Austerity's impact on disabled people has been brutal and unrelenting. The much-maligned bedroom tax, the abolition of disability living allowance, an ongoing social care crisis – disabled people have been let down and discarded by a state that views them simply as a drain.
A new book, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People, lays this anguish bare. It's a devastating look at both the policies that impact disabled people and the toxic rhetoric behind them – and what needs to change to make it right.
I spoke to author Frances Ryan about why the book is so necessary right now.
VICE: How did the book come about?
Frances Ryan: I've been reporting on the way disabled people have been disproportionately affected by austerity for years. I wanted to put together a book that spoke to the magnitude of what's happening – it's a proper public policy crisis, both in the number of people affected by it and the level of hardship that they’re going through. It's not just about austerity – it's bigger than that. We have this idea we're a compassionate and fair country; we position ourselves as a global leader in disability rights. Actually, that's a bit of a myth. We still have huge problems in how we perceive disability.
In the introduction, you say life was "full of promise" for disabled people when you were growing up. How much has that changed?
I was a teenager in the 1990s, which was a really exciting time; it took until then for people to have proper civil rights recognition in law. There was a feeling that disabled people finally had this moment that campaigners had fought so long for. But there's a feeling that we’re losing those gains. Cuts to social care have pushed back disabled people's ability to live independently, cuts to benefits have pushed back gains in lifting disabled people out of poverty. People fought for these basic rights and dignities and opportunities, and very quickly the last decade has pushed that back in a very worrying way.
Are people aware of how much disabled people are losing their independence in particular, do you think?
The benefits stuff has had a lot of coverage; the bedroom tax really reached that public awareness level. But when a politician talks about social care, you rarely hear them talk about young disabled people. A third of all social care users are working age disabled people – not talking about us means it's really easy for our needs to not be addressed.
Social care is painted as the basics – going to the toilet, getting dressed. That's obviously key, and there are many people who are having to sit in adult nappies because the person who helps them go to the toilet has been cut. That is real and inhumane. But it's so much more than that. It's your ability to live the sort of life that a non-disabled person takes for granted; going to the pub with friends, to a job interview, going on a trip to see your sister in a different city. You take social care away and disabled people are treated in a way that just wouldn't be acceptable otherwise.
You're expected to just survive, rather than have a life that's joyful and fulfilling.
That's it. There's a view that certain people are supposed to live on this subsistence level of existence, and others are allowed to have hopes and dreams and opportunity and fulfilment. But life isn't just survival – all of us should be having that. If you don't think disabled people have sex or want a career, it becomes much easier to pull that support from us. You have to tackle the attitudes that make those cuts easy as much as the cuts themselves.
How has austerity impacted women specifically?
Austerity has penalised women more than men, but within that group, ethnic minority women and disabled women have been particularly hardest hit. Writing the book, it was one of the things that made me stop and feel this real disgust at how badly people are being let down. One of the things I look at is disabled mums who aren't getting support to look after their children. It’s resulting in really brutal consequences – not just disabled women, but ethnic minority and working class women, too, are having real difficulty keeping custody.
How has the ableist rhetoric of politicians and the media impacted disabled people?
One thing that's struck me about the surge in anti-disability rhetoric is that it isn't a problem that's consigned to the fringes. Yes, we’re seeing toxic examples from fringe elements – i.e. the Swindon mayor who was in the press for calling disabled people "mongols" who shouldn't be allowed to have sex. But the alarming thing is that it isn't just the fringes. Ministers have worked with the right-wing press to spread the myth that disabled people are a drain on the public purse – Iain Duncan Smith backing the Sun's campaign to track down so-called "benefits cheats", Esther McVey telling the Mail she's going after the "bogus disabled", Philip Hammond blaming the economy stalling on the increase of disabled workers. That's the really scary bit.
How much has this sentiment trickled down?
It definitely has an impact. People internalise the idea they're a problem. People I interviewed for the book wanted to tell me they’d worked their whole lives, that they weren’t a "drain", basically. Others talked about being yelled at when they're out in their wheelchair: "Why aren't you at work, you're lazy." At the same time, there is hope – polls show an improvement in the public's willingness to use tax money to support disabled people. It's a crucial time: it could go either way.
So what needs to change? How can we do better when it comes to supporting disabled people?
Representation is really important. There are so few disabled people leading the conversation – disability charities not led by disabled people, the fact that when governments do reforms they don't invite disabled-led organisations to the table. There are very few disabled politicians, so there are fewer disabled people at the decision-making table.
And there’s practical stuff. There are many recommendations for change – ending the use of private companies to do benefits assessments, for example. Things like that would have a huge impact on disabled people's lives. Progress is complex; it goes back and forward again. But it's well within our capability to make the changes that would make life better for disabled people.