Thursday, May 12, 2011

'The language of shirkers and scroungers?' Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform - Disability & Society

Picture: protesters at today's 'Hardest Hit' march, carrying a sign which is partly written in Braille. It reads "We're being ---- by the government." Someone has written a translation of the Braille word below it: "shafted". Photo copyright Lisa Egan.

Yesterday's discussion on the BBC's You and Yours was about disability, cuts and welfare reform, and featured Where's the Benefit's own Bendy Girl. Some contributors' comments offered a clear example of how attitudes to disability haven't really changed much since Victorian times - if not before. Some academic research recently published has been talking about how these attitudes might relate to the way that the government and the media are representing disability at the moment. Academic journal articles are expensive if you're not at a university, but I think research around disability and society is vitally important, and this article's conclusions are a late-but-appreciated part of academic debate - so this is a bit of a summary of the article.

As a (new, but enthusiastic) researcher in disability studies, I get very frustrated about the split between theory/research and disability activism. It's not just disability - feminism has this theory-activism split too, and I'm sure other equality campaigns do as well. And certain academics have always argued for a closer relationship between theory and activism. But disability studies emerged out of the disability rights movement - the two were once very closely linked. Right now, when disabled people in the UK are engaged in a major struggle to maintain their independence in the face of cuts and attacks, it would be useful to have more theory and research supporting the disability rights movement.

So the current relevance of this article makes me happy, although it's full of very worrying conclusions. 'Disability and Society' is an academic journal, but it has always been good at getting contributions from people who know what they're talking about, when it comes to practical disability issues. This is a short piece of research on the way that the government and the media represents disability, as part of the coalition's 'welfare reform' programme.

Despite the slightly misleading abstract, which seems to focus only on the coalition government, the article begins by putting welfare reform into a longer-term context. Garthwaite, the writer, acknowledges that these 'reforms' began with the Labour government, well before the current financial recession. The coalition government then continued to focus on the cost of benefits, attempting a major restructuring of the system - largely without piloting or consultation with disabled people. The research then shows the contractions in the language and representation of disability used to shore up this restructuring. Despite Chris Grayling's promise not to use "the language of shirkers and scroungers" (p.370), the government has used inference and association to suggest that many benefit claimants are workshy, without supporting this with facts or statistics. It has also gone further, with such terms as "dependency" and "unwilling" (p.370). Garthwaite compares this with language of the media towards disability benefits, which is often much stronger, with references to "cheats," "idleness" and "scroungers." The media regularly use metaphors of war, suggesting the need to 'win' a battle for "fairness" (p.371) - which encourages readers to 'take sides' in this battle. It seems that the government and the media are using very similar language about disability benefits and their claimants - the only differences are the extent of this use of negative language, and the strength of tone used. Garthwaite summarises this as a representation that questions the "integrity of the sick" (p.371), and argues that this goes against the principles of the UK's welfare state.

Garthwaite has particular concerns about policies around the new Employment Support Allowance, which is replacing Incapacity Benefit for people who are unable to work because of long-term health problems. The system individualises the issue of work and disability. Instead of focusing on inequalities in the way that work and the economy are structured, it focuses on individual 'responsibility' and 'economic (in)activity'. This is a medical model approach to disability, rather than a social model approach. It could also be very divisive for disabled people, since it places people into either a 'support' or a 'work-focused' group, with different rights and responsibilities in each. Garthwaite worries that this will affect public opinion about which conditions are 'deserving' or 'undeserving' of support (p.371). This, too, involves medicalising people, rather than dealing with social inequalities.

I'm very interested in what the article has to say about ideas of who 'deserves' welfare. Garthwaite argues that there's nothing particularly new about these attacks on disabled benefit claimants, and she identifies similar headlines from the 1980s and 1990s. The roots of the debate go back much further than that, though, she says - the split between representations of 'deserving poor' and 'undeserving poor' was strengthened in the Victorian era (although in fact the English poor laws go back to the sixteenth century and before). When I do my rant on twitter about how the government is taking us back to Victorian times, this is part of what I mean. By the nineteenth century, there was such social concern about idleness that "able-bodied" poor people were condemned to workhouses. This meant there had to be distinctions between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor that were, of course, ideologically motivated. The poor laws weren't just about workhouses, though. They left people who couldn't work either at the mercy of local parishes, which administered a system of charity, or in the care of (unsupported) family members. Later, long-stay hospitals became the main way that charitable care for disabled people was delivered. People lived and died in institutions. Disabled people have won a lot of battles since then, not least the entitlement to live independently in the community. Benefits and social care packages, those things society thinks it can't afford anymore, are a major part of that entitlement. Without them, we will probably see the widespread return of long-stay hospitals (nowadays they're called 'care homes'). A modern version of the workhouses is a possibility too (today the government talks about 'workfare').

Colin Barnes often says that if research isn't useful to disabled people, then what is disability studies for at all? Good research could be very useful to the disability rights movement at the moment - especially when facts are in short supply. Garthwaite ends her article by calling for the stories of people on disability benefits to be listened to, so that negative government and media representations of disabled people can be challenged by the realities of our lives. This is just one way that a disability movement supported by good research would be more empowered to stand up to divisive, oppressive government and media ideologies. I'd like to see more useful research like this, with more researchers really asking disabled people what research they would find useful at the moment, and allowing disabled people to have full control of that research - rather than just claiming that's what they do.

Have you seen other academic research on welfare reform?

Cross-posted to my academic blog.

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