An adventurous daring: why the left needs an aggressive approach to tackling disability inequality
According to Nobel prize-winning economist, and presenter of this year’s Demos Lecture, Amartya Sen, “the capabilities a person does actually have…depend on the nature of social arrangements, which can be crucial for individual freedoms. And there the state and society cannot escape responsibility”. Indeed, a state can be judged on the extent to which it empowers those less able to realise their own vision of a free, fulfilling life.
The economic crisis hit all sections of society, but people with disabilities were struck particularly hard – entering the recession on very unequal footing in terms of savings, income and employment. During the months that followed, disabled people were considered to be at greater risk of redundancy, more exposed to economic insecurity and vulnerable to increased discrimination from corner-cutting employers.
Studies show increased incidences of disability discrimination in employment between 2007 and 2009; elsewhere, research reveals the gap between levels of poverty between disabled and non-disabled widened during the downturn, compounding the extreme economic disadvantage that disabled people already faced. 34% of disabled people are estimated to live in low-income households compared to 17% of non-disabled people, and surveys also suggest over 50% of disabled people have had no savings to fall back on in these austere times.
Now, as the economy convalesces, disability inequality remains entrenched and endemic. Our disabled population face multiple barriers to equality; barriers to education, employment and access to goods and services; barriers likely to be reinforced by the coming spending squeezes. Disabled people are heavily dependent on the public sector not only for its services, but also for employment – nearly a third of disabled workers work in the public sector. In a report released last year, Leonard Cheshire Disability warned: “a programme of public spending cuts would clearly have a disastrous impact on disabled people…further undermining employment opportunities, independence and quality of life”.
Labour’s record on disability discrimination cannot be disregarded. The last decade witnessed employment rates rise, legislation fortified, support systems strengthened. Now, prior to one of the most anticipated elections in recent memory, Labour has, belatedly but thankfully, produced something in the way of a coherent policy programme for tackling disability inequality – one that finally transcends traditional tendencies to typecast disability as a ‘health issue’. It’s long overdue; but it is very welcome nonetheless.
That said though, the left’s agenda on disability equality remains relatively tame. It lacks the aggression – audacity, even – requisite to remove an otherwise indelible stain on the fabric of a good society. Employment rates have increased (a little), but still studies show that employers are twice as likely to offer interviews to non-disabled candidates as they are to equally eligible disabled people. More than half our disabled workers are said to have experienced discrimination in the workplace, and the government lacks any standard measure for monitoring whether the laws they legislated are followed by employers.
However, monitoring mechanisms and act amendments are not enough. Disability inequality transcends socio-cultural domains as well as economic ones. Contrary to the Conservatives’ claims, Britain isn’t Baltimore nor is it broken. Yet, one in ten people with disabilities claim to be victims of hate crime. For many disabled people, abuse and humiliation are experiences that are all too real and all too recent.
Tackling disability inequality requires not just a change in policy, but a seismic shift in social attitudes. By no means will this be straightforward – research reveals that negative attitudes towards disability can develop in children as young as four. But a clear, bold blueprint, working on a multitude of levels at once, is paramount if Labour is to be the architects of a ‘future fair for all’.
Such a strategy would need to account for not only the earning handicap (the effect disability has on the ability to earn an income) but, also the ‘conversion handicap’ (the amount a person must spend on services to achieve a good standard of living) – as recently outlined by Sen himself. A disabled person’s income may place them on or above the poverty line, but once we factor in the impact of the conversion handicap, many fall well below this measure. At present, official poverty figures make no consideration of this gross disadvantage.
The American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick once said: “Rebellion against your handicaps gets you nowhere. Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world – making the most of one’s best.” Policymakers, who have for too long overlooked and oversimplified the rights, needs and interests of disabled people, would do well to note Fosdick’s wisdom and inject some aggression, some assertiveness, some ‘adventurous daring’ into helping those less able to make the most of one’s best and live their version of a good life. For, as Sen says, it is precisely here the state and society cannot escape responsibility.
For Labour, this election presents a perfect opportunity to project a more hopeful vision for some 10 million people with an aggressive strategy on disability poverty.