Talk by Richard Rieser, Coordinator UK Disability History Month to Unite London and SE Region Conference on 3rd December 2022
We started looking at the Health and Well Being of Disabled People as this year’s theme and the impact Covid 19 had on disabled people and the disparities in the way we were treated during the pandemic had a big impact. This was not something ‘natural’ that disabled people were more likely to die because we were ‘vulnerable’, but that the risks we were exposed to, the barriers we face were not assessed properly and measures taken to reduce these risks. Particularly with regard to the most important right, the right to life. The statistics in our broadsheet (www.ukdhm.org/ukdhm-broadsheet) show 68% of the Covid related deaths were amongst disabled people. Office of National Statistics show a rate 3 x the rest of the population for those with more severe impairments, even after controlled for socio-economic and other factors. There was a fuss in the media, rightly when statistics came out, showing an enhanced rate for ethnic minorities, but when the disability statistics came out they were not picked up by the media in the same way. Perhaps this reflects that in Society as a whole people do not know how to relate to disabled people. In Wales the Disability Movement used these disparities to get support from the Welsh Government to gather high quality data for a representative committee of disabled people, which led to the ‘Locked Out’ report. This has now led to the Government adopting a strategy to tackle the barriers from a Social Model approach, addressing disparities in income, health, welfare, employment and transport.
Across the UK and particularly in England Covid, showed up the cracks in our system, especially the lack of a human rights approach to disability, despite the UK Government ratifying the UNCRPD in 2009. Despite lip service to rights, disabled people were left without support, health care and the Covid Act took more of these rights away. In the early days of Covid, NICE and BMA guidance said if there was a choice between a disabled person and a non-disabled person for scarce ventilators then the non-disabled person should get the ventilator. This was changed by our protests, but this was a direct breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Similarly the then Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, currently in Australia trying not to be eaten by snakes, agreed to discharging Covid infected people from hospital into care homes, leading to high death rates of disabled people. Let’s be clear, people living in care homes are all disabled people and are there because of the lack of support for living in their own home -Independent living. Should he be prosecuted for manslaughter for such foolish decision making? Perhaps the Inquiry will come up with this. This callousness amounts to a Eugenicist survival of the fittest approach, herd immunity.
Another survey published recently in the Guardian (5th October) shows that the rise in life expectancy for the last 180 years has gone into reverse. Examining death rate data for 2012-2019, at the height of austerity, measures (42 different welfare cuts) show that 330,000 extra people died than was expected. This was particularly high in poor areas and amongst the disabled population. Again this is structural disabilism. The mini budget of 17th November, disguised in its impact, set against inflation will lead to further harshness to poor and disabled people’s lives.
We need to recognise that the way we have been treated under this Government for the last 12 years and before when Labour began to search for cuts to DLA and other benefits, after the 2008 crash, amounts to the intentional killing of large numbers of disabled people. If we add to these figures the upwards of 10,000 killed or starved by DWP benefit cuts. It is now true to say that more disabled people have died under this Tory Government than died under the Nazi Eugenics programme from 1933 to 1945.
Looking historically at what happens to disabled people who can’t look after themselves. Most disabled people did live in communities, supported themselves and were helped by others over hundreds of years, whether this was in feudal times or in the new boroughs and towns which gradually broke down feudal social relations. Much evidence is coming to the fore that as families worked as teams disabled people played their part and in new crafts which were sedentary, such as cobblers, tailors and metal workers, disabled people were included. There was not much time spent on differentiating them from the mass of poor people. Occasionally people could not manage and the monasteries provided charity support and welfare for the old and infirm. With the dissolution of the monasteries and their take over by the Crown, many became beggars. The Elizabethan Poor Law was introduced as a local tax to provide relief. Even then the distinction was made between the worthy and unworthy poor. A distinction that continues to this day with benefits set just above starvation levels and the unworthy or work shy compelled to work. This continued for more than 200 years, with the worthy poor getting out-relief to live in their own homes or the parish poor house.
Slowly this began to change with industrialisation and because the rich feared revolution following the French Revolution and a slump in the economy after the Napoleonic wars. In 1834 the Poor Law Reform Act introduced the Workhouse and the ending of out-relief. The conditions were harsh to discourage ‘shirkers’ but by 1861 the majority of inhabitants living in these prison-like conditions were old and disabled people. The government was not prepared to give a reasonable living and for cosmetic reasons, out of site out of mind. The workhouse and economic insecurity for the mass of people including disabled people lasted right up to the Welfare state, introduced by the incoming Labour Government, fuelled by a generation who had experienced the Depression and the dole, had fought and were not prepared to put up with things as they had been.
The Welfare State largely left disabled people out. It was the generation of disabled people from the 1960s, 70s and 80s who formed the Disabled People’s Movement, armed with a Social Model analysis who fought and won the Chronically Sick and Disabled Act, Motability, Disability Living Allowance, Independent Living and Inclusive Education. After 17 attempts, much protest and Direct Action, the Disability Discrimination Act and subsequent strengthening Amendments were passed. By 2005 we more or less had a few years of disability equality, until the greed of the financial speculators led to the crash of 2008 and through austerity we have been paying for this ever since.
This has been exacerbated by the rush for deregulation and Brexit, which is severely impacting on disabled people through price inflation and lack of people to work as support workers.
Those with mental impairments, such as those termed ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble minded’ and Mad people – ‘melancholic’ and those with ‘manias’ went through a similar process of being mainly in the community and then being increasingly incarcerated. However, this was overlain by Eugenics which was obsessed in the last half of C19th and first part of C20th which sort to find genetic weakness in the population that could explain, poverty, crime, sexual license, vagrancy by degrees of inherited metal incapacity and led to the incarceration of people with learning difficulty for generations up until 1980s. Instead of looking for social and economic reasons for poverty, slums, class and lack of education it was easier to scape goat. Something not unfamiliar to today’s right wing politicians.
We have been fighting back against these reactionary ideas for more than 120 years with self- organisation extending into the Trade Union movement, through organisations like the National League for the Blind , a member of TUC and the Labour Party. Their march on London by blind workers from Leeds, Manchester and South Wales in 1920 under the slogan ‘Justice not Charity’ led to protective legislation, but not what they wanted. The various militant disabled veteran’s groups after 1st World War that rioted and were a thorn in the establishment’s side who had promised ‘A land fit for heroes’. The Royal National Legion was founded to head off this movement with an apolitical stance. More recently the Disabled People’s Movement in 1970’s to 1990’s achieving rights’ based legislation, now embodied in the Equality Act. With Austerity a new generation of activists have been successfully challenging austerity through the grass roots formation of Disabled People Against the Cuts. These last two movements coming together under the slogan of ‘Rights not Charity’. The campaign for the Right to Life challenges the individual views of disability-‘Its so terrible as a disabled person. I really want to kill myself’ with the demand for adequate support for independent living as a right. History tells us that these demands for euthanasia lead to escalating levels of killing of disabled people ion Nazi Germany, Oregon the Netherlands and elsewhere that these ideas are legislated.
What needs to be done today? We must continue to challenge disabilism in all areas and assert our rights.
We need growth in the real terms budget of social security, benefits and the Health Service and if this means higher taxes and more borrowing then that is necessary. Remember the Labour Government of 1945-1951 had a deficit double the current on from they built 300,000 houses a year replaced infra-structure and set up the Welfare State.
We need a National Independent Living Service with a massive increase in accessible housing and packages of support in their home for all who need it. This to be available free at the point of delivery.
We need real inclusion funded nationally and implemented as co-production locally.
We need the development and funding of an inclusive education system where all can achieve their potential and all learn to challenge pernicious disablism as they must sexism, homophobia and racism.
We need to embrace diversity and build the disability movement in our unions and the community creating a culture to embrace all who acquire impairments with solidarity and support.
And at the core of all this is the shift from the Medical/Individual approach to disability to the Social/Human Rights approach to help with the fightback.
Running through all this must be a Green/Red ideology bringing together the urgent need to live in harmony with the natural resources of our planet and the need for equalisation of wealth and income in a more collective future.