Monday, 28 November 2011

We need to develop more radical challenges to disability policy

When I stopped working with the Office for Disability Issues (as a consultant on the Independent Living Strategy and the Right to Control), the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gave me the opportunity to reflect on what progress has been achieved in terms of disability policy over the last 20 years.  In the resulting short report,  I have had to conclude that there is little room for making progress within the ideological framework driving current disability policies, and that we need to develop more radical challenges to the disability policy agenda and engage in wider debates, particularly those which question the way our economy is currently configured.

In order for disabled people to experience equal access to full human and civil rights, and opportunities to improve their life chances, we need a system which:
- uses resources to create a level playing field for those whose impairment or ill health would otherwise lead to significant economic and social disadvantage
- delivers those resources in ways which, at the same time, enables autonomy for those who need support.

Disabled people and our allies have spent years looking for, and taking advantage, of ‘windows of opportunity’ within dominant policy agendas in order to make progress on our aim of full and equal citizenship.  The disability movement is arguably one of the most successful social movements in terms of the impact it has had on not only government policy but also on social attitudes.

But any advances we have made over the last 20 years or so are being set back by a combination of economic developments and a government determined to radically change the welfare state.

To put it briefly and too simplistically:
- high levels of secure employment, at wages sufficient to sustain a reasonable standard of living, are incompatible with the way our economy is currently configured
- a progressive taxation system is incompatible with both the economic reality of, and the ideology associated with, the requirements of global capital
- it is these factors which make a welfare state, based on universal principles which delivers social and economic rights, economically unviable (not the creation of a ‘dependency culture’ or the ‘demographic timebomb’).

The disability movement faces, not only the struggle to make any progress in this wider context, but also the fact that both this and the last government adopted the language of our analysis and demands, and used it to pursue policies which are creating significant disadvantages for disabled people and their families.  So for example:

- the proposal to reform Disability Living Allowance, which aims to reduce the budget by 20%, uses the social model of disability to justify reducing eligibility;

- the reforms to incapacity benefit, which reduce eligibility, increase means-testing and impose conditions and sanctions, take the demand that ‘most disabled people both want to and can work’ and turn it against people whose experience of ill health make work – as currently configured – very difficult if not impossible;

- our demands for choice and control over the resources needed to go about our daily lives have been adopted in the context of social care policies which are more successful at delivering the privatisation of care services than in delivering independent living, and may well support the same trend in the context of health care;

- the language and demands of ‘user involvement’ have been incorporated into the ‘Big Society’ agenda which aims to reduce the role of the state and the infrastructure which is required for the empowerment of service users.

All of this has led me to conclude that it’s no good continuing to fight our battles within the context of the intellectual and political space which the disability movement has very effectively carved out over the last 20-30 years.  Instead we have to carry those concepts and ideas into the wider arena of not only social policy but also economic policy. 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Why we need to defend Disability Living Allowance

On Monday 14th November, the House of Lords Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill will be considering amendments tabled on the reform of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).  This may explain the stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph on Friday (11th November) claiming that 94% of recent DLA claimants only had to fill in a form to get the benefit.

Other figures in both articles – but not the headline one – seem to originate from DWP statistics. These statistics show that the DLA claim form was the only evidence submitted in 16% of cases, not 94%. By the end of the day, Full Fact had debunked the misuse of these statistics very comprehensively.

But this was just the latest in a whole series of attacks on the integrity of those claiming DLA: the reality of the experience was better represented in the thousands of tweets reacting to the articles. 

On Monday Labour and Independent peers will try and improve the Clauses in the Welfare Reform Bill by:
- ensuring that the benefit is available to pay for the extra costs that come with impairment, illness and disabling barriers
- placing the social model of disability at the heart of the assessment process
- requiring the new assessment criteria and process to be co-produced, piloted and reviewed with disabled people and their organisations
- reinstating a lower rate of benefit payment to assist people who need lower levels of support
- ensuring that people in residential care continue to receive the mobility component.

One of the most irritating things about the welfare reform debate is how government ministers are using the language of the disability movement to justify their reforms.  A classic example is the corruption of the social model of disability, and of our concept of independent living, in the proposals for replacing Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment. 

The social model of disability says that it is not our impairment which disables us but the barriers that society puts in the way; the independent living movement redefines ‘independent’ to mean, not doing things for yourself, but having choice and control over whatever support you need in order to go about your daily life.  For people with impairments (whether physical, sensory, communication, cognitive or relating to mental health) the human right of autonomy is denied unless disabling barriers are removed and disabled people have choice and control over the support they need.

In contrast, the government’s use of the words ‘independent’ and ‘independence’ is linked to the notion of not being ‘dependent’ on others or, most crucially, on the state.  The disability movement is clear that the ‘problem’ for us lies in the disabling barriers we experience, but for this government, the ‘problem’ lies with our reliance on the state for assistance to go about our daily lives.

For the disability movement, benefits such as DLA are about helping to create a level playing field.  For the government, receiving DLA is a sign of being ‘dependent’ and should be reserved for the most ‘vulnerable’.

In its desire to limit access to state support, the government has put a particular spin on statistics and research.  Left Foot Forward and others have debunked many of these stories. One further government narrative is that receiving DLA acts as a financial disincentive to getting paid employment.

However, the same research, and other research also funded by DWP, makes clear that there are two likely reasons for this correlation - neither of them relating to DLA being a financial disincentive.   

Firstly, the same researchers, when they carried out interviews with disabled people and those advising them, found that misconceptions about DLA eligibility seem to be a key factor in the relationship between DLA receipt and unemployment:  For many DLA claimants,both applicants and recipients, there was a perception that DLA was a benefit for those who are unable to work, was only payable when someone was not workingand stopped if they went back into work"

Secondly, relationships with, and attitudes held by, health and other professionals also seemed to reinforce the perceived link between DLA eligibility and being unable to work. Being “told by a doctor that they were unlikely to return to work” was “a key trigger for making a DLA claim”.   

However, instead of the government recognising its own failure to properly communicate about DLA, it has used this research to justify reforming the benefit, with the aim of reducing the DLA budget by 20%.

DLA is a popular benefit amongst disabled people for very good reasons.  Firstly, it is not means-tested and as such is the only aspect of the benefit system which is implicitly based on creating a ‘level playing field’ for disabled people – in the same way that child benefit is intended to compensate for the additional costs of bringing up children.  Secondly, DLA enables people to make decisions for themselves as to how best to meet their additional needs and it is therefore empowering in that it promotes autonomy and self-determination. 

But an ideology which equates receiving resources from the state with ‘dependency’ can never recognise the benefits of using redistributed taxes to promote a level playing field for those who would otherwise experience significant disadvantages.

We need to challenge the misuse of statistics by the right wing press and government alike.  We also need our allies in Parliament to continue trying to mitigate the damage that will be caused if the Welfare Reform Bill goes through unamended.  But we also need to champion a vision of a welfare state that celebrates the virtue of using resources raised through a progressive taxation system to help create a level playing field for people who have additional support needs.