In today’s blog-post, I want to link back to a chapter I wrote in my 2011 book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people. In this book I investigated disability hate crime, but I also wanted to set it in its wider context. This chapter looks at that wider context – how our society views disabled people. I’m sorry to say that it’s still relevant today – no more so than at this time, when disability benefit cuts are in the news, and disabled people are protesting in the Commons.
Extract from Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011)
Not Them but Us – society’s challenge
And then there is the whole vexed question of disability benefits, which have come under fire under successive governments, but never more so than now. Language about benefit “scroungers” is bandied about by politicians and tabloid journalists. As the Minister Iain Duncan Smith says, eagerly, work is “good” for you. And so it is, in many circumstances, but it should not define our humanity. Not all disabled people can hold down a full-time job, but that does not mean that they do not contribute to society in other ways. As Sir Bert Massie, the former head of the Disability Rights Commission, says: “I think there is a strong argument to be made that there is an obligation to support those who need support and that should be unconditional, you can do what you want to the scroungers, but by and large, there are some people who cannot work, it is fanciful that everyone can work – you support them and you do it with magnanimity, this should be a right.”
Sophie Corlett from the mental health charity, Mind, says that many people on their advice lines are talking about changed attitudes towards them, since the government launched its crackdown. One person with a mental health condition told the charity: “Tabloids […] are actively […] encouraging people to shop the apparent easy-to-spot cheats directly to the paper. With mental illness, it is not that easy and this targeting feels unacceptable. I fear this will increase hate crime and further alienate those with mental illness who are on benefits.” Another said, movingly, that life was now “barely tolerable” and added that they felt like an “object of hate and derision with no escape. I worked for as long as my body could stand it and I do not need someone with no comprehension of my daily life, telling me that I am a ‘scrounger’ and languishing on benefits”, adding that many with hidden disabilities now find themselves “the victims of an orchestrated hate campaign and what I can only describe as institutional bullying.” As Mind’s submission to the EHRC inquiry puts it: “People with mental health problems already face disproportionate levels of crime and discrimination and now appear to be the scapegoats for the Government’s welfare reform programme.”
It is easy to see, in the light of such comments, why some disabled people are so afraid at the moment. They feel that the population is being softened up for ever more punitive action against them as a group. For many, this has a historical resonance with what happened in Germany, before the Holocaust.
When the Treasury website invited comments from the general public on how to reduce welfare spending, the comments about disabled people (which were not moderated) were vicious. One argued that all disabled people should be sterilised. Another said: “depression is not a disability, neither is stupidity.” Many suggested that disabled people got too many perks and were particularly exercised about disabled car parking spaces. Another suggested, extraordinarily, that disabled people should be used as weapons of war. “Those who can work that upon rigorous medical examination turn out to be just thick or bone idle to undertake intesnive (sic) course in employability, where they will learn to be punctual, meticulous, smartly dressed, articulate, and gain working attitude. Those who repeatedly fail the course to be deployed in Afghanistan as IED deterrents.”
Although, after repeated requests, the website was closed down the comments removed, they shed light on attitudes among many in society. Disabled people are not seen as equal citizens. They are seen as a useless burden. Small wonder then, that so many of them are attacked – the perpetrators are merely acting out the unconscious wishes and desires of many in society.
From the moment they are born, as the psychotherapist Valerie Sinason has said, eloquently, they are told that their lives are not worth living – they face what she calls an “internal and external death wish”. If they want to have sex, marry, or have children, their decisions are seen as controversial, and their children are more likely to be taken away from them than non-disabled families. Then they are told that they should not have benefits wasted on them. That they should go into a home, or if they can’t work have their benefits cut. If they can work they should also have their benefits cut, as they clearly don’t require extra support. Then, as they get older, they are told that they are a burden on society and should die for the sake of others. If we do not understand these widely held views, the spirit of our times, in which hate crime has flourished in our society, we are never going to be able to understand it, and we won’t be able to find solutions.
 Personal communication, John Pring and Anne Novis, November 2010
 Sinason, Handicap and the Human Condition, 38
Chapter 19: Ways Forward