Is the welfare state responsible for prejudice towards disabled people?

In truth, we do not know what motivates people to exhibit hostility towards disabled people, from general incivility though to name calling, harassment, abuse, violence and in some cases killing.  As Katherine Quarmby has reminded us, the last government accepted the recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out research into the motivations of perpetrators, but it has thus far failed to honour that commitment.  Hence what I am about to write must be regarded as speculation.

I think it is probably safe to say that a great deal of such hostility is a manifestation of prejudices towards disabled people that are widely held.  For the most part people do not act on those prejudices in a fashion that is experienced by disabled people as hostility per se.  Such prejudices do nevertheless shape behaviours towards disabled people, some of which can become institutionalised and which manifest themselves as, for example, the way disability is framed in public discourse (‘our most vulnerable citizens’), discrimination by employers and services providers, low expectations of disabled pupils in school and so on.  To these ends hostility can be viewed as part of a continuum, informed by the same well of prejudice that underpins discrimination or generally derogatory views regarding disabled people.

Various campaigners and commentators have suggested both that disability hate crime is on the rise and that the primary driver is so called ‘scrounger rhetoric’ (the claim or implication in media reports or the comments of politicians that people are evading their obligations to work, preferring instead to live off the welfare state).  There is in fact no  evidence that disability hate crime is rising.  According to the most comprehensive analysis is has remained broadly stable since 2007, albeit at a shocking 72000 incidents per year.  We do not know the scale of disability hate crime before that date as it was not measured, but we do know that it existed sufficient to make the case for legislation to recognise hostility towards disabled people as an aggravating factor in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Given that disability hate crime was not was recorded by the police until 2007 it is unsurprising that recorded disability hate crime has risen since (from zero).  This is especially so given the prominence of the issue in the media, in government policy and programmes, the EHRC’s major inquiry into disability related harassment and the prominence given to it by the police and Crown Prosecution Service.  But after 8 years recorded disability hate crime still amounts to less than 2000 a year of the estimated 72000 incidents.   The real story is not that recorded disability hate crime is rising, it’s that it is not rising fast enough and that police performance across the country is extremely patchy.  Those leaping on statistics such as that quoted by the Scotsman last week (portraying a rise in recorded disability hate crime from 48 in 2011 to 177 at the end of last year as a ‘270%’ rise in disability hate crime) are unwittingly helping to obscure institutional failure.  The real story in Scotland is that 97% of incidents go unreported, un-investigated and unpunished.

Does ‘scrounger rhetoric’ create a hostile climate for disabled people in which prejudices are shaped or given more legitimacy, or in which misunderstanding is more likely to spill into hostility?  That seems likely I think, just as there are spikes in hostility towards people of Asian origin in the light of terrorist attacks and media reports surrounding it, or which correlate to anti-immigration messages in the press of from politicians: it helps create a ‘suspect community’.  Certainly many people have reported hostility in which their status – real or perceived – as a benefit claimant has featured.  Yet there is no evidence of a spike in disability hate crime since 2010.

As I have said before, laying blame for disability hate crime at the door of welfare reform and the rhetoric surrounding it is therefore deeply spurious, instrumentalising without an evidence base  disability hate crime to the ends of challenging welfare reform.  For scrounger rhetoric to be a primary driver of disability hate crime the statistics require that it would have played a central role not just in the past 5 years, but for the past 10 or more.  This is not to suggest that it plays no role.  Rather that it is not primarily responsible for disability hate crime and therefore focusing on it risks ignoring the real causes and undermining the search for solutions.

I do think it is likely is that the prejudice underpinning hostility is rooted in long held views of disabled people as of less worth, and it would seem obvious that scrounger rhetoric might compound rather than challenge such views.  However, the response to ‘scrounger rhetoric’ is equally problematic for rather than emphasising disabled people’s worth it commonly emphasises their ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness.’  Such ideas are invoked to invite compassion.  Yet I fear they compound the idea of disabled people as being of less worth – as objects, not citizens.

And this is, I believe the far deeper problem we face of which so called ‘scrounger rhetoric’ is one manifestation: that to be legitimately disabled is to be weak and vulnerable.  Those not conforming to such stereotypes, yet seeking society’s support via social security or charity  become objects of suspicion – falsely claiming disability benefits and withholding their productive potential from the world of work.  Vik Finkelstein, a veteran of the anti-Aparthaid movement and key architect of the UK’s disability rights movement predicted this 40 years ago when he said of plans for a specific disability benefit:

‘The State, of course, will automatically be in conflict with us for it will seek to limit its handouts, otherwise there would be no one at work. State Charity, therefore, creates a conflict of interests between the State and its social administrators on the one hand and physically’ impaired people on the other. Thus the (Disability) Alliance logically sees the need to establish objective criteria which would enable the State’s social administrators to determine the “degree of disability” and to exclude the malingerers from benefit.’

Despite all the progress made in building an agenda for disability equality and inclusion since Finkelstein outlined these risks, they continue to overwhelm our ability to escape this completely destructive conception of what it is to be disabled.  Rather than State support being regarded as an investment in disabled people – like education, health or transport – it is cast almost solely as the cost of looking after the weak and vulnerable.  And it is the idea of disability as a category of ‘need’ – rather than a form of social oppression – that is so entrenched and which continues to dominate public understanding and discourse.

Scrounger rhetoric is not – in my estimation – responsible for disability hate crime.  Rather, both draw from the same poisoned well that continues to regard disability as an intrinsic deficit.  To have strengths and assets is to not be disabled enough and hence to be legitimately suspected of faking it.  To be disabled enough is to be regarded as weak and vulnerable – an object of compassion (disguising prejudice which can find expression in hostility).

We have to challenge and move beyond this modern day ‘ducking stool.’ ‘Work for those who can, security for those who cannot’ is a divisive force that no longer serves disabled people’s interests whether capable of paid employment or not.  In the face of the challenges ahead there should be no more demands for ‘care and welfare’ – the fight must for investment, support and inclusion for all.  Only then will we genuinely begin to get the roots of prejudice and to build a safe and genuinely inclusive society.

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