a crip perestroika

Representations of Disabled People in an Age of Austerity


This conference was held on Saturday 3 December 2011 at RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), 105 Judd Street, London.

Nicola Martin was unable to attend and she was replaced by Michelle Valentine, from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Disability Committee.

 [my comments are italicised throughout]

On a TV screen at the RNIB entrance as I walked in, a BBC headline crossed the screen: PARALYMPICS – 1 in 5 made to feel ‘second class’

Bad News for Disabled People

Nick Watson (nicholas.watson@glasgow.ac.uk) presented the findings of a report conducted at the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research in association with Inclusion London.

The report found that these are dark times for disabled people and assaults by the media have led to a change in public perception that will discourage resistance to the destruction of the welfare state and incapacity benefits. Before the report was conducted, many people shared the feeling that media reporting of disabled people had become increasingly malicious. But this was only anecdotal evidence, and so they examined four British tabloid newspapers, The Sun, The Mirror, The Express and The Daily Mail, and one broadsheet, The Guardian to find statistical evidence of a change and then worked with focus groups to discover whether or not there had been a change in able-bodied public attitudes as well as in disabled self-image.

Using Lexnexis, the study collected together articles mentioning ‘disabled’, ‘disability’, ‘disabilities’ and ‘incapacity’ in the above newspapers between the period October 2004-January 2005 (around the time that Tony Blair’s New Labour staged ‘reforms’ to incapacity benefits) and October 2010-January 2011 (when Britain moved into the age of austerity under Cameron’s coalition government).


–       increase in number of articles mentioning disability, from 713 in 2004-5 to 1000+ in 2010-11. Accompanying this increase was a shift in tone, and an increased politicisation as disability is now nearly always mentioned with reference to benefits.

–       Large increase in the number of articles about uncovered incapacity fraud. ‘DISABLED’ WEDDING DANCE MAN JAILED FOR BENEFIT FRAUD was one of the BBC’s ‘most read’ last week.

–       articles surrounding impairment issues frequently buy into the image of the ‘super crip’. Particularly in the build up to the Paralympics. Perhaps the ideal ‘super crip’ is Capt Nick Beighton who is training to compete in the Paralympics after being severely injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

–  In 2004-5, of those articles mentioning disability/incapacity, 12.4% in The Express, 10.7% in The Daily Mail and 7.2% in The Mirror contained an attack on the government (despite The Mirror’s general support of Labour) with headlines like LABOUR’S FAILURE TO TACKLE SPIRALING SICKNOTE CULTURE (The Daily Mail 17/12/04). Importantly, during this period, the blame fell on the government and not on disabled people, with The Mirror declaring that 2/3 of incapacity claimants were fit to work, but that they had no other option because they couldn’t get a job. Of articles mentioning disability/incapacity, only two defended the Blair government, one in The Sun and one in The Guardian.

–  Conversely, in 2010-11, 4.8% of tabloid articles mentioning disability/incapacity overtly defended the coalition and there was a stark rise in individual blame on ‘undeserving’ ‘scroungers’ and character attacks on ‘cheats’. The report also found a reduction in articles about the ‘deserving’ disabled in all but The Mirror and The Guardian.

–  Regarding ‘sympathetic’ portrayals of disabled people, in 2004-5 there was a high proportion of ‘impairments stories’ and descriptive information about conditions. These stories made up 18.6% of The Daily Mail’s total articles mentioning disability/incapacity. In 2010-11 there was a substantial drop this coverage (down to 10.8% of The Daily Mail’s total) and stories in the category of ‘real life experience’ dropped from 29.2% (across all newspapers) in 2004-5 to 22% in 2010-11. The researchers also noted a massive decline in the use of the phrase ‘triumph over adversity’, although they did find this article from The Daily Mail  3/3/2011: I CAN’T MOVE OR SPEAK. BUT AM I HAPPY? YOU BET!

–  In the austerity period 2010-11, incapacity benefits were frequently referred to as a drain on the economy, and in some cases were even blamed for the recession itself (‘work-shy are largely to blame for deficit crisis’ from WE LIVE IN SHIRKERS’ PARADISE, The Sun 4/10/2011). ‘Fraud rhetoric rose from 2.8% in 2004-5 to 6.2% in 2010-11 across all tabloids, with The Daily Express front page claiming that 75% ON SICK ARE SKIVING and that INCAPACITY BENEFIT TESTS WILL POSE NO THREAT TO DISABLED. The official DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) estimate is that there is a 2.4% total overpayment of incapacity benefits, of which 0.3% is fraud, 0.9% is customer error and 1.2% is official error. Despite this, most members of focus groups guessed that 40%-70% of claims were fraudulent. Disabled members of focus groups said that they were increasingly portrayed as dole bludgers or victims, with one interviewee saying ‘its open season on disabled people’.

–  The report also found a decrease in articles on discrimination against disabled people, with a drop in The Guardian from 31.2% in 2004-5 to 29.6% in 2010-11, a drop across all tabloids from 19.6% in 2004-5 to 14.4% in 2010-11 and with The Daily Express showing the most marked drop of all, from 22.1% in 2004-5 to 11.6% in 2010-11.

–  The report found that the consequence of this shift in reporting means that there is less opposition to the subsequent cuts. Those with mental health problems (50% of all claimants) are hit worst and depression and anxiety are perceived to be the ‘least deserving’, the biggest ‘frauds’. The notion of ‘triumph’ is also almost exclusively used to refer to physical disability.

–  There are increasing suggestions that incapacity benefits have become a ‘lifestyle choice’ with mentions of ‘scrounger’ up from 15 to 34 and mentions of handout up from 18 to 58. In the 2004-5 period there were 8 overall mentions of ‘cripple’ but the word has completely disappeared from tabloid discourse since.

–  From the focus groups study, there was no evidence that the shift in media coverage equated to a detrimental effect on the perception of disabled people, with most participants insisting that they have no problem with ‘real’ disabled people but that they ‘just hate fraud’. So the actual consequence is a shrinking number of people who are allowed to define, and to be defined, as disabled. There is a need to preserve the ‘good guy claimant’ category in order to justify hatred of supposed frauds. Nick Watson referred to Deborah Stone’s The Disabled State regarding disability as a fluctuating administrative category. An example being when Thatcher used incapacity benefits to lower unemployment figures, which entailed a massive increase in people whom the state defined as disabled.

–  When asked about images of disabled people being used to justify ‘compassionate conservatism’ and distract from the cuts, Watson observed that ‘Sam Cam’ (Samantha Cameron) is always photographed at special schools and that these articles fell into the ‘sympathetic’ section. He also noted that Cameron has encouraged a conflation of incapacity benefits and job seekers allowance, saying that incapacity benefits need to be cut to get people back into employment.

–  One outcome of tabloid coverage is a reinforced binary of us/them between the able bodied and the disabled, as well as the creation of a category of disabled people who are ‘like us really’ e.g. the war wounded. It is worth noting that sympathy rarely translates into better welfare provisions.

–  Cameron’s rhetoric is very pro liberal equal rights whilst destroying the welfare state and a marked move from equality of outcome to equality of opportunity (the removal of EMA, or Education Maintenance Allowance is a good example of this shift).

Michelle Valentine from the EHRC Disability Commission

Spoke about the role of the disability commission and the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident – a hate crime must involve criminal activity and can be taken to court whereas a hate incident must be dealt with by whichever institution is involved.

–       The police and judicial system’s requirement of ‘evidential robustness’ for a witness testimony often causes problems for disabled people suffering harassment or abuse. Women with mental health problems who have been raped are almost always turned away by the police and denied proper investigation. Michelle Valentine said that she had twice been turned away from the police after complaining of harassment with the excuse that she ‘would not be able to pick them out from an identity parade’ because she is visually impaired.

–       A report called ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ covers a culture of disbelief that disabled people are harassed and abused and that there is always a focus on the behaviour and vulnerability of the victim (‘why did you put yourself in danger?’) rather that the behaviour and motives of the perpetrator. Within the British judicial system the perpetrator/defendant would be guaranteed free defence if they could not afford it but there is no equivalent free legal representation for a victim of abuse to prosecute.

The Good, the Bad and the Disabled

In this interactive session, performance artist Deborah Williams discussion TV and media representations of disabled people and asked the conference to list attributes of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ disabled people, according to public opinion in the British age of austerity.

The Good:

–       Sexless and attractive
–       Grateful
–       Meek
–       Cheerful against all the odds
–       Unlikely zest for life
–       David Blunkett pre-sexualisation
–       Brave
–       Super crips

The Bad:

–       Sexual and unattractive
–       Perverted
–       Politicised
–       Activist (Jody McIntyre)
–       Undeserving
–       Sexual David Blunkett
–       Scroungers
–       Liars
–       Lazy

–       Nick Watson noted that children’s television is far more inclusive than adult programmes, giving the example of the Sparticle Mystery on CBBC, and Deborah Williams added that she used to love Raggy Dolls on ITV, and its theme tune.

–       One audience member told us that the BBC has an authenticity policy regarding its portrayal of disabled people which means that they can only ever appear within gritty social realism genre and not in fantasy etc.

–       Deborah Williams also noted that ATOS, the unfair assessor for incapacity benefits (which Green Party members have voted to remove) is the sponsor of the Paralympics. Campaigners are planning a boycott of the games as a result of the link. She also noted that wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan has been pitched as ‘the only black disabled man in Britain’ and is hosting most of the Paralympics.

–       Williams also criticised ‘silo thinking’ around portrayal of disability and ‘impairment by numbers’, whereby an actor which a particular disability will be cast because ‘we haven’t had that one yet’. Everyone noted Glee for its tokenism and for casting an able-bodied actor to ‘crip up’ as Artie. Following the same logic, the media rarely portrays people who tick more than one disabled box.

–       An interview with Deborah Williams by Disability Arts Online is available here.


Paralympics vs Benefits

In September 2011, Green Party members recently voted for an end to ATOS assessment for incapacity benefits.

Jillian Creasy, Green councillor for Sheffield Central who also works as a GP, said:

ATOS’s computer-led assessment is far too blunt an instrument to assess a benefit that is vital for so many. For example, the box-ticking exercise is close to useless for assessing a condition such as autism. Not only that, but the number of decisions that have been reversed means that an awful lot of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.

“Disabled people should be afforded the dignity they deserve throughout any assessment process, and should not be presumed guilty or treated like they’re avoiding work. ATOS has no place in such a sensitive area, and we urge the government to sever all ties with the company.

Meanwhile, ATOS has been named the official sponsor of the Paralympics and Cameron won compassionate conservatism points for attending International Paralympic Day and playing tennis with Boris Johnson.

Fittingly, Cameron’s compassionate ‘love’ of the disabled population of the UK amounts to the tennis definition, zero, when it comes to benefit claimants.

Another example of Robert McRuer’s theory that disability will be commodified and valued upon its ‘usefulness’ to neoliberal masters in an age of austerity.

All-Terrain Beach Wheelchair

seen on Brighton Beach today

Desdemona Takes the Microphone

Webcast from The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities

‘Desdemona Takes the Microphone: Toni Morrison and Shakespeare’s Hidden Women’
October 27, 2011
Zellerbach Playhouse


The follow-up panel discussion with Peter Sellars, Toni Morrison, and Rokia Traoré in conversation with UC Berkeley faculty: Abdul JanMohamed (English); Tamara Roberts (Music); Darieck Scott (African American Studies)
October 28, 2011