Book review: Frances Ryan – Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 19 July 2019.

‘Crippled’ is a well-written, thoroughly-researched and harrowing account of how austerity – and the classist, ableist ideology that accompanies it – has impacted millions of disabled people. It is, in the words of Rob Delaney, “a ferocious, thoroughly substantiated indictment of this government’s maltreatment of its disabled children, women and men.”

Frances Ryan provides comprehensive statistical evidence demonstrating that disabled people have been disastrously and disproportionately affected by the last decade of public spending cuts. This evidence is very effectively combined with interviews and case studies showing just how badly our society is failing. The reader is introduced to people who have seen their benefits and support cut to such an extent that they are routinely having to choose between eating and heating; people forced to sleep in their wheelchairs because they no longer qualify for a carer to help them get to bed; people resorting to online crowdfunding to raise money for wheelchairs and nutritional supplements; people driven into outright destitution and stripped of the right to live in their own homes.

Austerity has brought about a historic step backwards for the disabled. Disability benefits started to be rolled out in the late 1940s, as part of the postwar Labour government’s commitment to a welfare state. This was accompanied by a cultural shift towards appreciating that disabled people were full human beings with rights and something to offer society, as opposed to defective nuisances to be hidden and ignored. Increasingly, disabled people had the right to support, education and work, and to live free from discrimination. There was a growing awareness of the need to make buildings, services and technology accessible to all.

Much of this progress has been reversed as a direct result of the austerity programme introduced in 2010. The British state is now manifestly failing in its duties towards the disabled in terms of housing, employment, education, healthcare and care provision. This is no small problem: there are an estimated 12 million people in Britain living with disabilities, visible and invisible. According to recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, at least 4 million of these are now living below the breadline. The UN has described this situation as a “human catastrophe”.

One of the most grievous measures has been the 2012 introduction of the Bedroom tax, whereby public housing tenants with rooms deemed to be ‘spare’ received reduced housing benefit. This overwhelmingly impacts the disabled: almost half of the people that have had their benefit reduced have a disability. But, in reality, “these are box rooms lined with adult nappies and oxygen cylinders. Many of the ‘spare rooms’ that disabled people had their benefits docked for were in fact being used to store vital medical equipment or for a carer to sleep in.”

Benefits sanctions are another key cost reduction mechanism that has disproportionally affected the disabled, who are routinely sanctioned for failing to attend meetings that they don’t have the means to attend. Ryan notes that, between 2013 and 2014, sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people rose by 580 percent, leading to immense privation. This situation is set to get much worse with the rollout of Universal Credit.

Ryan points out the appalling irony that there are five times more officials paid to investigate benefits fraud than there are to investigate tax evasion, even though the latter costs the state over 20 times as much as the former.

Alongside the direct economic effects of austerity, a shame-and-blame culture is emerging, with the government and media talking incessantly about “benefits cheats” and the “work-shy long-term sick”. “The image of a disabled person in the new age of austerity was not that of a human being who deserved support but of a liar and leach, living on the taxpayer’s expense,” writes Ryan. This narrative reinforces the message that rising poverty and inequality aren’t caused by capitalist crisis or free market fundamentalism, but by a bloated welfare bill. It’s no coincidence that the last few years have seen a marked increase in hate crimes against the disabled.

We must – urgently and immediately – move towards a system that affords disabled people their full human rights. With the appropriate support in place, disabled people can expect to lead dignified and fulfilling lives. Labour has promised to reverse the cuts to disability support, to end the punitive sanctions regime, and to “transform our social security system from one that demonises disabled people to one that is supportive and enabling.” We must fight to turn these promises into reality.

Frances Ryan’s book gives a voice to millions of disabled people suffering under austerity. It is essential reading.

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