Neil Crowther, 24 February 2018, Oxford University
Raymond Williams argued that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’.
Years later Barack Obama talked of the ‘audacity of hope’.
We could liken such statements to the rather icky ones that get posted on Twitter and Facebook or which adorn the noticeboards in some London tube stations.
But we would be wrong to.
It is scientifically proven that crisis communications, especially when underpinned by vivid individual case studies and absent of solutions fosters fatalistic attitudes towards issues.
This is why organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have begun to reframe the way we talk about poverty, why the NSPCC has reframed the way it talks about child protection, why Amnesty is looking a how it can change the way it communicates around human rights and why environmental campaigners have reframed the way they talk about climate change.
Successful communications combines a sense of urgency with a sense of possibility, and understands that the way an issue is framed is at least, if not more important, than facts and evidence
If in any doubt, just look at the debate happening in the USA right now on gun control and schools. It is being framed not as an issue concerning the ready availability of guns, but as the lack of availability guns in schools with which to defend students. The solution: arm teachers.
The decision by the Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to describe the impact of austerity measures on disabled people in the UK as a ‘human catastrophe’ may have been based on fact, and did springboard the Committee’s findings into the national news media in an unprecedented way.
But the impact of that coverage – and of continually referring back this phrase in campaign materials and communications – seems unlikely to serve the cause of disability rights well at all.
Indeed, I see campaigners on Twitter express their dismay that no one appears to be listening to all the evidence of suicides, deaths and despair linked to welfare reform. Such evidence galvanizes existing supporters, but it most likely repels others.
This is not an argument to sweep such evidence under the carpet. Rather it is to say that leading on it in our campaign communications may not be particularly helpful in ensuring that it is addressed.
Similarly, messages which imply that disability rights is extremely costly seem unlikely to be helpful in challenging austerity.
When the charity Scope launched its report into the important issue of the extra costs of living faced by disabled people last week, an article by its Chief Executive in the Huffington Post carried the headline ‘disability comes with a major price tag.’
Is this helpful?
So my first recommendation is that we find the resources to consciously reframe the way we talk about disability rights.
We need a positive story of change, rooted in evidence of the most effective values and frames to win public and political support.
Related to this, we need to use the CRPD not solely as a weapon of resistance, but more importantly as a tool to chart out and win progressive change.
There are numerous opportunities to employ the Convention to influence emerging agendas and to reshape the world around us.
These include the ongoing review of deprivation of liberty safeguards and mental capacity law, the Mental Health Act review, the review into the funding of social care or in thinking about social work practice for example.
In Scotland, a new statutory Committee will assess proposed social security laws for compliance with human rights obligations.
At the EU level the Convention has helped promote and shape the European Accessibility Act and regulations directing member states to use European funding to support independent living rather than institutionalisation – how can we take this models and employ them here in the UK once we leave the EU.
It also includes broad social and economic agendas such as the Industrial strategy.
We must do all we can to put disability rights at the heart of the policies and strategies that shape our world.
Moreover, when I think back to the key milestones of disability rights, these have not been disabled people reacting to the world around them, but advancing and winning the case for new ideas and agendas: independent living, direct payments, the Disability Discrimination Acts.
Using the Convention in this way also requires that we refocus our efforts from the international to the domestic.
I think far too much energy and resources are being devoted to securing the censure of the UN Committee and far too little on using the Convention to leverage change here at home.
Partly, I think this may be down to a misapprehension about the role and status of the Committee.
It is a peer review mechanism, not a Court.
It issues findings, not binding judgments.
It is more accurate to think of a State examination as a job appraisal than a court case.
It is authoritative, but it does not have absolute authority.
Contrast the influence and impact of the Committee’s already 4-year long inquiry into the impact of austerity measures on disabled people with the recent High Court judgment that found that Personal Independent Payment regulations were discriminatory towards people with mental health conditions.
That judgment now means that 1.6 million people will have their PIP assessments reviewed.
It drew on Article 19 of the UNCRPD to interpret Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning discrimination demonstrating that the Convention can have effect in our domestic courts, even if indirect, and help produce immediate, tangible outcomes like this.
We should see the concluding observations as helpful confirmation but we shouldn’t rely on them or be limited by them in setting our own agenda for the future
The Committee plays an important role and people have gained a great deal from feeling it is on their side.
But I fear that support is going to begin to feel rather hollow if people continue to focus so much expectation on what it can actually do for them in practical terms.
The drafters of the Convention knew this.
It’s why Article 33 of the Convention was included.
It explicitly strives to domesticate the processes of implementation and monitoring, via a dialogue between government, a framework to protect, promote and monitor implementation and with civil society especially DPOs.
As Professor Gerard Quinn continually reminds us, international human rights law is not self-executing: It requires concerted action to transmit and translate it into the domestic sphere.
So, our focus should be on domestic levers first: at law, policy makers, legislators, on tooling up disabled people and their organisations and as I have already said, on enlisting public support.
That way we can begin to breath life into the Convention as a living instrument.
And finally, we must continually remind ourselves of the principles in the Convention and of the paradigm shift it envisions in the way societies respond to disabled people.
To some extent the Convention is already having that effect in the UK.
We have seen over the past decade a decisive shift from a ‘civil rights’ approach to disability rights – focused overwhelmingly on anti-discrimination law – to a far more broader human rights approach, encompassing not only non discrimination in areas like employment, education and goods and services but also social protection, legal capacity, political participation and independent living for example.
This is progress.
But at the same time austerity has bred insecurity, and insecurity leans people towards conservatism.
Too often it feels as though people are reaching for the ‘system restore’ button rather than charting a future path.
Campaigns focus on protecting or restoring the old ways, rather than promoting new ones.
We want more spending on social care, despite social care not being effective at supporting independent living.
We want to amend the Work Capability Assessment so that fewer people are judged fit to work, despite spending decades arguing that disability is not a barrier to work.
Speaking in 1990, Mike Oliver, midwife of the social model of disability said:
“It is perhaps ironic that many of us spent the 1970s criticising the welfare state, only to find that these arguments were built upon and taken much further by a government determined to reduce state expenditure. Consequently we spent the 1980s defending what we had previously attacked. In sum, we defended the indefensible and I do not propose to spend the 1990s doing the same.”
Are we not often doing exactly the same today? Isn’t it time to get back on the front foot and advance an agenda for the future?
So, in sum, I would advise that our next steps should involve:
Looking forwards, not back, guided by a deep understanding of and commitment to the principles and articles of the Convention
Advancing solutions, not just highlighting problems
Putting disability at the heart of the debates shaping our collective future
Developing a positive story of change
And striving to ensure that hope wins over despair.