Illustration of someone sat in a wheelchair with a flexed arm and holding up a sign that reads 'Nothing About Us Without Us'

The War on Disabled People

As part of York Disability Week, Helen met with Ellen Clifford, author of the incredible book, The War on Disabled People. Ellen began the event with an introduction to herself and the book, and read a small section for us. This was followed by Helen’s response which related many of the ideas from her book to the current pandemic. Questions and answers followed and the discussion focused on how we get more people – disabled and non disabled – involved in disability rights.

The War on Disabled People by Ellen Clifford, paperback cover

We highly recommend you get a copy of the book and to spark your appetite, why don’t you read some of Helen’s thoughts:

“Ellen, thank you so much, both for being here tonight but also for all the in depth research that clearly went into your book. I would highly recommend anyone involved within the disability rights movement reads it. It provides great context for what we are doing today, what we can learn from the past and helps to contextualise the issues we are tackling.

Reading it during the pandemic has been interesting. Many of the ideas you talk about in the context of austerity are so applicable and transferable to where we find ourselves now. 

Your book looks at the last ten years, and highlights how welfare cuts have greatly affected disabled people and how the government justified that by casting disabled people as scroungers, benefit cheats and lazy. Within the model of capitalism, disabled people are assumed to be of little value and this government has been keen to make sure everyone understands that. 

Moving to Covid 19, we find disabled people being cast as expendable in a much more direct way. For example, the assumption that if there is one ventilator and two patients, the non disabled patient should obviously get it without question. This is the narrative that we are facing right now and it’s hard when so many overt and covert things are telling you that your life is not worth anything in the bigger scheme of things. 

I’m thinking here of things like disabled people being denied access to their everyday ventilator supplies because they are needed by hospitals and how any talk about herd immunity brings with it the message that some of us are a reasonable cost for the country to pay. People are being abused because they can’t wear a mask and being told that they should stay home if they can’t. We are rapidly amping up the speed of resegregation that you discuss in the book.

And at the same time, we are quite literally dying. As a result of the inequality and systemic issues that the last ten years have exacerbated, we’ve seen that disabled people have died at a rate of eleven times more than non disabled people. 

Disabled people may have specific medical conditions that affect their health but this is only part of the story. People who are of lower socioeconomic status, homeless, living in densely populated communities and with limited access to food and poor sanitation are at greater risk of covid. And disabled people have a higher prevalence of being in those groups. Further, we have struggled to get appropriate PPE for carers, faced pressure to sign DNRs and local authorities have been able legally allowed to reduce their support for disabled people at a time when many of us need it most. We have been denied our human right to accessible information, such as the missing BSL interpreter and many of us are unable to even access covid tests because home testing relies on having a credit record.

People with learning disabilities, are dying at rates up to 30 times higher than the equivalent aged population and a third of those who died were living in residential care. If we put aside the issues surrounding residential care more broadly, the way you receive your care should not determine your risk of death. This was not inevitable, it was the result of certain populations not being a government priority or consideration.

The higher rates of deaths within institutional care settings is especially concerning given the push towards this and away from care in your own home. Your book highlights the CCGs that set cost restrictions on care packages and pressure anyone who’s care exceeds this to move into residential care. I have had this threatened in relation to my own care and the idea of not living in my own home and not having the independence that that gives me is terrifying, and now I also have to consider that if I end up in residential care, I have a high chance of dying prematurely.

And then there is the word ‘vulnerable’, if I may read from your book:

“The word ‘vulnerable’ is not consistent with the social model in that it suggests that the disabled person is inherently and inevitably inferior. It is a use of language that locates the essential problem within the person with the impairment, and, in doing so, removes attention from the role played by the socio-economic structures of the system we live under in putting disabled people in situations of risk.”

Ellen Clifford

The word vulnerable has been used over and over again during the pandemic and it brings with it connotations of pity and helplessness and makes it seem like it’s our fault if we die, rather than the societal inequalities around us. As Baroness Campbell said, “We are not vulnerable people. We are in vulnerable situations.”

The issues you cover in your book affect the whole of society. They directly affect families of disabled people, our carers and so on, but the rest of society needs to watch out. What happens to us is likely just going to be the tip of the iceberg. 

What happens when the government needs to make further cuts? It’s likely that non disability benefits will be hit even more brutally than already, and so people in lower paying jobs will be attacked next. Anyone who is receiving any form of support is ultimately at risk as they are not serving the interests of profits, and thus are not serving the interests of this government. 

Again, we have seen this with the response to the pandemic. Surely it was obvious that things like eat out to help out were going to result in a rise in cases? As a disabled person who has been shielding since March, this felt like a very blatant statement that the interests of, generally big, businesses were a much higher priority than my safety. Essentially, my death would have been an acceptable loss in the bigger view of profits. 

We live in a system that puts profit before people, even in the midst of a global pandemic. If there ever was a time to care about people, this should have been it. 

Much of how covid has impacted on disabled people has not been covered by the media, it hasn’t been responded to by the government and just a few weeks ago, we heard the government trying to claim that they have considered the needs of disabled people throughout the pandemic and ‘remain committed to supporting’ us. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling they haven’t supported us in the last ten years, let alone now.

There’s a line in your book where you quote Mary O’Hara, and whilst you’re talking about the austerity measures, it feels so important to say in relation to covid:

“the Conservatives had ‘seized on the economic consequences of the financial crisis as a means to push policies they always desired but did not think possible in normal circumstances.”

I can’t think of more fitting statement for today.”

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