Last Friday evening I attended Tom Shakespeare’s lecture on disability equality at the British Library (don’t tell me I don’t know how to let go at the weekend….).
As Tom acknowledged at the start – and presumably because his lecture contributed to a wider series on the theme of equality – a great deal of his speech was ‘back to basics’ as far a disability equality goes. As such it was somewhat refreshing to be listening to a lecture talking about themes such as accessibility and transport – things we no longer seem to talk about much.
Shakespeare is known for challenging social model orthodoxy and for reasserting the need to recognise the impact of impairments or health conditions and I had looked forward to this contribution. But here he built what can only be described as an entirely fictional straw man – that the social model of disability has led us to a situation where by focusing on socially constructed barriers our approach to equality overlooks individual need.
One look at the specifics of Britain’s disability equality law shows entirely the opposite to be true – it eschews the ‘equal treatment’ approach employed in relation to all other ‘grounds’ effectively turning the concept on its head and demanding people are treated differently to achieve equality of results. Employers, educational institutions and service providers are required to make reasonable adjustments. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, public bodies are permitted to treat disabled people ‘more favourably,’ The Independent Living Movement has focused on both barrier removal and on commanding and taking control over resources to secure the support that some individuals require to living independently and to be included in the community. And the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also recognises this by focusing on ‘the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’
Of course we have neither fully achieved equality nor independent living (though we have, as Tom sensibly acknowledged, come a long way). But in my view the challenge rests not with how we have conceived of disability equality. Rather it the failure of that idea to penetrate deep enough into the the design of public policy and practice and in particular in re-engineering financial and practical support from the benefits system and public services.
And this is where in my view Tom came completely unstuck. Quoting Pats Petition and Carers Watch he talked of the ‘the elephant in the room’ – the suggestion that progress rests upon acknowledging that some disabled people cannot compete on an equal basis with others in the labour market because of the effects of their impairment or health condition. Tom argued that Pat’s Petition and Carers Watch had ‘done us a favour’ in asserting this fact, which he implied was a further symptom of social model advocates allowing public policy to ignore individual need.
Putting aside the fact that at every stage in the development of disability rights people have pointed to various elephants in the room (that some disabled children can’t be included in the education system; that some adults with a learning disability can’t living the community; that older disabled people can’t make choices about their own support using direct payments) what I believe Tom – and Pats Petition/Carers Watch – have in fact fallen headlong into is the elephant trap in the room: undermining the promotion of disability equality in employment in order to oppose welfare reform.
For the sake of any doubt, let me be absolutely clear that I believe many people are being subjected to benefit conditionality and sanctions who should not be, undermining their right to social protection. I believe this because, as Tom pointed out, the labour market disadvantage faced by disabled people is so profound that to demand of disabled people what the State demands of non-disabled people, without distinction, is morally unjust. This is especially so given we know that programmes the government has put in place to support disabled people to find jobs are hopeless failures and that discrimination remains commonplace. Fundamentally I disagree with conditionality itself, which I fear is now nothing more that a political device and one which diverts attention way from the real questions of tackling poverty and creating the social and economic conditions and supports to help people secure good jobs.
But the huge tactical error of Pats Petition/Carers Watch and Tom is to collude in reducing this issue to a question solely of the impact of a persons impairment or health condition. This is in the interests neither of challenging welfare reform or of helping to open up employment to more disabled people. On the former it gives tacit support to the idea of judging employment potential on the basis of physical and mental functioning alone, with no account given to barriers, job opportunities, skills and the like, thus failing to challenge the assumptions underpinning the WCA which lead to people being subject to unreasonable conditions and sanctions and having their income reduced. On the latter it contributes to the roots of much prejudice faced by disabled people – low expectations – strengthening negative stereotypes through endorsing the essentialist idea that impairments or health conditions predict individual potential.
Tom also urged us to recognise the way the effects of impairments and health conditions can fluctuate and change over the life course, and in particular the need to recognise the effects of ageing. This is critically important. Yet though he acknowledged that progress has been made on disability rights he didn’t seem to acknowledge how over time the way people with impairments or health conditions interact with the world around them can also develop, either through their own strategies for living or more importantly in this context because of political, economic, social, technological, legal or environmental change. For example, the employment barriers faced in an economy founded upon manufacturing, demanding physical labour and the operation of machinery are likely to be vastly different from those in an economy dominated by service industries, where greater value is placed on ‘social skills.’
The implication of not recognising this is to suggest that some impairments or health conditions will always make paid employment unrealistic irrespective of the type of work available and hence expecting people with such conditions ever to work is unjust. Yet it is only very recently that the criteria for out of work disability benefits changed so that people registered as blind were not automatically considered unfit for work. The functional impact of being blind or partially sighted has not changed. What has changed is the potential for adjustments and support, especially through developments in information and communications and technology, offering the prospect that labour market disadvantage can be more effectively tackled.
The concept of labour market disadvantage offers a way to reconcile the objectives of promoting employment opportunities and social protection. A more rounded assessment to replace the WCA as proposed by the Labour Party Poverty and Disability Taskforce would take account of relative disadvantage – not just functional ‘limitation’ – in determining benefit entitlement, while at the same time helping to pinpoint the barriers that need to be addressed by an effective employment and disability strategy.
Given Tom’s knowledge of history and the fact that he drew our attention to the death of Connor Sparrowhawk (who drowned having had an epileptic seizure while taking a bath, unattended, in an ‘Assessment and Treatment Unit’ last July), I was surprised that he didn’t query whether the present organisation of Britain’s ‘welfare state’ (which campaigners such as Pats Petition and the Reclaiming Our Futures coalition seem want to defend) actually respected and promoted disability rights. Tom argued that Connor died because his ‘needs’ were overlooked. Yet hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are spent on such units precisely to address some conception of individual ‘need.’ In my view what was overlooked were Connor’s human rights – his right to be regarded as equal in dignity and worth, his right to life, his right to be supported in the community, his right to flourish.
To be fair to Tom, he did conclude by pointing to human rights – and to the UN Disability Convention – as a way forward, and expressed disappointment at how little a role human rights play in UK discourse. But he went on, in response to a question about personalisation, to link personal budgets to a ‘neo-liberal’ agenda, echoing recent interventions by academics such as Peter Beresford, Nick Watson and Colin Barnes all of who appear to have struggled to reconcile human rights with their political beliefs.
It is this failure that in my view is the ‘elephant in the room’ – the fact that our welfare system and public services actually need radical reform to bring them into line with our modern approach to disabled people’s rights, yet the forces ranging against such reform include not only the present government’s austerity measures, the limited imagination of our political parties, public attitudes and ‘producer’ interests, but some prominent disability academics and activists as well.
Disability rights has got stuck. Sadly I’m afraid this lecture did little to move us on.