Since 2010, most political debates about disabled people have used the term “vulnerable” - or more often “most vulnerable” - to argue for or against current government policies on social security and social care.
David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith are particularly keen on this term. As Cameron said in June this year:
Whatever the pressures, we will stand by my promises to protect the most vulnerable – including the most disabled who cannot work because that’s the sign of the compassionate country I believe in.
But it isn’t just Conservative politicians who have described disabled people in terms of their ‘vulnerability’. Labour politicians have done it as well. To take just one example, most Labour MPs speaking in a debate initiated by Labour’s Rachel Reeves in 2013 referred to ‘the vulnerable’ or ‘most vulnerable’ to argue the case against reforms to housing benefit.
The etymological origins of the word ‘vulnerable’ are to be found in the Latin word for wound. Thesaurus offers alternatives such as: defenceless; open to attack; frail; exposed; unprotected; impressionable. Cameron’s use of the word in his speech to the 2012 Conservative Party conference confirmed these meanings when he argued that:
Conservative methods are not just good for the strong and the successful but the best way to help the poor, and the weak, and the vulnerable.
Up until a few years ago, disabled people had been on a long journey away from this curtailment of our lives and ambitions, a journey away from being defined as objects of pity and charitable endeavour to ‘look after’ and ‘protect’ us.
Allan Sutherland, a disability activist writing in 1981, said;
We are not weak; we are not powerless; we are not alone. Control of our future is ours for the taking.
Such a vision - and the struggle for our human and civil rights which followed - is incompatible with the notion of ‘vulnerability’ as applied in current policy debates.
Unfortunately, as the full implications of the ‘welfare reform’ agenda became apparent following the 2010 election, some disability activists and organisations started to also use 'vulnerability’ in their attempts to point out the injustice of the policies.
By using the terms ‘vulnerable’ and ‘most vulnerable’, we are voluntarily taking ourselves back to those days when to be disabled was to be shut out, shut away from society, the object of pity, not part of mainstream society. The words are as far removed from defining disability as a civil rights issue as it is possible to be.
Not only that, if we use the term ‘vulnerable’ to make our case for a good quality life, we collude with the centuries-old categorisation of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
These categorisations have little to do with people’s actual material circumstances but are based instead on supposed personality and psychological characteristics.
This goes back to the days of the Poor Law, when Poor Law Guardians - custodians of the funds raised from ratepayers - attempted to distinguish ‘sham cripples’ . Like then, distrust and blame are still the most common values underpinning welfare reform, People with impairments or illness which have no significant physical outward signs fare particularly badly within such a value system. Distrust and blame make it hard to get recognition for the functional limitations which accompany mental health difficulties such as social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or clinical depression. Distrust and blame lead to a refusal to acknowledge the realities of people whose impairments or illness fluctuate. Distrust and blame even lead to people with terminal conditions being declared ‘fit to work’.
These days, instead of ‘sham cripple’ we have ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ and it is the word ‘vulnerable’ - or rather the term ‘most vulnerable’ - which is used in order to distinguish the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. If you are categorised as ‘most vulnerable’ your impairment or illness is accepted as ‘real’ and, most importantly, not your own fault.
The key thing about being vulnerable is that you lack agency, you depend on others to protect you. In a world where politicians talk approvingly of ‘aspirations’ and ‘hard working families’, disabled and sick people are placed in a double bind. The legitimacy of need for support is dependent on being ‘most vulnerable’ and, in order to get the support you need, you therefore have to place yourself in a situation where you are beyond aspiration and autonomy.
As Caroline Richardson, writing for the Spartacus Network, says:
In the current political climate, being 'vulnerable' casts you as worthy but also demeans you, portraying you as passive, helpless and in need of benevolence. This appears to contradict the promotion of aspiration, and paints a very confusing picture. To function within this framework necessitates proving your own vulnerability to secure ever smaller crumbs of welfare, simultaneously almost writing yourself off from any dream or aspiration. This artificially created juxtaposition is profoundly demoralising.
As many people have pointed out, it is government policies that make disabled people vulnerable - vulnerable to being poor, to insecure and inappropriate housing, to mounting debt, to being imprisoned within our own homes because of lack of support. What is more, as Neil Crowther argues, the language of vulnerability actually makes disabled people less safe. Moreover:
It promotes the idea that society’s primary responsibility should be to act as custodians, not to respect and promote disabled people’s freedoms.
So my plea to disability activists and our political allies alike is - please never ever use the words ‘vulnerable’ or ‘most vulnerable’ when making the case for our equal access to a good quality life. By all means, point out that current government policy and some wider social attitudes make us vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, unemployment, abuse and discrimination. By all means, point out that cuts to social care make us vulnerable to being consigned to residential care or imprisoned within our own homes with minimal support. By all means, point out that welfare reform is leaving households without enough food to eat, at risk of eviction, and frightened.
But such vulnerability is created by political choices and prejudice. We should be campaigning to remove the policies and practices which create vulnerability, not using the term as a qualification for support. If disabled people are made vulnerable this is a human and civil rights issue. It took us many years to reframe our position in society away from that of a matter of protection and exclusion. Please don’t collude in imposing that history back onto us.