Jenny Morris is known for pushing forward disability equality and the right to independent living through her work as an independent policy analyst and disability researcher over many years. She advised the government on the Improving Life Chances of Disabled People Report (2005) and the Independent Living Strategic Review. Jenny is now retired and describes herself as now mainly spending her time gardening. She also writes a blog on current disability issues and authored the paper ‘Rethinking Disability Policy’ published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on November 2011 which challenges the disability movement to rethink our approaches and engage in wider economic and social debates in order to address the serious threat to disability rights we are currently facing.
Jenny, on your blog profile you have written “I used to spend my time using research and evidence to influence disability policy. I stopped doing that the week before the 2010 general election”. Was the timing co-incidence or by design?
The timing was by design but had both political and personal motivations. I was working with the Office for Disability Issues, on the Right to Control, and I didn’t relish the thought of what would happen when Labour lost the election. But mainly it was because I was going to be 60 a few months after the election and I wasn’t well. I was in fact diagnosed with cancer a couple of months after I stopped work – so it was a good thing that I had stopped. My blog is just a way of having a ‘rant in retirement’ and I am certainly spending more time gardening than anything else – because that’s what makes me happiest.
What in your view does the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill mean for disabled people?
The Welfare Reform Bill is a disaster for disabled people. It ratchets up still further the message – conveyed also by the previous Labour government – that people who can’t sell their labour are to be divided into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ and disabled people into the ‘vulnerable’ and those who aren’t ‘really disabled’. Things are particularly bad for people with impairments or illnesses which are not visible (such as mental illness) or not easily measured (particularly those accompanied by incapacitating levels of pain). The Work Capability Assessment is based on assumptions that people’s own accounts of the restrictions they experience are not to be trusted and that the main barrier to getting employment is lack of ‘motivation’ and ‘welfare dependency’. Conditionality and sanctions are based on the assumption that these are needed to ‘motivate’ people, when in fact the barriers to employment are primarily discrimination, lack of support and adjustments, and – most importantly – a lack of jobs. The whole system is predicated on the idea that the problem is the individual who needs to be ‘fixed’ rather than a dysfunctional economy and widespread discrimination.
You have written about the need for the welfare state to uphold disabled people’s rights. How do you think the campaign for choice and control over our own lives has undermined the welfare state and how can we redress this?
The independent living movement was clear that ‘independence’ means having choice and control over the support needed to go about your daily life – a defining part of autonomy and self-determination. At the same time, we were clear that the provision of support required adequate levels of funding, funding which could only come from redistribution of resources through taxation. However, direct payments were supported by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s because they fitted in with the idea of a minimalist state, with purchasing power being the route to a good quality of life, and with a reduction in services delivered by public bodies. It’s no accident that the local authorities that were the slowest to adopt direct payments were those where Labour councillors and trade unions were concerned to protect the jobs of homecare workers, and who saw direct payments as a form of privatisation.
It’s undoubtedly true that the development of direct payments and now individual/personal budgets is part and parcel of the marketisation of support services – as is the current piloting of personal health budgets. But this doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of choice and control rather that we have to, at the same time, be clear that having choice and control also depends on the level of resources available and that we have to therefore argue for a level of funding, and the kind of welfare state, which creates a level playing field for disabled people.
However, as I said in my JRF Viewpoint, in order to make the case for this we have to move beyond a focus on disability policy and address the dysfunctional ways in which our economy is currently configured and what kind of taxation system would support a strong welfare state. We also need to promote democratically accountable ways of developing and delivering benefits and services.
You were involved in writing the 2005 Government report, ‘ Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People’ while working for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit which aimed at achieving full equality for disabled people. Any regrets?
No I don’t have any regrets about my involvement with the Life Chances report – though of course it didn’t go far enough and a lot of the progress which was made is now being rolled back. However, it was the first time the government formally adopted the social model of disability and the chapter on independent living set out some important principles and commitments – even if they didn’t go as far as I would have liked. The report prompted the setting up the Office for Disability Issues, which has a remit to ‘champion equality for disabled people’ across government. It also prompted the Life Opportunities Survey, a longitudinal survey which will be used to measure progress towards full citizenship for disabled people. And it resulted in the Independent Living Strategy published in 2008, which I also worked on, and which was followed by the Right to Control. As with the Life Chances report, the ILS established some commitments which might prove useful to the disability movement – for example a commitment to review the need for legislation on a right to independent living if significant progress has not been made by 2013.
What threat does the closure of the Independent Living Fund present for disabled people?
The closure of the ILF means that people who previously could have hoped to have the type and level of support they need to have the kind of life non-disabled people take for granted, will no longer have this. It’s highly unlikely that local authorities will make up the shortfall. It’s true that the ILF was an anachronism – in that it was a national system which met needs which were otherwise, for people with lower levels of need, met through locally funded social services. When we were working on Life Chances, we tried imagining a system which would deliver independent living and it became obvious that the ILF was closer to doing that than the current set-up with local social services. The closure of the ILF is therefore not only a disaster for those individuals who won’t now get access to it, it’s also a significant step backwards in terms of developing a funding system which could really deliver choice and control for disabled people.
You have shown how government has misappropriated the language of disabled people’s rights to push through their own measures. I cannot count how many times I have heard Maria Miller (mis-) spouting the social model of disability in speeches recently. Is it a deliberate subversion of the social model and the radical societal change it calls for or an opportunistic exploitation of popular ideology?
It’s both isn’t it? This government has colonised our language to promote their policy that paid work is the only route to being a full citizen. Like many, I find politicians’ use of social model language deeply offensive. Our identification of disabling barriers and campaigns against discrimination have been distorted by a government which is primarily motivated by a desire to cut public expenditure and to bring about a fundamental reduction in the welfare state. When disabled people said that they wanted the right to work, we meant that we wanted the right not to be discriminated against and to the support and adjustments required to make employment possible. We didn’t mean that we wanted a society where it’s literally survival of the fittest, where people’s accounts of the restrictions they face are assumed to be at best exaggerated and at worst downright lies.
You worked with government for many years. What are the key challenges for disabled people in the years ahead and how do you think we can best protect our rights against this current onslaught?
As with all engagement with government policy, it’s often a case of inching forward in terms of making progress and sometimes that progress is then rolled back. I think it’s important that we remain clear that tackling disabling barriers and promoting choice and control are the key things to equal citizenship for disabled people. And that people with impairments and/or long-term health problems have additional support needs which have to be met in order to access their human and civil rights. I also think we shouldn’t be colluding in the identification of who is ‘vulnerable’ and therefore deserving of state support (in the form of benefits and services). The concept of vulnerability is part of the ideology which says that only those who are most ‘dependent’ have a legitimate claim on public resources. It undermines the idea that ‘independence’ is about having choice and control over the support you need to go about your daily life, and instead promotes the idea that to be ‘independent’ you have to not rely on the state or other people for support.
I do remember someone saying, during the campaigns for anti-discrimination legislation 30 years ago, that we should be careful what we wished for – that disabled people might experience a backlash. The argument was that, although disabled people experienced discrimination and segregation they also experienced generally ‘benevolent’ attitudes and that, if disability was seen as a rights issue, people might take a less ‘caring’ attitude towards us. While I think that was a spurious argument (as spurious as when we were told that feminists should wait until the revolution before expecting gender equality!), I do think that our success in defining disability as a human and civil rights issue has at the same time lifted the lid off the prejudice that is very deeply embedded in social attitudes towards impairment and difference. But it’s really important we don’t respond to the current situation by emphasising how ‘vulnerable’ disabled people are, but instead keep putting the case for disability to be seen as a human and civil rights issue – and continue campaigning for the kind of society which promotes the human and civil rights of all its citizens.
My point about needing to move out of just focussing on disability policy and instead also address wider issues relating to the economy and the welfare state, means that the disability movement needs to engage with and build alliances with other campaigns and groups. Unfortunately, many other politically active people, and writers and academics, do not understand the social model of disability and its implications. And yet I think our analysis, experiences and struggles are so relevant to other issues of inequality and injustice. While things seem very bleak at the moment, this is largely because of the current economic crisis – and the one thing this illustrates is that the way our economy, and the global economy, is currently configured is unsustainable. Disabled people were not part of the decision-making processes which went into developing our current welfare state; we need to ensure we are at the heart of the development of progressive alternatives to the current crisis. That is the only way that we will ever have a society which protects and promotes our human and civil rights.
Rethinking Disability Policy by Jenny Morris: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/disability-policy-equality-summary.pdf
Follow Jenny’s blog: http://jennymorrisnet.blogspot.co.uk/