It’s time to remake the argument for disability equality

I guess paternalism never went away and only became more dominant as universalism lost its grip on much of our welfare state. People who have cause to draw on support are offered a Hobson’s choice of being cast as ‘a scrounger’ or one of ‘our most vulnerable citizens.’ 

While the disability rights movement that so inspired me wore t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘piss on pity’, the social contract underpinning the welfare state attaches legitimacy to helplessness.  As a result, successive governments have felt able to advertise their commitment to equality of opportunity, social mobility or people fulfilling their potential, while cutting away the financial and practical support that provide some people with the means to get on in life.  The Covid-19 pandemic has consolidated such thinking, dividing us into the vulnerable that merit ‘protection’ versus those that should be exposed to risk. 

Meanwhile, many charities with considerable influence over how disability is understood and discussed, who in the 90s and 2000s felt compelled to adopt the language of equality and rights have slid back into their comfort zone.  Even if not using the words overtly, they implicitly endorse the idea that their beneficiaries are ‘vulnerable’, serving as it does their need to be recognised as the heroes in someone else’s story.  

The clock really does feel to have been turned back.  But can we reset it and chart a new path, without the polarised thinking of ‘welfare’ versus ‘equality’ but where we finally accept that we all draw on support at different stages to get on in our lives? 

The price of that support for disabled people should not be either accepting a form of permanent lockdown or enduring constant suspicion.  It’s time to remake the argument for disability equality.

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