Our Capitalist Society Has Always Devalued Disabled People. Coronavirus Has Made This Clear

by Ellen Clifford

10 June 2020

“Whoever thought we would look back on austerity as the good times?” disabled activist Andy Greene asked, at an online meeting last month. “We thought it couldn’t get much worse, then Covid came along and showed us that it could.”

Greene is a leading member of campaign group DPAC, which was set up in 2010 to oppose the disproportionate impacts of austerity on disabled people. I am also a member.

It was clear from the outset of the coalition government in 2010 that things were about to get very bad for anyone whose daily existence relied on publicly-funded support.

Cuts to benefits (excluding pensions) and local government made up 50% of the 2010 austerity plan. With disability and carers benefits making up about 40% of non-pension benefits, and social care making up 60% of local government expenditure, austerity measures were effectively targeted at disabled people and attacked our living standards. Year-on-year cuts and misery have continued unabated for nearly a decade now. And then Covid arrived.

Responses to the outbreak reflect the lack of worth that is commonly placed on disabled people’s lives. Even worse, is the suspicion among many disabled people that the government’s pandemic plan has been influenced by an ideological agenda to remove us from society. Disabled people’s oppression is a daily reality under capitalism, yet disability remains largely hidden and misunderstood even among progressive movements.

Conditions for disabled people have been going backwards.

Research by the Centre for Welfare Reform showed that by 2013 disabled people were already being hit by the cuts nine times harder than non-disabled people. For people with the highest support needs, this figure rose to nineteen times harder than non-disabled people. The Tory mantra that they were directing resources at protecting “the most vulnerable” was a lie: those with the greatest needs were suffering the greatest losses.

Over the past decade, conditions for disabled people have gone dramatically backwards. In 2016, an unprecedented investigation by the United Nations found the UK government guilty of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights due to welfare reform and austerity. They weren’t suggesting that disabled people in the UK have it harder than those in other parts of the world – what concerned them was the extensive evidence of serious retrogression deliberately enacted through government policy and legislation.

Since then the picture has only deteriorated further. According to Theresa May, austerity ended in 2018, but welfare changes and cuts to social care were never reversed. Benefit deaths are now part of our social security system. The shambolic roll-out of universal credit has been driven onwards in spite of mounting evidence of the harm it is causing. A new phenomenon has emerged of disabled people becoming re-institutionalised within their own homes as already meagre support packages continue to diminish year on year.

Covid-19 has highlighted an ideology that devalues disabled people. 

For disabled people in Britain, this was the immediate background to the Covid-19 outbreak. Official responses to the pandemic starkly highlighted the dominance of negative attitudes towards disabled people in our society. Behind austerity and welfare reform can be discerned an ideology that devalues disabled people on the basis of a perceived inability to produce profit equal to those without impairments. With the Covid situation, that mindset came unashamedly out into the open.   

Disabled people in care homes and living in the community were completely ignored within the government’s initial response to the pandemic. Both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidance setting out eligibility criteria for intensive care treatment based on the absence of underlying health conditions or impairments. NICE’s guidance was only revised following the threat of legal action from disabled campaigners. We nevertheless continue to hear of advance DNACPR (‘do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation’) forms sent out by GP surgeries asking disabled patients or those with the power to make decisions on their behalf to complete them.

Campaigners suspect that Boris Johnson’s original strategy of seeking to create “herd immunity” and the government’s failure to do more to protect disabled people was part of a deliberate plan to remove from society those whose lives are deemed to represent a cost burden on the state. This is not inconceivable. A glance at the online comments section under disability features shows just how strongly those in some quarters feel that society is better off with the disabled aborted and dead. The decision to end lockdown before it is safe to do so will result in more avoidable deaths.

Capitalism and disability.

Disabled people’s oppression is something to be resisted by all those who care about social justice. Nevertheless, it is of no surprise that prejudice and discrimination continue to exist within a society dominated by the profit motive.

The relationship between capitalism and disability is an intrinsic one – the category of disability as we understand it today emerged as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Disabled people’s history since then has been a brutal one as the capitalist state has experimented with various “solutions” for those held to be unproductive. These have included forced incarceration in institutions characterised by abuse and neglect, eugenic programmes culminating in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people under the Nazis and attempts more recently to transfer responsibility for support provision back onto the family.

The exclusion of disabled people flows from socio-economic structures that devalue and segregate disabled people. This separation of experience leads to attitudes towards disability of aversion and disinterest among non-disabled people. Such attitudes, although in a milder form, are equally to be found among progressives whose life experience has not caused them to consciously question their conception of disability.

Disabled campaigners are frequently exasperated both by the marginalisation of disability political theory within the wider left and the failure to understand, let alone make, even the most basic access arrangements. In researching my new book, I have discovered that this is nothing new and the same frustrations have been voiced within the disabled community from the 1970s onwards. This is to be expected given that the dominant idea of disability within society has not changed.

According to the “common sense” view of disability that the majority of people still hold, unequal life opportunities for disabled people are inevitable. The truth is, it does not need to be this way. A different world is possible – one where each person is valued and enabled to make their personal contribution to an interdependent and diverse society, run not in the interests of profit but in the interests of people.

Ellen Clifford is a disabled activist and author of The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe published by Zed Books on 15 June and available now to pre-order.


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