Image: 'Route Barred' from authors own collection

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, disabled people in the UK have been hit disproportionately hard by austerity. Austerity measures have had a strong impact on economic redistribution, in terms of widening income inequalities between disabled and non-disabled people. Furthermore, austerity has had an impact on disabled people’s cultural recognition and political representation as well.

As suggested by Nancy Fraser, all three dimensions of redistribution, recognition and representation need to be attended to in order to account for and challenge social injustice. Such a critique will benefit from considering a fourth dimension as well, in terms of understanding what it means to be human, i.e. what forms of humanity are held to have value, and what forms of humanity are held to have little or no value. A thorough critique of austerity calls for deconstructing its underlying understanding of the human.

Let me begin with what Fraser refers to as ‘maldistribution’, a process that widens income inequalities. The think tank Demos has estimated that disabled people in the UK are set to lose £9bn in benefits over the course of the present Parliament. The reduction of support includes the closure of the Independent Living Fund, the introduction of the bedroom tax, the decrease of funding provided to local authorities for social care, the intended cuts in the Disabled Students Allowance, the introduction of a benefit cap, and the restricted access to major disability benefits – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA), currently being replaced by the more restrictive Personal Independence Payment (PIP). As a cumulative result, many disabled people have lost vital support, and are directly experiencing the negative – and sometimes deadly – effects of severe maldistribution.

In terms of cultural recognition of disabled people, austerity measures have summoned the spectre of the disability ‘scrounger’. This negative image has been multiplied and inflated by the media through a moral panic about a supposedly widespread disability benefits fraud (a statistically hollow suggestion). Accordingly, disabled people have been lumped together as a burden on the public budget, undeserving of support, fraudsters. A framework of patronising benevolence, traditionally imposed on disabled people by medicalisation and charity, has been displaced by suspicious malevolence. As a direct result of this misrecognition, disabled people’s lives have been devalued in the eyes of their fellow denizens. This devaluing is reflected in the recent increased number of disability hate crime incidents.

These dimensions of social injustice also interact. The conception of disabled people as ‘scroungers’ serves to legitimise economic maldistribution through cuts in disability benefits and services, whilst the cuts increase the marginalisation of disabled people, thus facilitating their cultural misrecognition. The attempt to break this vicious cycle has produced important effects in the domain of political representation, across groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the Spartacus Network, the Black Triangle and others.

Austerity measures have emphasised the need for a response predicated on collective action. Responding to the increases in material inequality and the attendant cultural misrecognition of disabled people as ‘scroungers’, new collective agents of disability activism have emerged. A prominent example is the DPAC group, which has been particularly sharp and resolute in denouncing austerity. Other examples include the Spartacus Network, the Black Triangle, and The Hardest Hit campaign. These initiatives utilise social media (Twitter, Facebook), revive direct action and repoliticise disability in order to challenge austerity-related maldistribution and misrecognition.

Last but not least, austerity works by reinforcing the assumption of human self-sufficiency. Since the ascendance of neoliberalism in the 1980s, this assumption has provided a rationale for the retrenchment of the welfare state. Post-2008, it has been recycled and reinvigorated to underpin an unprecedented assault on disabled people’s social support. The government efforts to reduce the number of people receiving long-term disability benefits by reclassifying them as ‘fit for work’ finds its rationale in this over-valuing of individual self-sufficiency.

By emphasising interdependence as an alternative to the self-sufficiency promoted by austerity, disability activists strengthen their case against maldistribution and misrecognition.  Critical disability scholars have regarded this challenge as an integral part of a movement that exceeds disability politics in elaborating a comprehensive critique of what has been identified as ‘neoliberal-ableist capitalism’.

About the author: Teodor Mladenov is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of Education and Professional Studies, King’s College London.