New International Symbol of Accessibility*

Disability and disabled people have regularly featured in the media over the past few months.  Radio 4 is currently running a series exploring disability across history, we have had extensive coverage of the Oscar Pistorius court case in South Africa and disabled people feature in many of the scare stories about the NHS that are circulating.  Underlying all of this are changes in the way that disability and disabled people are viewed within the media and by the general public.

In 2011 the World Health Organisation published the first World Report on Disability.  They estimated that more than 1 billion people across the world, approximately 15% of the population, live with a disability.  A rise in numbers from the 1970s is accounted for by the ageing population and the increasing number of people living with long-term disabling conditions.  Considering the UK, 1 in 10 people live with a disability – the most common being rheumatoid arthritis.  The evidence from the WHO suggests that disabled people experience poorer health outcomes, lower educational achievement, increased levels of dependency and restricted participation in society, have lower employment rates and are more likely to live in poverty than their non-disabled peers.  Disability activists say disabled people are consistently discriminated against, oppressed and stopped from achieving their potential in a world designed for non-impaired bodies.

Yet against this backdrop there is no universal understanding of the concept of ‘disability’. The nature, meaning and impact of disability depend on the geographical, historical, social, cultural and economic environment in which the person with the disability is located.  In addition to being culturally specific the concept of disability is also historically specific and the treatment of people with disabilities has changed over time.  Recognition and understanding of the changing nature of disability is essential to developing an understanding of disability today.  This is particularly relevant when looking at changes in the popular view of disability and disabled people in the UK over the past few years.  The image of disabled people as tragic victims in need of care and pity was replaced briefly (albeit in a very limited way) by a more positive focus on equality and the achievements of disabled athletes in the Paralympics.  This was then replaced by the current focus on disability as a refuge of benefit cheats and scroungers. This shift in focus has real consequences particularly in relation to rising levels of hate crime against people with a disability.

Recent UK media coverage has focussed on welfare changes and the move from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments.  This coverage has been accompanied by some stories about people who have been re-assessed as ‘fit for work’ (and thus been denied benefits), dying within weeks of their re-assessments and even of disabled people committing suicide when forced to face the reality of living with no money.  But alongside these stories are a raft of other pieces about benefit scroungers making fraudulent claims that cheat all the hardworking taxpayers. Carry out a search on the term ‘disability’ in a well-known tabloid newspaper and you find two pages of headlines on the benefits that are ‘handed out to addicts and alcoholics’, the ‘breakdancers’, ‘traffic wardens’ and ‘holidaying conwomen’ fraudulently claiming DLA, and the £1bn that could be reclaimed if the half of claimants who are fraudsters were forced back to work.

The message is clear.  People on Disability Living Allowance are benefits scroungers who should be out looking for work.  This is exacerbated by comments from the newly appointed MP for Disabled People, Esther McVey, who, in an interview on Channel 4, suggested that DLA is a dynamic benefit, that bodies heal and that a third of disabled people will get better and no longer need the benefits that they are receiving.    And yet the government’s own figures, derived from spot checks carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions suggests that only 0.5% of DLA claims are fraudulent and that more people are actually underpaid than overpaid.

In his work on the politics of disablement Mike Oliver highlighted the importance of thinking about how we defined disability and disabled people.  He suggested that definitions are important because we orientate our behaviour towards people according to how we define them.  If we see disabled people as tragic victims then we seek to ‘care’ for them.  If we see them as oppressed then we fight for their rights.  And if we see them as scroungers and cheats then we hate.  He goes on to say that definitions provide a social classification – identifying people as unwilling or unable to work.  The DLA can be seen as a label which reflects the fact that a person may incur extra costs carrying out everyday tasks – hence a legitimation of need.  And yet this is being challenged through government and media campaigns focussing on the very small number of fraudulent claims, the small minority who recover from temporary disabilities, and ignoring the very real fear amongst disabled people who face potentially losing their benefits and their independence.  And the result is a rise in hate crime.

Statistics presented by Tom Shakespeare at the UK Disability Studies Conference in 2012 suggest that disabled adults are 50% more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled adults.  Adults with mental health issues are 4 times more likely to be victims of violent crime 10 times more likely to be victims of hate crime than their non-disabled peers.  Furthermore, disabled children are 57% more likely to be bullied and children with learning difficulties are 4 times more likely to be bullied or abused.   Not only are disabled people more likely to be victims of hate crime than non-disabled people, the numbers over hate crimes reported over the past two years are going up.

The rise in hate crime reflects the media representation of disabled people as scroungers and cheats, providing a convenient backdrop that allows society to passively watch whilst the government destroys not just the welfare system designed to support those who need help but also the sense of community that underlies it.

*About this image: This image is part of a campaign to change the international symbol of accessibility. It is taken from this post on Boing Boing.