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Work, the Social Model, and the Welfare Reform Bill

February 6, 2012

The question of work for disabled people has been artfully reduced to a simple ‘fit for work’ binary by the rhetoric of successive governments, and this has become even more entrenched in discussions about the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) currently passing (or being forced) through Parliament. The debate has been become a simplistic question of whether disabled people are ‘entitled’ to receive disability benefits, or whether they are ‘scroungers’. If you are in favour of the WRB, you believe, de facto, that some people are just scroungers, and where they are not, they are constrained by their position within the ‘Sick Role’, which leads to an erroneous belief that they cannot work, a belief which would be dispelled by cutting their benefits and forcing them to ‘get a job’. This is the compassionate thing to do, akin to throwing a child into the deep end of the swimming pool to make them swim. Tough love, as it were.

If you are against the WRB, you have to believe that the current situation is absolutely fine, that there are no problems with the position of disabled people in society as essentially State-dependents. To argue that there are disabled people who would like to work and are prevented from doing so not entirely by their ‘impairment’ (borrowing the ‘disability/impairment’ distinction from Vic Finkelstein’s Social Model of Disability) but also by structural features in society is to slip imperceptibly back into the rhetoric which has characterised the WRB – the argument seems to culminate in the DWP’s claim that “it would be wrong not to give those with a terminal illness the same opportunities as others”.

The situation is more nuanced than this. As I noted in a previous post, evidence that work is ‘good’ for disabled people is based on a very narrow definition of work, of a kind that doesn’t characterise much of the UK labour market at the moment. It would also be wrong to uncritically support what is a kind of State-dependency (a different thing from the ‘welfare dependency’ so often shrieked about by the tabloids) for disabled people. The reported increases in disability hate crime demonstrate just what a precarious position this kind of dependency places disabled people in – essentially owned by the government to be deployed as a useful scapegoat in difficult economic times, with no real recourse or protection. This is not a situation which should be allowed to be repeated, and in order to prevent it happening again it is necessary to loosen this relationship, which proliferated as a result of increased unemployment under Margret Thatcher (whether or not this was a deliberate policy or a side-effect is open to question, however).

For emphasis, I repeat, however, that I’m not arguing for the forcing of disabled people who have been ‘duped’ into thinking they are incapable of work back into the labour market, as it is clear that the current state of employment is toxic even to those who have jobs, and work most certainly does not ‘make free’. The failure to engage with this was the limitation of Brendan O’Neill’s Telegraph article which is one of the few pieces to suggest that there may be a left-wing case for welfare reform. In addition, Finkelstein’s Social Model is criticised by many disabled people for catering solely for ‘white men in wheelchairs’, and not taking into account the effects of disability which cannot be adjusted for by simple access improvements. This problem can be demonstrated by one of Finkelstein’s earlier writings, which conceptualises the problems of disability entirely through wheelchair use, although extrapolated to other disabilities. As twitter user ‘@allbigideas’ notes, ‘you can’t make an adjustment for pain’.

However, this does not change the fact that there is a phenomenon by which unemployment is depoliticised by making it a question of disability. Nor is it possible to ignore the effects of medicalisation which lead to the marketing of more and more drugs, and a tendency to treat mental illnesses with pills and short-term CBT rather than longer term counseling. Medicalisation and medicine are two separate phenomena, as medicine is undoubtedly to the advantage of disabled people, while medicalisation extends the influence of medicine beyond the clinical remit of treatment to become a moral-financial imperative, striving more to benefit financial interests than the individual patients (the current Health and Social Care Bill is thus an example of ‘medicalisation’, as it represents the intersection of medical and financial power).

So – we need to navigate a way between, on the one hand, the medicalisation and State-dependency of disabled people, which limits agency and enables scapegoating, and on the other the highly damaging WRB, which takes no account of medical knowledge or evidence, instead suggesting that merely removing benefits from people will liberate a ‘depoliticised’ workforce, currently believing itself incapable when in reality it is no such thing. Both these ‘solutions’ come at the expense of the dignity and humanity of the individual. I believe that the solution to this problem is a comprehensive reassessment of our toxic labour market, and this reassessment and reformulation must come before any reassessment of benefits. In our current economy, disability benefits provide dignity for individuals, allowing social engagement, and should not be cut in the name of some kind of ‘liberation’ which would be meaningless without a society which takes Finkelstein’s social model much further.

Rather than just offering adjustment for wheelchair-users, a fully conceptualised ‘Social Model’ would also take into account questions of pain, mental illness, and the side-effects of medication. If the labour market in general related to people as individuals rather than units of labour power, then although pain could not be adjusted for, it could be tolerated within the system. However, as I write this, I realise that I am arguing further towards Finklestein’s later ‘radical social model’ – a model Lord Freud certainly does NOT endorse, whatever he has told the House, as it is constructed as follows:

I believe that we cannot understand or deal with disability without dealing with the essential nature of society itself. To do this disabled people must find ways of engaging in the class struggle where the historical direction of society is fought, won or lost. It is in this arena that the boundaries of knowledge that have put disabled people aside from the ‘normal’ can and have to be openly questioned. For me repossessing the social model of disability means searching for openings in the structures of society where we might effectively contribute with others in the restructuring of society so that it is neither competitive nor disabling for all people.

In the current situation, this shift is unthinkable, and for many probably even undesirable. In this case, then, the problems of medicalisation and State-dependency in disability issues will always be the lesser of two evils – disability benefits provide income and the possibility of dignity for disabled people who are not ‘fit to work’ in the current, broken social structure. Attempting to ‘accommodate’ disability within this society by removing benefits and forcing people into work has no evidence base, and is merely an example of what Finklestein calls the ‘liberal right’s’ attempt to ‘inherit the ideological underpinnings of the social model of disability’ – which is what the biopsychosocial model of disability and the WRB are doing. Until society undergoes the kind of radical change Finkelstein argues for, we must continue to argue for the moral imperative of maintaining the independence, dignity and right to social life of disabled people – regardless of the severity of their condition. The Welfare Reform Bill will not combat the issue of State-dependence, only render the price the state pays for its ownership of individuals less expensive while maintaining its scapegoating power (see Maria Miller’s comments about unemployment today, and remember she’s Minister for (Against?) Disabled People). Disabled people, in general, *want* to work, and their exclusion from the labour market is not voluntary. However, cutting benefits is not the solution to this (as detailed in my previous blog). Instead, there must be a commitment to improving understanding of disability issues, not least the fact that unemployability is often the result of employers being unwilling/unable to take what amounts to a financial risk employing a disabled person, rather than unwillingness on the part of the individual.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 1:50 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve worked for a supposed ’employer of choice’, and even with all the proclamations that they were committed to equality, the instant they realised that I couldn’t be treated as an identical cog to everyone else, attitudes changed markedly. The odd physical reasonable adjustment was okay – ‘white men in wheelchairs’ is actually a pretty good idea of what they seemed to want – but white men curled up on the floor in pain seemed to be a step beyond the pale. It wasn’t even that I was necessarily producing less over months or years, they weren’t prepared to tolerate me producing less on an individual day, even if evidence showed I’d have caught up by the end of the week (and as an engineering development organisation we made deliveries maybe once a year, daily performance was only significant for their internal business metrics, the customer never saw it).

    That management regime was only prepared to tolerate identical cogs proceeding in lockstep, the DDA requirement to deal with us as individuals represented a step in how disabled workers were regarded that they weren’t willing to take. They were probably better than most, at least they were prepared to tolerate white men in wheelchairs, but that was still a long way from an attitude that enables all disabled people to access the workplace. And as long as that attitude, and worse, are the dominant ones out there, no amount of pressure on disabled people will get us into the workforce. We aren’t the problem, the attitudes of employers are.

    It’s clear that a real change in the employability of disabled people is predicated on three things. 1) support for disabled people in finding work, 2) support for the employers in funding adaptions and adjustments so that they aren’t financially disadvantaged by bringing in a disabled employee, 3) a complete sea change in the attitude of employers towards disabled people. If we look at what the government is doing, there is some (though predominantly inept) support for 1), Access to Work has had it’s budget slashed, hamstringing 2), and no one dares raise 3) employer attitudes towards disability. Looking at that, I have to conclude that the pressure to get us into work is just a pretence they couldn’t care less about, that the real focus of government policy is simply driving down the benefit bill, and I can’t help thinking that their invocation of the biopsychosocial model is just an attempt to drive us all towards the white men in wheelchairs concept of disability.

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