Believing in disabled people or not believing disabled people?

For several years now it has been fashionable for politicians to say that an objective of reforms to out of work disability benefits is to ‘focus on what disabled people can do, not on what they can’t.’

This goal is highly congruent with the call in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for States to ‘promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of disabled people.’  To believe in a person’s potential is to treat a person with dignity and respect and is the practice of extending equality of opportunity.

It is testament to the dysfunctional nature of our public policy and to the toxic political and public discourse surrounding ‘welfare’ that this seemingly noble and positive sentiment leads not to belief in individual potential, but to disbelief and suspicion regarding the authenticity of those seeking financial or practical support.

Public resources are presently rationed on the basis of what people are assessed as being unable to do and provided solely to sustain them, rather than on the basis of how people might realise their potential and aspirations with financial or practical support. Ministers, including those we might expect to know better (listen the clip of Norman Lamb MP, Minister for Care Services, oddly sent out to defend the reforms yesterday), mis-characterise those few enabling benefits and services such as Disability Living Allowance as ‘unsustainable’ elements of a safety net welfare state.  This framing is employed to justify a reform which will result in half a million disabled people losing an income which enables them to focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t.

This dominant discourse undermines efforts by government to promote disabled people’s rights and opportunities.  When the Office for Disability Issues began promoting on-line case studies of disabled role models last year many appeared to view it not as a positive initiative that challenged low expectations, but as part of a black propaganda campaign to undermine public support for social security.

The only answer is not to focus on what people can do or can’t do, but what people could do given the right opportunities and support and to ensure that the opportunities and support are in place.

Until that happens, public policy and the debate surrounding it will continue to be consumed by whether disabled people and people with long term health conditions who receive or seek support are doing so because they are authenticity unable to be and do things with their lives.

Believing in what disabled people could be and do is very very different from not believing disabled people.

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