I’ve written frequently over the past 5-6 years about what I’ve regarded as the dangers inherent to confining disability rights activism to an anti-austerity frame. This is not because I am pro-austerity or believe that it should go unchallenged – quite the opposite. It’s because I fear doing so in such narrow terms risks reinforcing prejudices that disabled people are passive objects of charity, State or otherwise and that disability is synonymous only with ‘welfare spending’. That, in turn, will, I believe, further undermine political and wider public support for the social change necessary to build an inclusive society.
In response to what I have argued, some people countered that the disability equality agenda of the 1990s and 2000s, which focused on ‘full civil rights’ and ‘non discrimination’, failed to account for the support that some disabled people required to take up such opportunities, and moreover, its ambition was in some cases beyond the reach of some people, especially those with chronic health conditions. In sum, it’s been argued that some people are dependent on social security benefits to achieve inclusion and for basic survival and that we shouldn’t be helping to sustain narratives that deny this reality. Moreover, without adequate food, shelter and support with day to day living we rob people of the hope and agency necessary to make equality policies work. As the late Sir Bert Massie said of under-investment in social care back in 2006:
‘some disabled people have been invited to look up at the stars while having the rug pulled from beneath them.’
This latterly caused me to identify the ‘fault-line’ in the disability rights activism of that period as being its neglect of economic and social rights. I quoted the anti-apartheid campaigner and South African Supreme Court judge Albie Sachs who said of the inclusion of economic and social rights in the South African constitution:
‘it would have been ironical indeed had the struggle (against Apartheid) ended up doing little more than to guarantee people dying of hunger the inalienable right to use their last breath freely to curse the government.’
This fundamental weakness in UK disability rights meant that when austerity arrived we had little by way of a disability rights-based narrative or tools with which to respond and resist. For example, when Jenny Morris and I worked as Specialist Advisers to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on its inquiry into independent living in 2011/12 we found very few of the 100+ witnesses referenced human rights when giving evidence on the impact of reforms and spending cuts. This was why we spent so much time in the final report explaining what the right to live independently and to be included in the community (Article 19 CRPD) meant.
As austerity gained pace, this weakness quite naturally left the door open to narratives of vulnerability and victimhood to fill the void. By way of illustration, to challenge disability discrimination in the mid-1990s and early 2000s we sought to cultivate public opposition to the idea that a person with mental health problems could be deemed incapable of being a productive employee, emphasising people’s strengths and potential. To challenge welfare reform since 2010, some campaigners seek to cultivate public opposition to the idea that people with mental health problems are capable of work, emphasising their fragility and lack of productive potential. Both are calibrated to achieve legitimate goals in their own right: to challenge discrimination and to confront punitive welfare reforms. But they rely on entirely contradictory narratives concerning the most appropriate response to disability.
Recently, I’ve been writing a journal article with Liz Sayce that seeks to trace the impact that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has had in the UK since it was ratified in 2009. It seems that the Convention – and human rights as a framing for disability rights advocacy – has grown in stature during a period that many regard as one of regression in the lived experience of many disabled people. That might simply be because the Convention’s ratification coincided with the financial crash and emergence of the austerity era. Or because, having exhausted domestic legal and political remedies, activists turned not to the Convention but to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for support as a place of last resort. But I think the clue to the ascendance of ‘human rights’ within disability rights activism is also captured well by Theresa Deneger, the current chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in an article on the ‘Human Rights Approach to Disability’:
‘The social model of disability served as a stepping-stone in struggles for civil rights reform and anti-discrimination laws in many countries….…Within disability studies, this rights-based approach in disability was characterized as a tool for stipulating citizenship and equality. To demand anti-discrimination legislation was a logical consequence of analyzing disability as the product of inequality and discrimination….
….The focus on rights was perceived as an alternative to needs-based social policy which portrayed disabled persons as dependent welfare recipients. Thus, anti-discrimination legislation was seen as a remedy to a welfare approach to disability. Disabled persons could thus be described as citizens with equal rights….…The shift from welfare legislation to civil rights legislation in disability policy became the focus of disability movements in many countries. ‘We want rights not charity’ was and still is a slogan to be heard around the world from disability rights activists….
…However, anti-discrimination law can only be seen as a partial solution to the problem. Even in a society without barriers and other forms of discrimination, people need social, economic and cultural rights. People need shelter, education, employment or cultural participation. This is true for all human beings, and thus for disabled persons. However, because impairment often leads to needs for assistance, it is especially true that disabled persons need more than civil and political rights….
Degener makes the case for a human rights-based approach on the basis that:
‘….while the social model (of disability) supports anti-discrimination policy and civil rights reforms, the human rights model of disability is more comprehensive in that it encompasses both sets of human rights, civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights.’
The historic absence of human rights from the UK’s equality and social justice landscape was not unique to disability rights. Writing about the development of equality law and practice in the UK Fredman (2003) noted
‘in most jurisdictions, equality is firmly embedded within human rights law. By contrast, anti-discrimination law in Britain has emerged from labour law, and pre-dates human rights law by a long way…..
….it might have been expected that this would change with the incorporation (via the Human Rights Act 1998) of the ECHR. However, little attempt has been made to build bridges between the two jurisdictions.
Yet within disability rights, this appears to have changed dramatically.
Where the homegrown disability rights narrative had pushed questions of social security to the periphery, the UNCRPD and human rights have offered a rights-framework to encompass it, which in turn has grown in salience and stature because of austerity. It appears as a consequence that UK disability rights has shifted its framing from pursuing ‘full civil rights’ to seeking respect for ‘human rights’ since 2009.
However, by sometimes focusing on economic, social and cultural rights in isolation, under the rubric of anti-austerity, the problems that had led disability campaigners in the past towards anti-discrimination/civil rights framing may persist. Where the ‘civil rights’ frame may have neglected basic material needs in its focus on freedom and opportunity, we today risk cultivating a human rights approach that neglects freedom and opportunity by concerning itself only with basic material needs.
Doing so could turn back the clock, repeating what leading figures of Britain’s disability rights approach, such as Vik Finkelstein and Mike Oliver, warned of in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, by focusing overwhelmingly on what Finkelstein termed ‘State Charity’ rather than full social inclusion – even with a human rights frame – it risks once again confirming societies view of disabled people as ‘passive objects’, not citizens and offers little by way of a vision for inclusion in which an empowering welfare state can be articulated and pursued.
There are also real risks that anti-austerity campaigns neglect to attend to the qualitative dimensions of welfare and social policies, focusing only on how much public money is spent, not how well it is spent to support choice, control and participation. Mike Oliver noted how in similar times gone by, disability campaigners ended up ‘defending the indefensible’ in the face of cuts, through seeking to maintain or restore policies and systems which in better times they had hitherto sought to reform (an example in recent times would be the defence of sheltered employment).
It also includes the question of who provides services. Anti-austerity campaigners, often ‘hard left’ aligned, seem to unquestioningly follow the public = good, private = bad doctrine, and be signed up to mass-nationalisation of services such as social care promised by Jeremy Corbyn without any evident attention to the capacity of a State monopolies to respect disabled people’s rights to choice and control (for which there are plenty of warnings from history if people would only take off their Loachian rose-tinted spectacles to see). While so-called ‘neoliberalism’ has become the bogeyman of anti-austerity campaigners, times past and present show, even within the doctrine of ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ discrimination towards disabled people can persist and fundamental human rights can be neglected. If in doubt, check out the ongoing scale of institutionalisation of disabled people in central and eastern Europe and the Baltic states or the situation of disabled people today in China. Poverty clearly plays a significant role, but lack of respect for civil and political rights paves the way to these ‘solutions’. It would be extremely dangerous for disability rights campaigners to align with those who appear to wish to ignore the left’s own critique of the State, for disabled people’s human rights have consistently been the cost of this neglect.
Deneger’s answer to this is that:
‘While welfare policies and laws in the past have failed to acknowledge and empower disabled persons as citizens, laws on personal assistance services or personal budgets proved that even classical social laws can give choice and control to disabled persons.’
That is to say, it is ‘independent living’ as an idea that continues to offer the best way of fusing civil and political rights to choice, control and participation with economic, social and cultural rights to housing, supports and community based services, underpinned by common framework of principles including individual dignity, autonomy, equality and non discrimination. As a unifying idea, it also offers a bridge between the civil rights campaigns of the 80s and 90s and the anti-austerity campaigns of today. It demands that we attend to the fault-line in disability rights activism that was so nakedly exposed by austerity, while challenging the neglect of civil and political rights by some anti-austerity campaigners.
On the question of framing, we need to avoid reinforcing negative frames which undermine the achievement of our goals or which alienate political and public support. We need to learn from other successful agents of social change, such as the campaign for marriage equality, which consciously reframed its goal by stopping talking about ‘same-sex partnerships’ or ‘gay marriage’ because of the ‘othering’ effect of such language on public perceptions. By resituating their goals within the frame of ‘marriage equality’ opposition diminished, support grew and change began to accelerate. ‘Anti-austerity’ may also have such an othering effect where disabled people are concerned. It also seems likely to convey to many ideas of unaffordability (living beyond our means) rather than unfairness. And because it is clearly politically partisan as an advocacy frame it risks alienating support from conservatives and centre-left voters (who are the majority). While ultimately an empirical question, requiring research, it might be far more productive to avoid talking about ‘ending austerity’ at all and instead to talk about ‘increasing investment.’
Focusing on investment in independent living also offers a much-needed thing, too often missing from oppositional campaigns and resistance movements, and something which has been a core feature of all successful disability rights campaigns: a vision of a better future.