On disability rights, we shouldn’t allow a serious crisis to go to waste

‘we are about to witness the first steps of the dismantling of our dreams of an independent future for all disabled people. The question we need to ask is how did this happen?’

Mike Oliver, Welfare and the wisdom of the past, Disability Now, February 2013

The brilliance of the social model of disability was always also its inherent weakness: its simplicity.
It was and is too easily read as suggesting that all of the factors excluding disabled people from equal participation in society are extrinsic, and that it is these extrinsic ‘barriers’ alone which give rise to the need for social security benefits or care. Hence it suggested that by simply ‘opening the door’, disabled people would be able to pass through it. This in turn suggested that as legislation or policy was implemented to address such barriers, there should be a corresponding reduction in the need by disabled people for social security benefits or care. Unsurprisingly the advent and expansion of the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) was prayed in aid of welfare reform.

To some degree of course this should be precisely the effect of initiatives which remove barriers to education, employment, to goods and services and which foster greater inclusion. There should be fewer people experiencing exclusion (or the same degree of exclusion) and hence less of a need to compensate people for the consequences of their exclusion from society. The recent report from the Office for Disability Issues ‘fulfilling potential – building our understanding’ provides a useful analysis across a range of social and economic indicators of how well Britain is doing to these ends.

But no matter what progress is made in this regard, not all barriers are extrinsic, and some people will continue to require practical support and assistance to take advantage of a more barrier-free and less discriminatory society – in order to pass through the ‘open door’. The disabled people’s Independent Living Movement was based upon this understanding and its goals have been not only to remove extrinsic barriers, but equally to secure the financial and personal support some people continue to require to exert control over their lives and to participate socially and economically.

In recent years however ‘independent living’ has converged with ‘personalisation’. Personalisation has helped drive reforms in relation to the ‘form’ public services take, allowing individuals to take money in lieu of services, or to take charge of a personal budget to ‘self-direct’ their own support. Through doing so it has enhanced the autonomy of many disabled people and increased their opportunity to participate in society. Yet personalisation has done little to transform the primary ‘function’ of Britain’s welfare state, which continues to exist (and be understood to exist) primarily as a ‘safety net’ not as a short-term or on-going ‘social investment’ in people’s independence and capabilities.

This problem is not confined to Europe – as a recent report of the US National Disability Council put it “public policy remains entrenched in the 1960s-era all-or-nothing approach to serving people with disabilities, in which a person must demonstrate inability to be productive to be deemed eligible for critically important supports.” Nor is it confined to the support disabled people require. Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge recently explore this challenge with a particular focus on childcare and social care in their book ‘European Welfare States after the Crisis’.

The collective failure to have addressed this fundamental problem is and remains the fault-line in the UK’s approach to disability rights. It has left us with objectives, policy and associated rhetoric which points in opposite directions – towards the idea of disabled people as either capable of equality or deserving recipients of State welfare. There is little evidence of a middle-ground in which disabled people (including those with long term health conditions) are deemed worthy of the State support which will support their participation and opportunities.

Hence welfare reform and spending cuts are not generally challenged for or reported as undermining participation and opportunity, but rather as ‘an attack on the most vulnerable’ or as addressing the ‘benefits culture’ depending on one’s viewpoint. What both perspectives have in common is to view such spending as ultimately without wider social or economic value, thus making the case to cut expenditure – especially in a time of economic crisis – far easier than might otherwise be the case. The misleading headline of today’s article in the Sun newspaper regarding Disability Living Allowance is a case in point ‘One more on sick every 10 minutes as claims for ‘easy’ disability handouts soar.’

In recent years, organisations of and for disabled people have not done enough to prevent this in their analysis and their campaigns regarding the cuts which have tended to attach equal value to all aspects of State welfare (such as arguing incorrectly here for example that incapacity benefit was derivative of the social model of disability). As a consequence, we are witnessing history repeating itself.

In 1990, Mike Oliver, who gave academic voice to the social model of disability commented that: “It is perhaps ironic that many of us spent the 1970s criticising the welfare state, only to find that these arguments were built upon and taken much further by a government determined to reduce state expenditure. Consequently we spent the 1980s defending what we had previously attacked. In sum, we defended the indefensible and I do not propose to spend the 1990s doing the same. ” Yet in 2013 that is precisely what many people are doing in not distinguishing between those parts of the welfare state which are essential to supporting independence and participation and those which exist – legitimately perhaps – as only a ‘safety net’. This problem is compounded by the lack of a visible campaign from any disabled persons organisation for the right to work, or of disabled people’s apparent absence from campaigns regarding in-work poverty (which effects large numbers of disabled people in employment and acts as a financial disincentive to leave out of work benefits) such as those for a ‘living wage’. The unfortunate impression given is of disabled people prioritising the right not to work which in the current environment plays straight into the deeply unpleasant but frighteningly successful ‘shirkers’ narrative. This in turn further undermines the case for enabling benefits and supports.

Mike Oliver himself is also – in my view – now missing the point when he argues that the challenges faced today are a consequence of ‘successive governments (since 1997) who have not just been ideologically committed to dismantling the state in all its forms, but who have been determined to put these ideas into practice’ arguing that direct payments helped create the ‘slippery slope’ which got us here. While the State undoubtedly now plays a much reduced role in the direct delivery of public services, it is worth reminding ourselves that over the period from 1997 to 2010 – including the financial crisis – the UK had the largest increase in public spending across 28 industrial nations for which comparable data is available (source: IFS 2010). State retrenchment during that period related to its decreased role in delivery, not to spending (although increased spending was unevenly distributed and local authority social care spending did not fare well). Spending on Disability Living Allowance increased by 62% across the period 1997–98 to 2010–11, from £5.0 billion to £8.1 billion in real terms, as numbers in receipt grew from around 1.4 million to around 2.2 million (something that, contrary to the analysis of the Mail and the Sun, should be seen as a success story in empowering hundreds of thousands of disabled people to take part in British society). Prior to the financial crisis of 2008 the Conservative Party in opposition was committed to Labour’s future spending plans. None of this really supports Oliver’s argument.

The threat faced by disabled people today stems principally from the financial crisis of 2007-8 and from the economic policies followed by the Coalition government since 2010 to reduce the fiscal deficit. But it is made worse by our failure to have pursued – when we had the chance and in alliance with others – the more enabling State which may have both made disabled people far more resilient in the face of the cuts and which would have changed the way the impact of cuts would be perceived and the politics surrounding them. Instead the cuts are being made on the basis of the continued argument that independence and equality are at opposite ends of the spectrum from receiving financial assistance and support from the State. This perspective has left disabled people far more vulnerable than might otherwise have been the case.

The real question now is not how we got here, but where do we go next. Unlike Oliver I don’t believe it is too late to pursue a different course (as I have previously argued). To move forwards disabled people and their organisations have to now take possession of the debate and articulate a different welfare state which focuses upon support for participation. Disabled people themselves should be using this focus to debate and propose the course of reforms and spending decisions for the future, not leaving the task to Whitehall and local councils alone. This is a difficult ask which some will no doubt cast as complicity. But ‘nothing about us without us’ can’t only apply to positive decisions and one thing is for sure: with 80% of cuts yet to come we ain’t seen nothing yet. Whichever Party wins the 2015 General Election, ‘austerity’ isn’t going to go away any time soon. Allowing these cuts to proceed on the basis that they have been will be disastrous for current and future generations of disabled people. As Baroness Jane Campbell recently remarked ‘disabled people are the best problem solvers.’ By way of example I was recently told of a Centre for Independent Living in the Midlands which identified that £1 million savings could be made by its local council, not by cutting provision but by moving from monthly to annual monitoring of direct payments.

I have no doubt that the road ahead will be very bleak. But to suggest as Oliver does that disabled people are reaping ‘the whirlwind of our distorted ideas and betrayed dreams’ is a curious mix of claiming victim status while crapping on one’s own doorstep. Disability rights has made enormous progress in the UK over the past two decades but there was a major gap in our approach, which failed to create a consistent disability rights agenda because it promoted equal rights on the one hand and defended the post-War welfare state approach to disability as a category of need on the other. This gap was already becoming very apparent before the financial crisis as the positive effects of anti-discrimination law reached their limits , but has been dramatically exposed by the programme of public spending cuts.

President Obama’s first Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel famously said ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.’ I remain optimistic that we might be able to harness these difficult times to lay the foundations for the reforms to the way disabled people are supported that have thus far eluded us and through doing so we might see some light at the end of the tunnel. Campaigning for an Independent Living Act would be a good start

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