Please Stop Framing Disability as Just a Welfare Issue

Regular readers will know that what has frustrated me the most over the last few years is how disability has been framed on a political level as solely a welfare issue as opposed to an independent living or civil/human rights issue. My concern has nothing to do with the amount of money or support people receive from the state, and I actually believe most disabled people should be receiving more support, but in a manner that is empowering rather than disempowering.

My concern is simply the portrayal of all disabled people as a welfare issue by activists from all political parties. I am interested and I always have been interested in the issues of disability, as a complex psycho-socio phenomenon, but time after time when I try to debate these issues on twitter, I am dragged into a black and white argument where if I refuse to see disabled people as just a welfare issue, I am accused of being a Tory at best, who wants to take money away from disabled people. I was once accused of being Iain Duncan Smith’s Love child for believing in the ability of disabled people!

The issue of disability is too complex for party politics and especially the brutal world of twitter politics, where insults and intimidation from all corners sadly seems to be the norm. According to official statistics, there are 12m disabled people in the UK and only two million, a sixth, claims ESA, the benefit everyone is battling over. All the political parties as well as the mainstream media are focusing on this sixth of disabled people as the totality of the disability debate, leaving over 80% of disabled people off their agenda, including myself.

What is interesting is this sixth politics only seems to care about includes the majority of people who now define themselves as sick as well as disabled. By the nature of their impairment, they are newbies to the disability world and as an impairment collective, new to our politics. For me, a chronic illness that does not require an immediate acute care service is an impairment just like any other impairment and can be accommodated under a social model understanding of removing barriers, even if that is in a way not previously considered.

However, the sick movement, who will naturally have a medical model understanding of their situation due to their relationship with health services, wish to frame themselves as a welfare issue, desiring the protective feeling of a hospital environment to remain a part of their lives, because that is where they are in their emotional journey. Because their voice is loud, woken by the challenge to their welfare status, and their message is highly compatible to the welfarist bigotry that exists within society, the sick movement have aligned themselves with socialism to frame disability as another meaning for poverty.

I am tired of reading how outrageous it is that a person with this or that impairment label is found ‘fit for work’, especially when it is often someone with a lesser level of impairment, that casts a dark shadow of how society perceives the ability of people with higher support needs. I am tired of reading the assumption all disabled people are on the bread line, miserable and waiting for either government or charity to spoon-feed them, controlling their every move on an assumption they have no capability of being responsible.

We must remember that even if the media and the welfare activists were accurately representing the voice of people receiving ESA, which is unlikely, there are over 80% of disabled people, with a diverse range of backgrounds, employment statuses, needs, desires and opinions, who are not getting a voice because disability is being framed just as a welfare issue.

In the ideal world, we would not talk about disability issues on a political level because the issues we have would have been dissolved into other issues as our place in society is normalised. But we are a long way off from that and so it is important we attempt to frame disability as a multidimensional issue that overlaps all issues of society, humanity and citizenship. In the words of Captain Kirk, disability should boldly go where it has never gone before, creating inclusion everywhere and in everything.

The way disabled people are supported financially and in other ways, which we currently perceive as welfare, will always be an issue although maybe not always a hot potato, but it does not have to be the issue that defines us, as we are far more than a weekly amount of income, and it is time we were framed as whole people and citizens with the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else.

from Simon Stevens


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