With government cuts kicking in and the Labour Party in crisis, Disability Horizons writer Nichola Daunton interviews Mancunian disability activist (and lifelong Mozza fan) Richard Currie, about party politics, the media, and why it’s time to get active…
How did you feel when the Conservatives won the general election back in May?
From a party-political perspective, I was deeply concerned about the rise of inequality within the country as a whole. Within the North of England we’ve really felt the pain, you know. I’m a Labour supporter and whilst I wasn’t expecting the Labour party to win outright, I was expecting a coalition of some sort between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party – and I think for somebody who believes in social justice and equality, it was a bit of a shock really. I had thought the country, as a whole, was kind of fair-minded and founded on the principles of fair play and equality, but now it sort of feels that by voting in a Conservative majority, that an individualism and a selfishness has developed within British society and also within the political classes. I mean, you look at the general election as a whole and none of the political parties, no matter what political stripe, none of them were putting forward political manifestos based on how we can improve the economy or education as a whole, it was all “how I can make life better for you, personally?” So it was very much focused on the individual level and not really based on political ideals or a discussion of the type of society we want to live in. So I believe, this kind of election result, I feel like we’re all Thatcher’s children almost, and I think we’ll look back in history at a time when there were things like the welfare state and the social contract between the state and the individual after the Second World War, as a blip.
How do you think this move towards individualism has affected disabled people?
Well, if you thought the party political stuff was pessimistic then you wait until I get into the disability side of things! I think essentially there’s been a revolution under this government in terms of the way that it thinks about disability, especially how it approaches disability in terms of public policy provision. For example, in the past 15 to 20 years up until the election of the last government in 2010, there was the acceptance of the social model of disability, the idea that disability is a social construct due to societal ignorance and the way society is organised, including structures which lead to economic, social, political and cultural inequality. So welfare provision and social care provision were provided on the explicit understanding that disability isn’t our fault. This government though, has fundamentally reshaped the way we think about disability. They’ve adopted what some people call the bio-socio-physico model of disability, which means basically that they no longer see disability as a societal issue, but as an individual problem, as an individual issue. You only have to look at somebody’s personal independence payments – and even at the language, it’s personal you know – and it’s all about your medical condition and what you can’t do, and as a result there have been increased charges placed on disabled people’s shoulders and more people are expected to contribute their own funds to their social care packages.
So basically, the Labour government accepted the social model of disability as the main way of understanding disability and they also accepted things like centres for independent living and user-led organisations of disabled people running things for disabled people. Whereas this government has got more of a traditional approach towards disabled people’s organisations, they don’t really want us to campaign on issues of social justice and inequality, they’re not really interested in us campaigning against policies and stuff, what they are interested in is getting the third sector involved and getting disabled people to actually deliver policies. So a lot of disabled organisations, in order to survive, have had to sort of become complicit in the delivery of services that aren’t necessarily beneficial to disabled people. Or have been made complicit against their will, as the debacle with ATOS proved.
So I believe there has been a fundamental ideological shift in our approach towards disabled people. When I was at university for example, we had disabled students allowance and really good care packages, but now the government’s reforming DSA and they are increasingly tightening the criteria around funding social care packages, all of which doesn’t lead to a very optimistic outlook.
Do you think this ideological shift in policy has been reflected in a shift in the general public’s attitude towards disability?
Yes, you only have to look at the rise in disability hate crime. In fact, I actually think we’re in a paradoxical situation and that there’s a split between attitudes towards different groups within the disabled community. So the Paralympians for example, are seen as good disabled people because they achieve and go beyond their disability, and the ordinary fat disabled people like myself who just read books are seen as lazy and work-shy. I think there’s a definite differentiation between these two views of disabled people, it’s like the worthy and the unworthy poor argument. There’s even been some research that states that the harsher and more punitive policies towards disabled people have become, in terms of benefits and provision of public services, the more disability hate crime has risen.
Also, you can then look at things like the potential repeal of the Human Rights Act, and the recent judgment by the high court that a disabled space on the bus is no longer a disabled space, it’s a shared space, and you can start to see how these changes are beginning to affect the publics opinion of disabled people.
How is all of this affecting you on a personal level?
On a personal level, living independently is incredibly difficult. I don’t lack ambition or qualifications, but for example my recent care review did not go well at all, and despite a deterioration in my condition in terms of mental health and wellbeing, they refused to reassess me and I’ve got to now challenge the original decision and then possibly go to the social care ombudsman. So I almost feel like my generation, whereas before we could go to university, live independently and contribute to society, now we’re being made to be a burden on society instead. I think this current policy initiative could lead to further isolation and further stigmatization and a rise in negative attitudes towards disabled people, but it’s actually counter productive and not very cost effective. You know, having people work or live within the community is actually cheaper than living within institutions, and we’re supposed to live in a civilized society and the mark of a civilized society is one that accepts human difference. You could argue that that is not the case at the moment, and that this assumption is being challenged. So I think it’s time for people to speak up and challenge the prevailing attitudes and prevailing assumptions that people have.
What role do you think the media plays in all of this?
In terms of the media, I think disabled people should be open to speaking to all forms of media outlet, from the Daily Mirror to the Guardian, to the Daily Mail, because the more we discuss disability, the more it is out there. Obviously negative stereotypes by the right wing press don’t help and very often some of the journalism is lazy and stereotypical, but at the same time disabled people need to be on the front foot, challenging some of the media assumptions. John Pring of Disability News Service does some good work, reporting disability issues, so I think the media does have a responsibility, but disabled people also have a responsibility to engage with the media.
What do you think disabled people can to do to challenge the current political climate?
On an individual level, if you’re disabled or you’ve got disabled friends, it’s about being kind and empathetic in supporting one another. While on the other hand, it’s about becoming active, whether that’s through social media or actually being really old fashioned and going to political meetings, campaigning, protesting and influencing your local MPs and councillors. Because if you look at our history in terms of our emancipation and the acquisition of our rights, they weren’t given to us, we had to take them for ourselves, so if they’re being taken off us, we have to fight to get them back.
A good example of this would be the changing role of the Minister for Disabled People, who used to have some cabinet and ministerial responsibility, but under this current government they’ve actually downgraded that role. It’s not a time to go ‘woe is me’ but it is time for people to get active, get political and realise that if we don’t defend or improve on what we’ve got, then it’s going to get taken away. We need to realise that the personal is political.
Despite the bleak outlook though, I think there’s also room for hope, but only if disabled people come together and get active. Without wanting to be too fatalistic about it, many of the advances that disabled people made in the past enabled people like me to live independently, but all of those policies have been undermined and continue to be undermined by this current administration. I think it’s only by disabled people, user-led organisations and their allies coming together that disabled people can defend and advance our cause, so it’s time for people to come together and organise again. It’s almost as if our generation has had it easy and got fat off the fruits of the previous generation campaigning, and we’ve kind of got lazy with it almost, so now it’s time for us to step up and get active. After all, unless you have a good care package in place, unless you have decent welfare benefits or supported employment, going on holiday, going camping or rock climbing – it’s just not gonna happen.
By Nichola Daunton