What it won’t reveal is whether or not you are disabled.

If there’s one thing the UK’s disability rights movement has been battling consistently over the past 40 years, it’s the perception that disabled people are needy, dependent and weak. It’s the notion that their impairments, whether physical or mental, make them worthy of pity and deserving of charity. These efforts have not been in vain: one only has to look at publicity campaigns spanning the decades to see a clear shift in attitudes. Charities no longer speak of “handicapped” people – literally, those with cap in hand – or portray disabled people as defective poor souls with little hope of leading fulfilling lives. The new focus on support and empowerment is reflected in name changes by organisations such as Scope (formerly The Spastics Society) and Enable (formerly the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped).

Yes, raids on the budget for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) would affect vulnerable people, but they would likely also have a serious impact on many, many others who reject such labels

So it’s surely with some discomfort that such activists – and many other disabled people – will be reading about cruel cuts hitting the “most needy” and “most vulnerable” in our society. There’s little doubt the intentions of those making this case are pure, but in the rush to condemn ideologically driven benefit cuts we must be careful not to fall into the bear trap the Conservatives have laid. Yes, raids on the budget for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) would affect vulnerable people, but they would likely also have a serious impact on many, many others who reject such labels while firmly opposing cuts that could cost them their jobs, social lives or ability to care for family members.

A narrow focus on those perceived as the most vulnerable disabled people – for newspaper case studies, or anecdotal examples quoted in the House of Commons – risks buying into the pernicious notion that some disabled people are more deserving of benefits than others. Yes, there have been horribly absurd cases of people with terminal illnesses and severe impairments being forced to submit to Work Capability Assessments – and, even more absurdly, being found fit to work – but these headline-grabbers should not obscure the countless other cases where a refusal of Employment and Support Allowance has been successfully appealed. The problem with the Work Capability Assessment is not that some people end up with a tick in the wrong box – the problem is that disability and work capability cannot be adequately assessed by a pseudo-medical box-ticking exercise.

The problem with the Work Capability Assessment is not that some people end up with a tick in the wrong box – the problem is that disability and work capability cannot be adequately assessed by a pseudo-medical box-ticking exercise

The second-biggest achievement of the disability rights movement after challenging harmful stereotypes is the promotion of a “social model” of disability that locates the problem of disability within society rather than individuals with impairments. While the medical v social debate is by no means settled – some argue the social model downplays the effects of impairment on disabled people’s lives, scathingly noting that its leading proponents are “white men in wheelchairs” – its impact has been clear to see. From new buildings and buses with lifts and ramps to inclusive education, access for blind web surfers and even special cinema screenings for children with autism, our society is less disabling than ever before.

The Conservatives deserve credit for introducing the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which at the time many feared would hammer businesses with astronomical costs. Unfortunately, having helped remove or at least lower many of the barriers disabled people once faced, the Tories now seem confident in asserting that anyone who still can’t get on in life just isn’t trying hard enough. It seems their enthusiasm for the social model was fleeting. Now that they’ve made workplaces more accessible, the logic seems to go, anyone who’s still moaning about the excruciating pain of a hidden health condition must surely be at it.

It’s important to understand that PIP (and Disability Living Allowance before it) is not a replacement for income. These are what’s known as “extra-costs” benefits, which seek to level the playing field for those whose day-to-day living is more expensive purely because of disability. Many thousands of those who receive such benefits are in work, and this may go some way to explaining why PIP cuts were the straw that broke Iain Duncan Smith’s back. Working PIP recipients – the striver, the contributors – are the kind of disabled people he likes. The others – the scroungers, the ones who have the nerve to sit at home despite being perfectly capable of mounting or descending two steps with the support of a handrail – can do without their Motability vehicles.

Further disability benefit cuts would make people more vulnerable: that much is guaranteed and that is cause for protest, but the same is true of any benefit cut that tips people into poverty. Vulnerability comes in many forms and is not always met with compassion: think of the young man who fears violence and so carries a knife, the alcohol-abusing mother who neglects her children, or the sex offender released into the community after serving his sentence.

If it is society that disables, rather than the impairments we commonly think of as “disabilities”, we must accept that our choice of language – and the stereotypes it helps perpetuate – may be disabling in itself.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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