Beware the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’

The soft bigotry of low expectations limits what we can achieve’ Graeme Innes, ex-Disability Rights Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

It’s important I think to recall that Lord Freud’s comments – that the proposal to ‘top up’ wages paid below the minimum wage to people with learning disabilities through the benefits system was something he would give consideration to – were set in the context of his thinking how to secure more employment opportunities for people with a learning disability.

What is it that offends us about this idea so much?  This government and the last have subsidised the costs of employing various groups who are vulnerable to labour market disadvantage in schemes such as the Future Jobs Fund for the long term unemployed and wage incentives to take on young people.  They have done so because employers would otherwise hire elsewhere.  In short, because employers regard the long term unemployed and young people as worth less to them than those with ready experience.   Further, the system of tax credits has sought to mitigate the impact of low wages on in- work poverty.

However, in such schemes people receive in their pocket from their employer at least the minimum wage. That is, the very minimum we as a society believe all people’s labour is worth. Moreover, the State subsidy involved is commonly regarded as a positive investment both in the development of the people concerned – in recognising their potential and enhancing their future ‘worth’ to employers – and in the economy. 

Therein lies the fundamental difference with what Freud was prepared to contemplate with respect to supporting people with a learning disability into work.  Freud’s starting point did not appear to be one of seeking to address the lack of opportunities people with learning disabilities have had to realise their potential, to acquire skills and experience and to tackle the prejudice that underscores employers unwillingness to hire – let us not lose sight of the fact that 79% of people with a learning disability have never been in paid employment. Rather it was to concur with the idea that people by virtue of their impairment alone are intrinsically worth so much less to employers and that unlike other groups are not amenable to initiatives aimed at enhancing their skills, experience and employment prospects.  Further, Freud indicated a preparedness to give institutional legitimacy to such prejudices through making up the shortfall in wages via the benefits system – that is, by using public resources to compensate the individuals concerned for their unequal pay, not to invest in their futures through the kinds of subsidies mentioned above.

This is a further example of what Abina Parshad-Griffin once described to me as ‘malevolent benevolence’ – prejudice masquerading as kindness or which Graeme Innes recently described as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ which plagues the lives of people with learning disabilities (and disabled people generally) and which underscores the widespread discrimination many encounter in all areas of our society.

The task of tackling such deeply ingrained inequality is multifaceted and complex.  It is positive and welcome that the government should be looking at ways to improve the employment prospects of people with a learning disability.  Employment is for many a route to social inclusion and well-being.  More people with learning disabilities visibly occupying job roles and interacting with their colleagues is a key way to eliminate prejudice and stereotypes. And the more people with a learning disability are in paid employment, paying taxes and relying less on social security, the more that the savings can be re-invested in opening up life opportunities for others.

But our efforts will be thwarted if Ministers in charge perpetuate – unwittingly or otherwise – the very same prejudices and low expectations that stand in our way.  The success of all strategies to support people with a learning disability into employment pivot on one essential ingredient: high expectations.

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One thought on “Beware the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’

  1. Does Elephant Trap Part 2 stimulated by Lord Freud mean we are finally all moving forward in to some kind of consensus?

    Although we are still stunned that the architect of welfare reform has admitted he now needs to go away and consider those who are most affected by his changes. It is revealing Lord Freud has finally admitted his ESA invention isn’t working.

    What we all seem to agree on is – Houston we have a problem. Disabled people are not getting work. We can all agree on this.

    But that is as far as the agreement goes. We do not agree about what to do about it. Every one of us is offering a different solution. Market capitalists like Freud want to reduce the wages. Others suggest interventions like kite marks or quotas. Neil is devoted to transformative back to work initiatives and has faith which some of us have sadly lost for the near future.

    We would love to support transformative solutions but they are not yet here. Until they are – promoting them gives the politicians such an easy way out. Transformative solutions cost money. Lots of money. So they don’t happen. And saying that they believe in them gives the politicians a carte blanche for reducing safety and support in the meantime. This was the confidence trick that Lord Freud pulled at the inception of ESA.

    Until someone can show actual success in getting disabled people in to work – real success which could work for millions of people – and the money to pay for it – then Pat’s Petition and CarerWatch will continue to call for an Emergency Ceasefire

    http://carerwatch.com/reform/?p=1940

    and the end to harassment, sanctions and time limits in the short term.

    Houston – we still have a problem. Support the Ceasefire.

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