Disability politics and the coronavirus pandemic

Tarsam Singh writes, with the help of his carers: On Sunday 24th May, Sandra Daniels and Bob Williams-Findlay, both long-standing disability and political activists, presented an excellent and enlightening discussion about the current coronavirus crisis and its implications for the disabled community. This was a Left Unity Discussion.

They began with a brief historical review of the struggle for disability rights since the 1970s and how it stood against the grain of neoliberal capitalism with which it grew in tandem, outlining self-organised campaigns for better welfare provision alongside radical calls for the liberation of disabled people from social oppression. A successful example of this campaigning was the Independent Living Fund, which was introduced in 1987, and allowed certain disabled people greater self-determination, freedom and opportunity.

Yet they stressed that these gains were hard fought for in the context of a capitalism that systematically oppresses, ghettoises, and excludes many within the disabled community. People with significant impairments present capitalism with a market problematic: being viewed as irregular in terms of productive capacity has led to the social situation of being both seen and treated as “disabled”. Disability is therefore both socially constructed and created; thus presenting ‘disability’ and ‘disabled people’ as: abnormal, dehumanised and ‘Othered’ in capitalist ideologies. Viewing disability in this way resulted in an approach that has been captured within the negative individual model where the disabled person is portrayed as: passive, confined, dependent, objectified as a charitable commodity, open to pity. Disabled people developed an alternative approach called the social model. The social approach locates ‘the disability problem’ as not being a negative individualised characteristic that leads to the impaired person being viewed as a social burden, fundamentally deserving unequal treatment, and bureaucratically processed by scientific medicine, but rather as the outcome of social restrictions created by structures, systems, practices, and cultures that ‘disables’ people with impairments. The fact that disabled people are judged by ‘normative’ values and standards; subjected to means testing which legitimises seeing them as absent of ‘normal functioning’, results in the ways in which they are viewed being employed to ‘not take them into account’; thus maintaining social oppression via discrimination and social exclusion which, in turn, perpetuates and naturalises inequality.

This inequality has been accelerated by a decade of austerity cuts to vital disability services and resources. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) calculates that by 2022 the combined cost of cuts for a disabled household will be £6500 per year. Further, there has been a frightening increase in disability hate crime triggered by media and government narratives around “benefit scroungers” and “helping the most deserving”. The Independent Living Fund closed in 2016, and the UN in 2017, described disabling conditions in Britain as a ‘human catastrophe’.

The pandemic has made things even worse for disabled people. Austerity rendered people like us unaffordable, but the pandemic has now rendered us expendable. Sandra and Bob detailed how from the outset, Johnson’s government has made invisible the needs and interests of the disability communities and dangerously exposed 14 million disabled people to a deadly virus. They have flagrantly prioritised private profit before public health.

There has been abject failure to take any urgent action, either through policy or any other initiative, to safeguard disabled people who are the most at risk in this crisis. Instead, what the Tories have effectively done, is to deny us a health care system because elderly, disabled people, along with others who are at most risk, were advised not to present at hospitals or doctors’ surgeries if ill. Priority instead given to those of working age and who might best recover to return to the labour market.

There has been a chilling undermining of Social Care. Firstly, with care staff not being able to safely protected themselves, thereby endangering their disabled service users. Secondly, the Coronavirus Care Act granted emergency legal powers to local authorities to “ease” obligations to meet care needs which risks leaving disabled people with only absolute basic support, or even none at all. Local authorities have now the option to suspend the requirement on schools to admit a disabled child with an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan) thus no longer guaranteeing suitable education for disabled children. These measures could last up to two years.

Thirdly, there is the alarming scandal in the care homes where guidelines were only belatedly released on April 15th, months after the onset of the pandemic. Then we have witnessed the carnage of a rampant virus that went into care homes and was assisted by government policy that allowed infected or recovering patients from hospitals to return to care homes, thus turning them into incubation factories for Covid-19. Meanwhile, we also bear witness to daily tragic reports of people dying alone without a loving hand to hold; bodies being wrapped in clingfilm; government instructing owners’ of care homes to check they have Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders in place for every resident.

This is herd immunity in action, the policy that dare not speak its name. It is in this policy amidst all the government shenanigans, shambles, denials, and obfuscations, that underlines the callous disregard our government has. Essentially, this has become a programme of eugenics in accord with the ideological bent of Tory Social Darwinists like Dominic Cummings; a programme set against a backdrop where right wing pundits can shrug and contemptibly suggest that the dead were mostly nearly dead anyway, and where people such as a junior Treasury official felt able to calculate welfare savings. Of the 60,000 deaths many thousands were avoidable and caused by deliberate and woeful government policy decisions and political will. Disabled people’s organisations believe we have a government that, regardless of intention, is genocidal. Least we forget, austerity is thought to have killed some 130,000 people.

Bob and Sandra closed the talk with a rallying cry of encouragement as they believe we are in the process of fighting to restore the rights of disabled people during this pandemic and further progress our politics, lives, and dignity. There is much solidarity abroad at the moment in enthusiasm for the working class; grassroots mutual aid and self-organisation; even tears are fundamentally acts of solidarity. Covid-19 made everyone feel housebound, restricted, vulnerable; will the connections be made with the disabled living many of us encounter? The moment is ripe.

Bob Williams-Findlay’s political autobiography, “More Than a Left Foot”, is now out and available from Resistance Books. The quality, passion and insight in this presentation is an excellent recommendation for it to be devoured.

Bob’s book is available here

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