Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People

Daisy Powell reviews Frances Ryan’s Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, and shares discussion from the book’s launch at The University of Leeds.

The austerity measures implemented since the 2008 global financial crash have led to the destitution and deteriorating health of millions of disabled people living in Britain, with tens of thousands dying as a consequence.[1] Whilst disabled people have been disproportionately affected by austerity and demonized as benefits “scroungers”, the significance of disability within austerity politics has not yet been sufficiently explored. As Robert McRuer writes in Crip Times: Disability, Globalisation, and Resistance, ‘most studies of austerity (…) have noted neither disability’s centrality to a global austerity politics nor the nuanced ways (…) that disability might serve as a site from which to understand and resist that politics’.[2]

Political journalist and author Dr Frances Ryan counters this blackout of disabled people from the public consciousness, media and politics with her new book Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People. [3] I was fortunate to attend the Northern book launch of Crippled – a multi-disciplinary event held on Wednesday 5 June 2019, hosted by The Centre for Disability Studies, with the School of Sociology and Social Policy, at the University of Leeds – where Ryan introduced the text and responded to questions.[4]

Through each chapter (poverty, work, independence, housing, women, children), Ryan examines how austerity policies attack disabled people from all sides, with ‘tens of billions of pounds being pulled from everything from disability benefits to housing to social care provision’.[5] Using a combination of interviews and political analysis, Crippled clearly maps out the journey into poverty for disabled people in austerity Britain. Those Ryan interviews describe their situations as “like living in the Victorian times”.[6] There are stories of isolation and loss of independence as care hours are drastically reduced, while a thirty-year-old man describes being physically dragged around by his personal carer due to living in an inaccessible flat. The accounts of empty cupboards, lack of heating, homelessness and sex work are particularly harrowing. These narratives support the findings of a United Nations report published in 2016, stating that welfare ‘reforms have led to “grave and systematic” violations of the rights of disabled people’.[7]

Crippled also highlights the ludicrous reality that not only has austerity led to human rights violations, it is financially inefficient, with an estimated £1.6 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on benefits tests between 2016 and 2019. In fact, significantly more money is spent reassessing people than in savings in reductions to the benefits bill.[8] By exposing how much austerity costs the state, Ryan uses neoliberal reasoning against itself, debunking the myth that its implementation is a matter of financial responsibility. Some readers may be cautious about this argument which, taken in the wrong context, could amplify public concerns about state expenditure on social security. However, during the panel and throughout the book, Ryan is clear that cost effectiveness should never be a factor in the policy decisions that impact ill and disabled people’s lives. In considering this financial mismanagement, Ryan raises important questions about the political interests and short sightedness of the Conservative government. Rather than being economically prudent, ‘it is actually costing us more to plaster over errors than to invest in long-term solutions’.[9]

Underpinning austerity policies are the discriminatory cultural narratives that represent disabled people as “scroungers”. Ryan identifies that ‘the roll-out of the Work Capability Assessment was the embodiment of the post-crash narrative that disabled people were suspects’,[10] perpetuating what Ian Duncan Smith (the Work and Pensions Secretary from 2010 – 16) called a “something-for-nothing culture”.[11] A leaked document from the Department of Work and Pensions referring to a claimant as a ‘lying bitch’ uncovers the vitriol behind these sound bites that publicly accuse disabled people of being fraudulent and idle.

Creating a culture of blame and widening divisions through difference is a powerful political tool that diverts attention from the government’s agenda of privatisation, the growing wealth gap and the contradictions of austerity. But why is it, asked Dr Angharad Beckett (University of Leeds), that this rhetoric has been uncritically accepted and unquestioned? Ryan suggested that one factor may be how rarely disabled people are seen in society – in mainstream education, on TV, in the office – making it easier to accept distorted representations and to fear the unknown. Dr Clare Barker (University of Leeds) noted the role of cultural narratives in upholding and reproducing the deeply embedded process of distancing, othering and de-humanising disabled people. Literature, film and the wider media have historically represented disabled people as monstrous, tragic or bitter,[12] fuelling the abelist attitudes that serve to justify austerity politics today. As austerity reverts disability rights by decades, it is more important than ever to interrogate its representation and call for alternative narratives of difference.

All the speakers felt the book spoke very powerfully about the impact of austerity on the lives of disabled people. Beckett celebrated the interweaving of relatable stories with policy analysis and evidence, moving between the big picture and the lives of individuals to trace how national politics play out at a micro level. Rebecca Porter (University of Leeds) similarly emphasised the significance of reading human stories that detail the real life consequences of the political system. Crippled provides a powerful counter narrative to the demonization of disabled people and whilst the individual stories vividly expose the human catastrophe of austerity Britain, Ryan emphasises that this treatment is not inevitable and that we do have the power to enact change. Crippled is both a record and ‘rallying cry’ that ‘how things are not how they need to be’.[13] Panel speaker Jonathan Hume (University of Leeds) shared that although the stories were distressing, he felt that he had been heard for the first time and was invigorated by the placing of disabled experience at the forefront of the text. As Ryan concludes:

‘This book has shown [that] disabled people are the ones who know their own lives, and it is their voices that should be amplified in a society that so often tries to speak for us. Disabled people, like the working class, have organised throughout the decades to gain our rights and – as these rights are threatened afresh – it is disabled people who are front and centre of the fight back’.[14]

Reflecting on the book’s conclusions, Dr Miro Griffiths (University of Leeds) discussed the need for different forms of resistance and a new kind of solidarity politics, suggesting that this would strengthen the united fight against austerity. Dan Goodley et al. write that ‘it is absolutely essential that we consider the ways in which poverty and disability are once again being cast together as inseparable categories’,[15] a reality Ryan exemplifies when describing the purchase of an expensive wheelchair, positing that this is ‘a class issue as much as a disability one’.[16] Disability campaigners have long established that disability is not a marginal issue, as everyone will be affected at some point by ill health, old age or becoming a carer. This is increasingly true in the age of austerity, as disability identity is complicated by conditions of poverty, violence and precarity.[17] As Ryan illustrates, critically engaging with disability perspectives enhance the debates surrounding austerity and helps ‘to bridge the gap and show that the struggles facing each of us are not so different after all’.[18] Griffiths shared that the book had prompted him to consider his individual contribution to collective action and suggested that we all use it to re-energise the debate in our various fields. Through meticulous analysis and storytelling Ryan has brought the impact of austerity into sharp focus and as such Crippled is a fundamental book for discussion, teaching and inspiring action.

 

Daisy Powell has recently started her PhD in the School of English at the University of Leeds. Her research title is “Austerity Fictions: Disability, Class and Resistance in Twenty-First Century British Literature and Film”. Daisy also has six years of experience working for disability charities.

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/pip-waiting-time-deaths-disabled-people-die-disability-benefits-personal-independence-payment-dwp-a8727296.html.

[2] Robert McRuer, Crip Times, Disability, Globalisation, and Resistance (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 13.

[3] Frances Ryan, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People (London: Verso, 2019).

[4] Ryan’s introduction to the session will be available to view shortly on the Centre for Disability Studies blog page.

[5] Ryan, Crippled, 3.

[6] Ibid, 102.

[7] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7367.

[8] Ryan, Crippled, 53.

[9] Ibid, 195.

[10] Ibid, 48.

[11] Ibid, 28.

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/12/disability-literature-point-of-view.

[13] Ryan, Crippled, 200.

[14] Ibid, 199.

[15] Dan Goodley et al., “Dis/ ability and austerity: beyond work and slow death”, Disability & Society 29, no. 6 (2014): 982.

[16] Ryan, Crippled, 99.

[17] Jasbir Puar theorises the notion of ‘debility’ in The Right To Maim, Debility, Capacity, Disability, exploring the precarious embodiment that comes from living in conditions of poverty. See Jasbir K. Puar, The Right To Maim, Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017).

[18] Ryan, Crippled, 197.

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