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.