Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People

Bob Williams-Findlay reviews CRIPPLED: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, by Frances Ryan; Verso Books, June 2019.

When the initial request asking to review Frances Ryan’s new book, CRIPPLED: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People came, I was tempted to decline. Having read many of her articles, where I find her approach towards disability history and politics extremely challenging, I wasn’t convinced I’d do her or her book justice. It however didn’t take me too long to realise that I’ve lived through this age of austerity, both politically and personally, so perhaps  I am well positioned to give a critical appraisal.

As one of the early disability activists who helped develop what is referred to as the Disabled People’s Movement, I’m often upset and alarmed by the poverty of knowledge that exists among disabled people born in the 1980s, for example, regarding the social movement’s history. My concern doesn’t come from personal desire to be remembered or to over emphasise the role of the British Council of Disabled People or the Direct Action Network in changing the social and political landscape in the 1980s and 1990s, but rather to suggest that it’s hard to offer a reliable account of the impact of austerity on disabled people if there’s little engagement with disability politics in the process.

A major problem with Ryan’s book is that it’s like a curate’s egg; good and bad in parts, thus weakening its overall worth. Ryan offers an introduction and conclusion; sandwiched between them are six chapters which are topic based. The first four chapters are concerned with issues that link disabled people, the welfare state and, of course, austerity. The final two chapters reminded me of a sinking ship, as they addressed the particular concerns of women and children. The approach to the subject, disabled people and austerity, was very much in the style of traditional investigatory journalism; lots of facts and figures, yet put across in a way which ran the risk of presenting real lives and the social and political policies of both the coalition and conservative governments as being endless tales about victims and nasty villains.

Structure and core argument

Frances also works within the broad framework of the bio-psycho-social model, despite being clear in her attack upon the so called ‘benefit reforms’ that have come in during the age of Austerity. There are two implications that flow from this: firstly, I would argue her argument shares common ground with the disability charities such as Scope and the RNIB, therefore promotes the ‘hardest hit’ narrative. I’ve always suggested this not only distorts the Neoliberal agenda, but it also pits social groups against one another, thus playing down the real features of the agenda – attacking the welfare state, promoting marketization and self-reliance. Secondly, it constructs the view that the Coalition and Tory government deliberately targeted disabled people. 

As a founding member of DPAC I can assure you that our analysis didn’t claim disabled people were a deliberate target; in our opinion, the ideological objectives of the Neoliberals meant they had no compassion for anyone who stood in the way, and therefore they had no problem with sick, disabled or older people being collaterial damage.

Another core theme in the book is the idea that benefit reform was the main plank for Austerity and the attack upon disabled people. There’s little doubt it has been a major feature, but I believe she doesn’t anchor the role of benefit reform enough within its historical context and how the process had begun before the economic crash and austerity. It was Tony Blair’s government who introduced the ‘rights with responsibilities’ narrative which began re-shaping who is and who isn’t a ‘disabled person’. This political point is underplayed by Ryan and stems from her willingness to primarily focus upon individuals and centre upon the ‘mistreatment’ they encounter when applying for benefits.

In some ways this is why the book is like a curate’s egg. The good thing about the book is its portrayal of the dire consequences of austerity policies for disabled people; thus making a counter-weight to the scrounger narratives. The flipside is that I feel it does paint ‘disability as a personal tragedy’ made worse by the nasty government. To a degree then, this means only now and then do we see glimpses of ‘disability politics’ for example lack of access within mainstream structures, but these nuggets come across as ageless stereotypes of disabled people’s experience of social exclusion and discrimination. I’m sure she’s done her research, but this appears to be from specific sources – academic research, charity led research, official studies and reports, plus interviews. Whilst I accept Ryan spoke with leading figures within Disabled People Against Cuts, I sense a lack of engagement with disability politics. An example being, Ryan repeats the revisionist belief that disabled people campaigned for the Disability Discrimination Act, when in actual fact, we opposed it. There’s a world of difference between campaigning for comprehensive civil and human rights and the piecemeal individualistic pile of nonsense we’ve ended up with. I mention this because in my opinion many post-Thatcher disabled people have scant idea of the political struggle developed by the Disabled People’s Movement or its critique of disablement. Many, like Frances, have been fed watered down versions of disability politics and have little idea of the radical nature of the politics of my generation. Within the 1990s it was spun that disabled people were finally being invited in from the cold, so it was a terrible shock when the talk of choices and rights, inclusion and independent living, was replaced by the language we now associate with austerity. What Ryan does well is to report on this, what’s missing is a serious analysis of the shift in disablement we’re witnessing. 

The strength of the book lies in Ryan’s detailed description of how Austerity has seriously damaged lives, including contributing to a loss of lives, plus the  undermining of civil and human rights. She focuses on the policies of Iain Duncan Smith and the Department of Works and Pensions. Her arguments centre around the introduction of new assessments procedures that were carried out by money making companies such Atos, Capita and Maximus. Millions of pounds were  wasted as many claimants won on appeal. The degrading tests for the Employment Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payment, along with the callous introduction of harsh sanctions and rollout of the ideologically driven Universal Credit scheme are brought to life through terrible case studies illustrating both indifference and contempt for people who rely on the state for support. 

She also explains how this led to the United Nations’ committee on the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People finding the United Kingdom guilty of rights abuse. In the chapters on Independence and Housing there’s graphic accounts of the devasting impact of the cuts to the NHS and local authorities which has resulted in a crisis with social care provision.

Stark picture

Too often the response to the oppression disabled people face is one of patronage and promotion of ‘care’; not a real understanding that disablement is firmly rooted in the theories and practice that serve the interests of the capitalist classes. The pursuit of marketisation, privatisation and self-reliance are the core features of austerity and lie at the heart of both the demonisation disabled people encountered and the ‘crippling’ treatment seen since 2011. 

While there are major weaknesses in Ryan’s book and it reflects the reformist ‘nasty Tories’ narratives we’ve seen develop since 2011 with the ‘Broken Britain’ motif paramount in this approach; there is much to commend the book on. Ryan use of personal stories integrated with facts and figures paints a stark picture and ironically reminded me of two social writers from the old Victorian era, Dickens and Mayhew. The fact Jess Philips MP praised it might suggest its role in raising the issues faced by disabled people. the book appeals to an audience that wants to be empathetic to the plight of disabled people. At this moment in time a popularist narrative of this type might be what’s needed.

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