Disability, Vulnerability, and the Pandemic

Bob Williams-Findlay writes: It is widely acknowledged that we are living through difficult and uncertain times. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to over 80,000 deaths in the United Kingdom, with many more likely to face long-term implications of having the virus. Given this, and the fact that a large percentage of those affected come from older generations and people with pre-existing health conditions, it is not surprising people within ‘at risk’ groups are feeling vulnerable. There is however a real danger in taking a ‘common-sense’ approach towards understanding this situation.

Too often ‘common-sense’ draws upon existing stereotypes, assumptions, and cultural values which reinforce ageism and disablism. Stereotyping usually falls into one of two camps where people are viewed as either tragic or brave – failing to conform to expectations or exceeding them. The portrayal of older and disabled people as ‘burdensome’, ‘helpless’, ‘childlike’, and ‘pitiful’, all underpin the notion of ‘vulnerable people’. Disabled people since the 1970s have challenged how they are both seen and treated. Employing a social interpretation of disability, Disabled people challenged the root causes of why they encounter social restrictions; this involved shifting the focus away from ‘blaming’ the person’s impairment for their disadvantages towards appraising how society responds to people who have impairments or chronic illnesses. In recent years, we have seen an undermining of this social approach as governments have sought to dismantle the welfare state and shift the responsibility for well-being back onto individuals. The rhetoric of neo-liberal social policies has reintroduced ideas linked with eugenics and encourages euthanasia.

Many older and Disabled people are deeply concerned not only about the inadequate and irresponsible manner in which the Johnson government has approached the pandemic, but also the language and narratives associated with it. What we have witnessed is the government, the mass media, and health professionals all presenting people within ‘at risk’ groups as being ‘the vulnerable’ and ‘vulnerable people’ (sic). These labels imply the characteristics of individuals –their age, impairments, and chronic illnesses – are the direct cause of their vulnerability. We would argue this is a false and dangerous presentation, one that panders to outdated ideas found within Social Darwinism. The disgraceful way ‘social value’ is measured by the likes of Lord Sumption acts as testimony to this way of thinking. Social Darwinists held that the life of humans in society was a struggle for existence ruled by “survival of the fittest,”

Social Darwinists held that the life of humans in society was a struggle for existence ruled by “survival of the fittest.” It is a short slide from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘expendable’.

It is not our aim to deny that age, impairments, and chronic illnesses are factors that are likely to put some groups of people at greater risk; what we are challenging are the assumptions that are made and the perceived causes of the vulnerability. It is not age, impairments, or chronic illnesses that predetermines vulnerability; but the ways in which society sees and treats older and Disabled people create both the conditions and situations where people within ‘at risk’ groups made vulnerable.

Let us consider the definition of vulnerability; it is viewed as: ‘the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally’. Key here are the words: being exposed to the possibility of’ which acknowledges that it is external to the person. We nevertheless live in an ageist and disablist society that socially constructs ‘vulnerable people’ as being: ‘a person over the age of 18 who is unable to take care of themself. It can also refer to one who is unable to protect themself against significant harm or exploitation.’

Consider this for a moment, especially within the context of the pandemic. Consider this also in the context of the crisis within social care and the reduction in the means to live independent lives based upon choice and control. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how co-dependent we are on other people, the value of mutual support, and the need for community. Being isolated, unsupported, and without access to basic needs harms everyone not just older and Disabled people. Our society ‘blames’ older and Disabled people for not being self-reliant and brands them as ‘vulnerable’ to legitimise this view and subsequent treatment. Now it is time to consider what really makes up older and Disabled people’s vulnerability, not just during the pandemic, but also in its aftermath. We believe it is:

  • The ageist and disablist stereotyping that impacts on how we are seen and treated;-
  • The underfunding and privatisation of the NHS;-
  • The absence of a fully funded National Care, Support, and Independent Living Service;-
  • The existence of a market driven private care sector;-
  • The lack of protection from the virus due to cuts in services, resources, the lack of provision of PPE, discharging patients with Covid-19 into care homes, lack of policies to support families and friends;-
  • The failure of the existing benefits system;-
  • Not adequately addressing the climate crisis

The list could go on. Our priority short term is to ensure that people in ‘at risk’ groups are protected and empowered to speak for themselves. We must continue to challenge ageist and disablist narratives and the harmful use of language. To slate judgemental labels and promote a better understanding of why certain groups are ‘at risk’ during the pandemic. Above all, our long term aim is to remove the inequalities and barriers that maintain older and Disabled people’s vulnerable status.

Bob Williams-Findlay is a member of Left Unity’s Executive Committee and its Disabled Members’ Caucus. To contact the Caucus please write to Bob at info@leftunity.org


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