‘To be alive is to be vulnerable’ Madeleine L’Engle
The language of ‘vulnerability’ continues to pervade public discourse regarding disabled people. ‘Vulnerability’ is employed to a number of ends by policy-makers and campaigners alike. In Parliamentary debates regarding welfare reform, politicians refer to the impact of benefit cuts not on disabled citizens but on ‘our most vulnerable citizens’. In relation to crime, disabled victims are often described as ‘vulnerable.’ Human rights defenders include disabled people among ‘vulnerable groups.’ In social care, official terminology describes people as ‘vulnerable adults’ to identify their need for additional ‘safeguarding.’
The term ‘vulnerable’ is a value-laden frame. It conveys weakness, the lack of capacity and agency of a person to look after themselves, the increased likelihood that they might come in harms way or be taken advantage of. In the context of welfare reform it is used to demark a group of people who cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other citizens. It is employed to invoke compassion and to secure special ‘protection.’ It is also used instrumentally by people – particularly politicians – who wish to make their opponents appear unkind.
I believe that in fact the language of vulnerability makes disabled people less safe, undermines their status and opportunities in society and displaces accountability for their situation.
The paradox of employing the frame of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable. It does so by contributing to prejudices about disabled people. An apparently benevolent frame ‘vulnerability’ nevertheless conveys the same weakness and lack of capacity as the horrifyingly evil phrase ‘useless eaters’ employed by Nazi propaganda to win support for systematically murdering disabled adults and children. It ‘others’ and objectifies disabled people, contributing to the process of de-humanisation that typically lies behind all identity based violence, abuse and neglect.
It undermines status and opportunities by painting people as lacking agency or as not being in possession of any productive potential. It promotes the idea that society’s primary responsibility should be to act as custodians, not to respect and promote disabled people’s freedoms. This in turn orientates public policy and services towards a culture of liability for disabled people, in which people’s freedom’s are curtailed rather than supported.
And it displaces accountability by locating the vulnerability within the person, not their life situation and circumstances. Taking people’s benefits away places them in a vulnerable situation. Not believing a person when they report that they have been sexually assaulted places them on a vulnerable situation. Housing a person with a learning disability on an estate where there are high levels of social deprivation and crime and where they have no social networks places them in a vulnerable situation. People become vulnerable when institutions fail and communities exclude. Describing people as intrinsically vulnerable allows the institutions to pass off that failure and communities to carry on excluding.
When I have raised this issue in the past few years people have said ‘yes, but we have no choice but to use these terms to fight the battles we have to fight over welfare reform.’ Yet there is no evidence that the language of vulnerability is effective even within the narrow scope of protecting people’s basic standard of living. Research in the USA carried out by the Frameworks Institute looked at the most effective frames via which to win public support for investment in programmes to promote early childhood development. Campaigners in the field had almost universally used ‘vulnerability’ when framing their policy advocacy and yet when Frameworks conducted research they found that the language of vulnerability actually depressed public support for the proposals. Infinitely more powerful were frames regarding ingenuity and prosperity. While to the best of my knowledge similar research has not been carried out here or in the USA into the effect of using the language of vulnerability in conjunction with policies regarding disabled people, I would hypothesise similar results. This – alongside the issues I raise above – is why I have proposed that disability activists avoid the language of welfare, care and ‘spending’ and instead use the language of investment in support, freedom and opportunity.
So, ‘vulnerability’ is potentially an ineffective frame that makes people less safe, cultivates prejudice and displaces accountability, doing profound damage to the well-being, freedom and opportunities of disabled people overall. It needs consigning to the dustbin of history. But what, if anything, should replace it?