In the UK, are attitudes towards disabled people getting worse?

Jenny Morris, one of the stalwarts of the disability rights movements in the UK, has written an important post on the difference in attitudes towards disabled people in 1992 and 2015. Both of these are election years, and Morris compares the changes. Unfortunately, a lot of ground that the social understanding of disability gained in the 80s and 90s seems to be being lost:

In 1992, public debate was about whether disabled people were to be pitied as the objects of charity and needed to be ‘looked after’, or whether we should have equal rights to access education, employment, independent living. Today, public debate is about whether we are avoiding our responsibilities to seek employment and need conditions and sanctions to get us ‘off benefits’, or whether we are ‘vulnerable’. Instead of recognising the additional support, and the removal of barriers, which are required in order for us to access the same opportunities as others, we are – in order to avoid being labelled as ‘scroungers’ – once again forced into the role of tragic victims, where the legitimacy of our requirements is to be measured by how ‘vulnerable’, ill and/or impaired we are.

The Conservative party, which passed the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and introduced the original Disability Living Allowance is now making cuts. Particularly important is Morris’ description of how “vulnerability” of disabled people is contributed to by removing benefits or threatening to remove support. For example, see the Access to Work programme that stops disabled people working.

Changes in the UK serve as a warning for our work on disability inclusion in other countries. When we are working in countries that have fewer resources, we can only dream of securing the kind of support that the UK government provides for disabled people. The Bangladesh government recently increased the disability allowance from a monthly 300Tk (less than £3) to 500Tk (less than £5) – and this is still only for a few hundred thousand people, in a country where we think that there are over 20 million people with disabilities.

When we work in international development, we argue that increasing government support is the sustainable option – that it will lead to permanent gains for disabled people. Unfortunately the last twenty years in the UK have shown two ways this isn’t the case. First, that government supports can be taken away, even by the same party that put them there to start with. Even the threat of these being taken away leads to considerable worry and discomfort. Secondly, that the system of government support creates this debate around disabled people as either “deserving” or “undeserving”: creating a conversation where either the disabled person is a “scrounger” taking benefits they shouldn’t be, or they are a tragic victim that needs these benefits to survive.

The rest of the world has learned so much from the UK in terms of working towards equal rights for people with disabilities. Maybe it’s time that the UK learned it back.

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