I’m not aware of a single instance of a politician or newspaper describing disabled people receiving benefits as scroungers – certainly never people with a learning disability.
What I have observed is the way people on benefits have been made a ‘suspect community’ through the use of such language, deployed to distinguish the ‘malingerers’ from the ‘genuinely deserving.’ That is to say, some disabled people receiving benefits legitimately feel themselves to be under suspicion of claiming illegitimately, and with good reason. Such suspicion is not limited to politicians, parts of the press, the twitching curtains of vigilante neighbours or to DWP’s fraud inspectors. It seems to be a foundation stone of eligibility assessments and increasingly infects the way other support such as Access to Work is administered. In fact the Department for Work and Pensions could quite accurately be renamed the Department of the Very Suspicious Indeed. The fact that DWP’s own statistics find that over 99% of people claim benefits honestly seems to do nothing to undermine the suspicion narrative, which all political parties seem to subscribe to with their language of ‘getting tough’ on benefit claimants. This was of course predicted by disability rights advocates over 40 years ago, but some ideas take a long time to bed in….
But how to respond? Well firstly and critically, not by disabled people and their organisations saying ‘we are not scroungers.’ As the US expert on framing public discourse Professor George Lakoff warns in his book ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ “Negating a frame re-enforces the frame.” That is to say, in repeating the negative language of others, even in the process of rebutting it, is highly likely that the negative idea is reenforced rather than challenged in the minds of audiences, doing your opponents work for them. Lakoff uses the example of President Nixon appearing on TV and saying unprompted “I am not a crook” after which the American people decided President Nixon was most likely a crook. ‘We are not scroungers’ seems highly likely to have the same effect. In the case of disabled people, who have never been directly labelled scroungers, it’s even more damaging.
Second, it is also extremely damaging to the enterprise of building respect for the rights and inclusion of disabled people to advance the idea of disabled people as ‘deserving’ (i.e. not scroungers) when within the terms of current debates the price of not being regarded as a scrounger is to be considered to lack any productive value whatsoever – to be objectified, helpless and vulnerable. Some may argue that pandering to such prejudices regarding disabled people has been an unavoidable necessity in the fight against welfare reform. But the damage done – while maybe not as immediate as the loss of income and poverty that many will come to endure – is I fear profound. Anyone requiring financial support is left with two options – plead their vulnerability or risk being regarded as on the take.
If we are to escape this bureaucratic ‘ducking stool’ we need to start reframing the discussion. As a starting point, disability rights advocates should themselves reject the language of welfare and care. In its place should be words such as ‘investment’ and ‘support’ which characterise state spending in other areas such as education, health, transport and support for business. The financial and practical support disabled people seek should be characterised and regarded as part of the national infrastructure, like roads, hospitals, schools, rail networks and increasingly things like childcare – as what people need to get on with their lives successfully, not as what people require when they are unable to succeed as it is so often understood now. This also includes support when we are too unwell to work, just as support is there for when we retire, or have children. Such support is also about how we create a successful society.
The way forwards is not to say ‘I am not a scrounger,’ it is, I believe, to say: ‘invest in me’.