Friday 1 May 2015

Manifestly Abusive

(It's Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015, #BADD2015, so I thought I would look at what's going on during the UK General Election)

It's General Election Season in the UK, which means all the parties have to put out actual policies of their own, rather than just shout about how terrible the other parties' supposed policies are. Unfortunately in at least two cases, arguably three, we're seeing disablism forming either part of the manifesto, or a prominent part of campaigning. And of course it's the usual suspects, UKIP and the Tories, with the Lib-Dems tagging along behind.

UKIP's manifesto is actually slightly less scary than last time, when they talked about putting learning disabled people into 'congregate communities' (that may well have been code for camps of a rather different kind - when they later sacked a candidate for openly calling for disabled babies to be killed, there were scores of UKIPers protesting he had done nothing wrong). What we get this time is a bunch of crowd pleasing policies that are worded loosely enough they could go either way - so GPs will replace the hated Work Capability Assessment in judging if people should be entitled to disability benefits, but will also be required to issue 'Fit Notes' to the DWP to say that people are now fit to work. They say they support the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (or at least Article 19 of it), but simultaneously want us out of the European Court system that enforces it, and so on. Other Welfare policies are more openly disturbing, promising a lower cap on benefits, Child Benefit only for the first two children, and 'cracking down on benefit fraud' (that would be the benefit fraud that's already smaller than DWP's internal error rate, and a fraction of the size of the tax evasion at the other end of the wealth scale).

But then party leader Nigel Farage opens his mouth and the bile just flows out. During the first televised leaders' debate he alleged there was a substantial issue with non-Britons coming to the UK to obtain treatment for HIV. He's said it before, last October for one, and it's a very clever, very calculated statement designed to appeal to the worst kind of human instincts. 'Health tourism' is a 'threat' UKIP have been pushing, even though actual evidence shows it isn't a major issue, but it lets them play the 'darn furriners coming here and stealing our hospitals' card (doubly valuable as UKIP's leadership is known to be ideologically opposed to the NHS, whereas the public love it). Specifically focussing in on HIV lets UKIP do two things: associate 'health tourism' with homosexuality in order to appeal to the homophobic elements in their core vote (they announced this week they would bring forward a bill to allow 'Christians' to discriminate against gays), and associate 'health tourism' with a disease still primarily associated with sexual transmission and therefore almost universally regarded in society as somehow 'dirty'. That they're doing this by stigmatising people with a serious and life-threatening illness clearly matters not one jot to them. It really is a quite spectacularly amoral piece of political calculation. And in last night's Question Time  he said it again, this time alleging foreign HIV patients mean UK HIV patients are not being cared for.

At least the Tories aren't focussing on HIV, but they're completely up for a piece of fat-shaming as public policy, and with a truly chilling sting in the tail. Page 28 of their Manifesto states: “We will review how best to support those suffering from long term yet treatable conditions, such as drug or alcohol addiction or obesity, back into work. People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. if they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.” Health blogger Dr. Margaret McCartney pointed out how carefully chosen their targets are. Not, for example, people who don't take their blood pressure medication, or who don't exercise regularly, but drug addicts, alcoholics, and fat people, all of whom already face considerable stigma. Now this isn't the first time the Tories have done this, snide attacks on people with addictions or obesity issues started cropping up fairly early in their government, from Cameron on down, but this is the first time it has become official party policy. And there seems to be a deliberate decision to link obesity and addictive behaviours in order to further worsen the social acceptability of obesity. Worse, they then decided to compound all that with the threat of compelled treatment. Compelled treatment is an absolute medical no-no, doctors are ethically mandated to provide their patients with the information allowing them to give informed consent to their treatment, but, as soon as you introduce compulsion, consent goes out the window.

To further compound the potential harm, the compulsion will be implemented by the notoriously disablist Department of Work and Pensions, the puppet masters behind Atos and now Maximus and the WCA, with their secret targets and league tables for sanctions against disabled benefit claimants. When you acknowledge (which much of society unfortunately does not) that much obesity is a secondary consequence of clearly identifiable medical causes, for instance drug side effects, mobility restrictions, metabolic disorders and so on, while drug abuse, alcoholism and other cases of obesity spring from complex familial, social and medical backgrounds, it becomes clear that this policy is deliberately designed to target disabled people in a way that makes non-disabled people positively happy to see it happening. And once this aspect of compulsion in treatment is established, who is to say where it will stop.

In fact the next phase may already be underway, and it comes not from the Tories but from the theoretically cuddlier Lib-Dems. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg has himself been heading a pilot programme to introduce mental health treatment on-site at Job Centre Plus (the high-street arm of the DWP). It would be hard to think of a worse combination for medical abuse. JCP are already cutting their numbers of specialist Disability Employment Advisors, from a starting point of having far fewer advisors per disabled job seeker than non-disabled, and have been implementing a massive increase in utterly inappropriate sanctions against disabled people, such as the learning disabled man sanctioned for being four minutes late for an interview, never mind that he was unable to tell the time. (When this incident was raised in a Westminster debate, a Tory MP claimed it was evidence of failing schools, apparently having no understanding whatsoever of what a learning disability is). Compound that disablist bias at JCP with the massive stigma around Mental Health issues and you have a real potential for inappropriate compulsion and people with MH issues being driven out of the Benefit system (which may of course be absolutely fine with many of the backers of this initiative).

Moving down into constituency level disablism, a group of London-based Tories decided it would be funny to compare Labour Leader Ed Miliband to a stroke victim on Facebook , by drawing on an existing piece of stroke awareness public service broadcasting, but associating it with images of Miliband deliberately picked to make him look as grotesque as possible while mocking the way he speaks. The pages disappeared as soon as people caught onto them, but the unpleasant stench of disablism lingers. Clearly these Tories thought that having a disability makes you somehow less, while marking you as unfit to partake in government, and isn't that a revealing insight into the way they think about us.

Equally revealing was the suggestion from Chamali Fernando, the Conservative candidate in Cambridge, at a hustings event, that people who are neurodiverse or have mental health issues could wear wristbands to identify them to police and other 'professional persons' (she's a lawyer, so presumably meant 'people like me'). That people who are neurodiverse or have MH issues already face even worse stigma than other forms of disability, and that she was proposing marking them out for the abusers in society apparently passed her completely by, as did the historical context of another political party having once implemented a policy of physically marking disabled people, and emulating the policies of the Nazi Party generally being considered politically a bad idea. There seems to be an acceptance that she was being utterly naive rather than malicious, but when sitting Lib-Dem MP Julian Huppert, alongside her at the event, criticised her for what she said, she sued him for defamation, which doesn't really suggest she's actually learnt anything from the incident.

And just to cap everything, David Cameron suggested last night during Question Time that a life on benefits is frankly no kind of life at all, which, given he had a profoundly disabled child who would have faced precisely that if he had survived, seems a remarkably inappropriate attitude.

So there we have the ways disability is being portrayed by three of the major parties in the election: by UKIP as somehow 'dirty' and 'gay' and 'stealing our NHS'; by the Tories as a form of benefit scrounging by drug addicts and their associates, who need the stern hand of government to set them on track, as a negative that would make someone unfit to act in government, as needing to be labelled for our own protection and as 'no kind of life'; and by the Lib-Dems as needing to be pushed towards work by intervention in possibly the most threatening environment imaginable. In the end it all comes down to providing yet one more way for the intolerant parts of society to punish people for being in need.  It's a sad state of affairs when bullying people in need is applauded as the socially responsible thing to do, and considered fit to grace the manifestos of not one, but three of our major political parties.


  1. Another frightening post about the sad state of political rhetoric as it involves disability: One of these days, here's hoping we don't have to read/write any more of these. Well done, though. Just... so disheartening.

  2. "That people who are neurodiverse or have MH issues already face even worse stigma than other forms of disability, ..."

    I think the mental health and ability issues can raise a lot of anger in others because of a combination of two factors:
    1) They look like us so why can't they behave as we do, with the MH sub-clause of "if they're taking time off for stress, it means the rest of us have to work harder".
    2) How dare they look like us if they're not capable of behaving like us - which is basically raging at the "fraud" of passing.

    I probably haven't explained that very well but I hope it made sense!

  3. Thanks for contributing to Blogging Against Disablism Day, David!

    The bit about alcoholism and obesity in the Conservative Manifesto is so low,. As I said in my F-Word post, it is extraordinarily vague - it doesn't say "We'll send very fat folk to a dietitian and then cut their benefits if they don't lose weight." It is vague about the help (these folks should already be getting help and support) and then speaks merely of "reviewing" their benefits. The whole paragraph amounts to nothing but an allusion to a stereotype.

  4. While I didn't touch on Labour and the Greens in this, that wasn't because I felt they have good policies for disabled people, in fact I've been fairly outspoken in my criticism of Labour's disability policies, but solely because I didn't feel they had actually crossed into actual disablism.

    However Lisa Egan has written her own BADD piece that can be read as a counterpart to mine, specifically looking at the failings of the Labour and Green platforms I didn't cover, and I'm convinced by her argument and by aspects of policy she caught that I had missed, I should have covered Labour and the Greens too. So once you've finished reading this, go read Lisa's piece too: How many politicians does it take to throw 18% of the population under a bus?

  5. "a life on benefits is frankly no kind of life at all"

    And... unfortunately, as much as I don't want to agree with the person who has brought in what amounts to institutionalized genocide, I kinda agree. Not surprisingly, though, because of his own actions...