Friday, 9 September 2016

What we can learn from the Paralympics

In the run up to the Rio2016 Paralympics an issue emerged on social media which illustrates the fundamental problem with the way the state currently treats disabled people. 

Following the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with the farcically-named Personal Independence Payment (PIP), 500 people a week are having their Motability-leased vehicles or power chairs taken away from them. This is a consequence of the government tightening the criteria used to determine eligibility for the higher rate award of the mobility component of PIP (it is only if you qualify for the higher rate that you can exchange your PIP payment - plus a cash deposit - for leasing an adapted vehicle or a power chair)   

A number of disabled people heading off to compete in the Paralympics expressed their concern that - because of the tighter eligibility criteria - they might lose their ability to lease a vehicle suitable for their needs and essential to their lives and aspirations.  

And the response from some people?  The same as it was when a similar concern was expressed in 2012 - a doubting that someone, who is (as the Channel 4 Paralympic advert describes them) a ‘super-human’, could/should be eligible for disability benefits at all: “if you can run, jump and swim, then you can probably dress yourself and catch a bus”, as one person put it. Similar attitudes seem to be held by people carrying out PIP assessments: as one disabled athlete recounted: “He [the assessor] alluded to the fact someone like me – who can go wheelchair racing – shouldn’t get the same support as someone who can’t … It was like ‘you can do sport, you don’t need help’.”

This type of response is not just a case of ignorance (though it is that as well) it is also a reflection of quite complex social attitudes which have their roots in the current economic and political climate.  As such it isn’t a trivial issue but one which goes to the heart of what it means to be disabled in an advanced capitalist economy.

In terms of dominant social attitudes, to be disabled is to be un-able, to lack ability - as the Oxford English Dictionary says, to have “a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities”.  This is echoed in the state’s definition of disability in the context of current social policy. Assessments which measure physical and/or mental ‘incapacity’ are the gateway to recognition of the need for support in the form of either services or benefits.  

In recent years, political rhetoric and many media outlets have encouraged an extension of social prejudices, long held against ‘the poor’ and ‘the unemployed’, to disabled people.  Welfare reform has been accompanied by the encouragement of a mistrust of people’s own accounts of their experiences of their bodies and the disabling barriers they experience, focussing instead on individuals’ motivation and attitude.

This shift in social attitudes towards a much more punitive and blaming approach to disabled people has been driven by bi-partisan political support for a low tax economy, accompanied by a demand to bring down the numbers of people on long-term benefits.  The last Labour government introduced the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) with the explicit intention of reducing the numbers of people claiming long-term out-of-work sickness and disability benefits, and the Coalition and Conservative governments continued with that aim - and with the general message that many are not really ill or disabled.  In addition, motivated by the same desire to cut public expenditure and accompanied by similar messages of distrusting people’s own accounts of their experiences, the Coalition government replaced DLA with PIP, with the explicit intention of reducing the budget for this extra costs payment by 20%. 

Assessments for PIP and ESA are the gateway to being officially recognised as a disabled person.  In recent years, political and public debate has been dominated by the notion that it is only people who are the most vulnerable’ who have a legitimate claim to support - and that these people can be identified by a computer-based assessment of functional limitations. Those who cannot prove their vulnerable dependency are stigmatised as scroungers. 

Paralympians pose a real challenge to this dichotomy: their status as ‘superhumans’, created by the industries that profit from their success, is incompatible with both the legitimate status of vulnerable dependency and with the stigmatised status of the scrounger.  Why would someone who has ‘overcome’ their limitations, who displays their physical ability at an international level of competition, be eligible for a cash payment intended to recognise vulnerability, inability and limitation? No wonder some people consider disabled athletes to be disqualified from assistance the entitlement to which is determined by an assessment process measuring functional inability and is associated with vulnerable dependency.

Paralympians thus expose the dilemma facing disabled people in the current political and economic context.  To do something well - whether it is as an athlete or anything else - is to ‘overcome’ your ‘disability’. ‘Overcoming’ is an individual achievement, put down to someone’s determination to succeed. In the process the support that a person might require is made invisible, such support becoming so invisible that the need for it can become delegitimised. Thus we have people questioning whether disabled athletes can really need a benefit intended to compensate for the additional costs that impairment brings.

The ‘superhumans’ narrative also makes invisible the very significant support that Paralympians have received from the funding and resources infrastructure which results in their achievements.  Their aspirations are made possible by the regressive tax which is the Big Lottery, the money being invested in the sporting infrastructure of coaches and other support roles, adaptations, equipment and so on.  Without these resources, however motivated and talented individual athletes may be, they are very unlikely to be able to reach the levels of international competition now on display in Rio.  As John Pring says, Paralympic medals are “an example of what disabled people can achieve if they are given the dedicated, high-quality, personalised support they need to contribute in their own way to society”.

Just think what would happen to the disability employment gap if the same approach of investing in support for people’s aspirations and abilities was taken to disabled people in general?  If instead of distrusting people’s accounts of their experiences, using assessments based on simplistic measures of functional limitations, the state worked together with disabled people to identify and address barriers to the achievement of their aspirations.

Just think what would happen to disabled people’s participation in and contribution to society if, using resources from a progressive tax system, we invested in accessible and affordable housing, in high quality support services, in equipment, expertise and other resources that enabled mobility, communication and advocacy?  If we invested in health (including mental health) and other services which made possible easy, early access to effective and personalised care?

Just think what would happen if, as well as celebrating the achievements of the Paralympian athletes, we took the lessons learnt from the investment in their aspirations and decided to invest our collective resources to work in partnership with all disabled people to achieve their aspirations.

As Penny Pepper says, turning Paralympians into superheroes is no help to disabled people.  But learning the lessons of what has been achieved for a few by investing in them and their aspirations could be of enormous help.  As Penny also says, the barriers to our participation, our wellbeing, our very existence can be removed.  It is a political choice, by politicians acting on behalf of us all, not to remove these barriers, not to invest in us. That is what disability campaigners have exposed this week and that is what must change.