Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) was formed by a small group of disabled people after the first mass protest against the austerity cuts and their impact on disabled people held on the 3rd October in Birmingham, England. The march was led by disabled people under the name of The Disabled Peoples’ Protest. DPAC isn’t a formal organisation but rather a collective of individuals seeking to campaign alongside those who believe that disabled people should have full human rights and equality. Our campaign is for everyone who refuses to stay silent about the injustices delivered by wealthy politicians on ordinary people and their lives.
At first glance our campaign name: Disabled People Against Cuts seems fairly straight forward – just like that famous label on the tin – but the co-founders of DPAC have a deep distrust of labels and believe it is dangerous to simply take things at face value. I thought it might be interesting to take the lid off DPAC and explore the possible meanings that can be attached to our name. The reason I’m engaging in this exercise isn’t because I’m bored with nothing better to do; it is because I want to challenge some of the approaches that have been adopted in recent months in relation to the impact of the cuts on disabled people.
For me disability is a political question; it isn’t simply about a collection of individuals who just happen to have significant impairments. There is no agreement within society as to what “disability” is and subsequently who it affects. There are dominant set of ideologies and practices which Mike Oliver has presented as ‘the individual model of disability’ and there is a radical alternative known as ‘the social model’ which has come through the Disabled People’s Movement. (1) It is also important to state that there are a host of hybrids which employ aspects of both models as well. (2) I work largely from within the social model of disability and it is from this perspective I’ll be exploring the current approaches on display. My starting point is the crucial question: who and what are disabled people?
Who and what are disabled people?
In my opinion exploring this question is one of the hardest tasks to undertake because there are so many factors which need to be taken into consideration. Within ‘the individual model of disability’ the presence of ‘disability’ is viewed as a ‘personal tragedy’ or misfortune – it is therefore socially constructed in negative terms. To be classed as “disabled” is to be seen as ‘abnormal’ or a ‘burden’ on the rest of society, and as a consequence, a ‘lesser’ person. Many people seek to avoid being ‘written off’ in this way or simply can’t see themselves within the stereotyped imagery which stems from this articulation of disability and therefore they ‘reject’ the label of being “disabled”.
Stereotyped imagery plays a major role in how society views who is and who is not ‘a disabled person’. Pearsall says that a stereotype is:
… a ‘widely held but fixed and oversimplified idea or image of a particular type of person or thing.’ (3)
What this means is that there are countless numbers of people who might be regarded by others as being ‘disabled’, but refuse to see themselves as such and others who believe they are ‘disabled’ but nevertheless fail to measure up to the appraisals which define people with impairments as ‘disabled’. I think it’s important to recognise that whilst an individual might reject the ownership of ‘dissbled’ as an oppressive label, it doesn’t mean that the State nor the rest of society isn’t prepared to use this label in relation to them. Sometimes this will be used to include them in the notion of “the disabled” (sic) whereas at other times it will be to deny them the use of the label if they decide that they haven’t matched the expected contours of qualification. This happens a great deal within the field of benefits and social care services.
Again, I believe many fail to appreciate the significance of language in the social construction of sterotyped imagery. Let’s take that label: ‘the disabled’ – this is often criticised because it is said to be dehumanising and denies the dversity among ‘disabled people’, unfortunately, this criticism underplays the politically oppressive nature of this label. Within dominant culture ‘the disabled’ are not a social group bound by a defined identity, but rather as a ‘collection of individuals defined by their perceived abnormality’. Thus ‘the disabled’ become a pathologised “Other” – where the public gaze sets them apart from the rest of society – this is how it acts as a form of objectification.
Before looking at an alternative perspective in detail I want to say that the dominant individual model of disability shares one common feature with the social model of disability. Both models state that ‘disabled people’ are people with impairments but equally hold the view that not all people with impairments are ‘disabled people’. Just as the State and society makes assumptions about who is and who isn’t a disabled person – I believe sections of the Disabled People’s Movement are guilty of doing a similar thing. Through our gaze we have tended to conflate into one ‘identity’ people with impairments who fall into the dominant definition of ‘disabled people’ and those who embrace the political identity of being a Disabled people. The difference between label and identity is often problematic for disabled people.
I want to acknowledge that there are other people with impairments who accept the dominant views associated with ‘disability’ and see themselves as ‘people with disabilities’ – however this doesn’t always mean they’re prepared to put up with inequality or discrimination. I would however suggest that it does influence how they address the causes of their experience of inequality and discrimination. Too often it is assumed that by having an impairment or the label ‘disabled’ thrust upon you, you become part of a specific community with a distinct culture – this is far from the case. It is still possible to have an impaired body but view the world from an “able” (sic) perspective. Many people with impairments have never had an opportunity to see themselves as anything other than through the dominant perspectives and others reject the alternative perspectives for a variety of reasons which are too numerous to discuss here.
The ‘disabled’ identity
How should we view our ‘disabled’ identity? I believe this example taken from the experience of mental illness is a common feature in our lives:
Most of us don’t mind having a social identity based on our professional roles. In fact the more successful we are in our chosen field, the more of an ego boost we may derive from the same. But what in the case of an illness or a health condition when we are given a label, such that it becomes our identity? (4)
Individuals can have a multitude of identities depending upon their relationships within specific social environments, however, for many disabled people their ‘identities’ can be denied, lost and distorted as a result of how they experience their lives as ‘disabled’ people. In many cases it is true that the labels that are imposed upon us can become our identities as the above quotation suggests. In my opinion it is also the case that for many disabled people we have a dual disability identity – on the one hand we have the imposed identity that comes through the legal definitions and cultural representations found with the society, and on the other, the identity that many of us try to construct through living our lives in opposition to the oppression we encounter. In other words politically and socially aware disabled people have been self-defining what it means to be a disabled person. Thus majority within the Disabled People’s Movement have come to reject the imposed identity in favour of a socio-political one. Using the social model of disability Mike Oliver argued:
For me disabled people are defined in terms of three criteria;
(i) they have an impairment;
(ii) they experience oppression as a consequence; and
(iii) they identify themselves as a disabled person. (5)
Our ‘disabled’ identity stems from understanding that as people with impairments we experience oppressive social relationships created by the nature of the society in which we live. What does ‘the nature of the society’ mean? Oliver drew upon the ideas expressed by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation who suggested that disability was:
The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities. (6)
I have argued elsewhere that this does not provide us with a full picture of the processes involved. In my opinion often our ability to participate is simply down to agencies taking ‘little or no account of people who have impairments’ and thus excluding us; however, I would also argue that it is more a case of how they “account for people who have impairments” which ultimately leads to us ‘not being taken into account’ in the final analysis. (7) The focus on people with impairments’ loss of ‘functional ability’, their “Other” status and the creation of sterotypes have all contributed to the view that disabled people can’t live ‘normal worthwhile lives’. (8)
The reverse side of this is that the nature of society is determined by social relations forged largely by people without impairments who were expected to conform to specific social roles – especially in terms of production and reproduction. The structures, systems, culture and social environment therefore serviced or expolited “normal people” (sic) at the expense of those who were significantly impaired. Thus disablism is the oppressive social relations which exclude people with impairments from or marginalise them within mainstream social activities. This then is the argument which lies at the social model of disability, however, I believe not enough attention has been paid to how disablism manifests itself at both macro and micro levels of society. In other words how people with impairments are disabled by society isn’t as understood to the extent it should be and as a result many disabled and non-disabled people prioritise addressing the disabling barriers that exist at the micro level rather than challenging the nature of disablism itself which is maintained at the macro level.
Within the Disabled People’s Movement over the years there has been a watering down of the ideas expressed by likes of UPIAS, Finkelstein and Oliver to the extent that ‘disabism’ is simply reduced to the experience of discriminatory attitudes and practices found within society; lost has been our ability to question the actual fabric of society itself and the implications this has for disabled people. I would argue the majority of disabled people don’t talk in terms of the experience of social oppression anymore (I difficult concept for many, I know) but rather the lack of access to ‘the world of the able-bodied’ (sic). The weakening of the argument has also led to a distortion of way the social model of disability is applied. Birmingham City Council for example claim to operate within the social model, yet their current policies and practices are totally oppressive. The tools that were fashioned to assist disabled people to fight against their oppression and for their liberation have grown rusty from neglect and misuse – a new generation of disabled people exist who believe the old ways and ideas have had their day. I fear this is kind of dismissive thinking is likely to lead to disabled people being stranded like a beached whale on some distant shore and as a result the horrid stereotypes of being “helpless” and “vulnerable” will return to bite us on the collective bum.
Disabled people under attack
The needs of western capitalism are changing and this in turn impacts upon all social relations within society. Not only that; the changing relationship between State and society require an alteration of the positioning of the majority of disabled people within society. The externally imposed identity of being seen as ‘disabled’ is being re-moulded through language, definitions and practice. It is for this reason I believe greater attention needs to be paid to the socio-political identity of being ‘disabled people’. This identity is a form of self-determination; it is about accepting not simply the fact that as individual you have an impairment, but that this has to be understood in terms of your social relations both with other disabled people and a wider disablist society. It requires one to embrace a political social group identity which goes beyond the realities of being an impaired person. How then should we view this identity? I believe Oliver makes a crucial point when he states:
Using the generic term does not mean that I do not recognise differences in experience within the group but that in exploring this we should start from the ways oppression differentially impacts on different groups of people rather than with differences in experience among individuals with different impairments. (9)
There has been a tendency to buy into an individualistic approach to understanding the experience of disability – the notion of a hierarchy of impairment or disability is quite strong among some groups of people for example. Instead of addressing the nature of the social relations specific groups of people with impairments have within society; the impact these relations upon their lives, too often we simply judge the outcomes and then proclaim some people with impairments are more ‘disabled’ or more ‘deserving’ than others. This divides us and prevents us from developing strategies to change the nature of society and people with impairments’ social relationships within it.
In my opinion the contours around who is and who is not regarded to be a ‘disabled person’ are changing as the Government attempts to dismantle the Welfare State. I say, “regarded”, because I’m talking here about the imposed identity and the implications this has for us. I don’t trust for one moment the facts and figures that come from the Department of Works and Pensions, although I do accept that people with significant impairments are at least twice as likely as non-disabled people to be unemployed. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is very difficult to appraise the real percentage of disabled people who are unemployed or in receipt of some form of welfare benefit. Within the field of social policy and reports from the mass media there’s almost a “common sense” understanding that ‘disabled people are dependent creatures who are unemployed and on benefits’. These ‘set views’ were
manipulated first by New Labour and more recently by the Coalition Government. As democraticdeficit point out:
There are several ongoing strands to the coalition’s current ‘crackdown’ on what the right-wing press calls ‘workshy scroungers’. (10)
As early as 1992 we witnessed a Tory Government target people with mental ill-health within the benefit system. Today the attack is via the Heathcare Disability Assessment systems which link Atos Origin with UnumProvident (UK). It should be noted that:
Professor Aylward was instrumental in how Labour’s Welfare Reform Act was to be implemented by the DWP. Who?
… the former Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government, Professor Mansel Aylward, was instrumental in advising the UK government to set up these medical assessment centres based on the model in America, and he is still funded by the same American company used in his example, with his research centre in Wales funded by Unum Provident (UK). (11)
In my opinion this attack isn’t just about reducing the welfare bill, it is also about making “disabled people disappear” and no longer a concern for the State. Clearly, they cannot make disabled people disappear in reality, but the Government can and is re-defining who fits within the labels that are being thrust upon us. On the one hand we have an ever decreasing number of disabled people who are being presented as “dependent”, “deserving” or “vulnerable”, yet on the other, a growing number of disabled people are finding out they aren’t really “disabled” after all! Suddenly, the inability to walk isn’t a “disability” any longer where a wheelchair provides mobility. This shift isn’t just about moving disabled people off benefits as I’ve already stated, it is about reducing disabled people reliance on a whole raft of welfare services including social care.
I would argue that historically, individual disabled people have found themselves in situations where the imposed identity of ‘disabled’ is taken from them. People with impairments can, therefore, slip in and out of being considered ‘disabled people’ by the assessments and rules that are applied – their ability to obtain support it whipped away over night. I am therefore concerned with the focus of much of debate around welfare reform and benefits because to my way of thinking it is only addressing part of the Government’s agenda. I believe the debates around reforming the Welfare State and changes to the benefit system need to be situated within wider debates about disabled people’s ability to engage within mainstream society. Many people talk about a return to Victorian times, but inadequately discuss how charities and institutions were employed to remove disabled people from the public gaze.
Over the past year I’ve grown alarmed at how easily some disabled people have been prepared to play “the cripple card” and plead a special case for ‘the most vulnerable’. In playing this card they have lurched from talking about being denied rights one minute to being vulnerable and heartbroken the next. From my perspective these campaigners have offered a simplistic message via stereotyped images of disabled people and their lives. In doing so they have assisted in constructing the new contours that are being drawn around disabled people in order to divide them. Much of the campaigning done by these individuals has lacked context and therefore it has pandered to the established norms associated with ‘creating “newsworthy” stories’. By taking “the crippled card” approach they have surrendered not only their own dignity and respect, but excluded disabled people who do not fit into their constructed imagery or “stories”.
What has been largely absent is an analysis of the disabling nature of the cuts on disabled people’s lives. It is the policies of the Government, the withdrawl of services, higher costs, lack of job opportunities, etc. that are making disabled people “vulnerable” – it’s the situations we’re finding ourselves in not simply the fact we have significant impairments! I’ll make no apologies for repeating myself: Oliver said, ‘…we should start from the ways oppression differentially impacts on different groups of people rather than with differences in experience among individuals with different impairments’. I would suggest this process begins by having a clear understanding of why we are disabled people and the need to overthrow the imposed identity which helps to create our social oppression.
I see myself as a disabled person because society excludes, marginalises and devalues people with impairments through unequal and differential treatment. From this position I recognise the need to challenge and change the nature of the society itself. Along with the other co-founders of DPAC I believe disabled people are currently disabled by systems, structures and services which either fail to meet or inadequately meet our needs, but the reduction in public expenditure at national and local levels, the removal of services, the destruction of jobs and communities will only result in greater hardship and social exclusion. We oppose all cuts because they impact upon disabled and non-disabled people’s ability to bring about a just and inclusive society.
There are services run by local authorities which are not run in the best interests of communities – including disabled people – but simply taking an axe to them does not provide us with an opportunity to change the service or provide a better one. The cuts will take us away from and not towards building a more inclusive society; cuts will reduce our ability to expose the disabling nature of the society in which we live. Cuts right across the board will hamper ordinary people’s ability to take control over their lives and for some disabled people, though marginalised within the mainstream now, they will find the cuts bringing about their exclusion from all mainstream social activities. For others the cuts will result in premature death caused by worry, increased poor health and inadequate support arrangements.
Disabled People Against Cuts is about defending disabled people against the savage measures being inflicted by the Coalition Government, but we also recognise our campaigning has to be understood also within the context of disabled people taking control over their lives and determining who and what they are. By taking the lid of Disabled People Against Cuts I hope I have demonstrated that the struggle we’re engaged in has profound implications for the future lives of disabled people in the UK. Our campaign could never simply be about protecting the status quo – for that would be an act of betrayal.
(1) Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London, Macmillan
(2) Finkelstein, V. (2002) “The Social Model Repossessed” Coalition (February) p.10-16.
(3) Pearsall, J. (1998) ed. The New Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford, Oxford Press p.1823
(5) Oliver, M. (1999) Capitalism, disability and ideology: A materialist critique of the Normalization principle p.2
(6) Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1974) Fundamental Principles of Disability, London, UPIAS
(7) Findlay, B. (1994) ‘Quality and Equality in Education: The Denial of Disability Culture’. In P. Ribbins & E. Burridge (eds), Improving Education, London, Cassell Publishers. 126 – 140
(8) Leonard, P. (1984) Personality and Ideology: Towards a Materialist Understanding of the Individual, London, Macmillan
(9) Oliver, M. (1999) Capitalism, disability and ideology: A materialist critique of the Normalization principle p.2