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How the disabled were dehumanised: Laurie Penny on Jody McIntyre

The press coverage of Jody McIntyre suggests that “real” disabled people are not whole human beings.

It's official: disabled people aren't allowed to be independent. This week, amid rows about how this country treats people with disabilities, it was announced that the government will be phasing out the Independent Living Fund (ILF), a vital stipend that allows more than 21,000 "severely disabled people to pay for help so they can live independently". Such provisions, unlike bank bailouts and subsidies to arms dealers and millionaire tax-dodgers, are no longer a priority for this administration.

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but think of Jody McIntyre, a 20-year-old activist and journalist with cerebral palsy, who I saw batoned and dragged from his wheelchair at the demonstrations last Thursday, and who later delivered a series of epic discursive smackdowns to a senior BBC correspondent on prime-time television.

The press has been trying to imply that, because Jody is a revolutionary activist and ideologue who has travelled to Palestine and South America, he cannot be a "real" disabled person – he must, as Ben Brown suggested on the BBC, have somehow been "provoked". He must have deserved the beating and the humiliation of being pulled out of his chair and across the road; he must have asked for it.

Richard Littlejohn went so far as to compare McIntyre to Andy, a hilariously fraudulent and fatuous wheelchair-using character in the most disgusting pageant of blackface and grotesquerie ever to defile British television screens, Little Britain. Like Brown and others, Littlejohn seemed to imply that because he fought back and spoke up, because he attended a protest and because he is not afraid to make his voice heard, Jody McIntyre is not a real disabled person.

Others, including McIntyre himself, have written eloquently about how surprised we really shouldn't be that the police attacked a disabled protester, nearly killed another protester, and injured and traumatised hundreds more. That we live in a state where police officers attack women, minorities and the visibly vulnerable in what has been suggested are deliberate tactics to provoke protest crowds to riot is not something I see much need to debate. The truly fascinating aspect of McIntyre's story is what it reveals about how the British understand disability: namely, that real disabled people are not whole human beings.

The attitude is that there are two types of disabled person: there are real disabled people, who are quiet and grateful and utterly incapable of any sort of personal agency whatsoever, and fake disabled people – people like Jody McIntyre, who are disqualified from being truly disabled by virtue of having personality, ambition, outside interests and, in this case, the cojones to stand up to a corrupt and duplicitous government.

This remarkable Catch-22 clause, whereby the authorities can claim that any disabled person who criticises them on disability or any other issues must, ipso facto, not actually be disabled, does not only affect how individuals like McIntyre are treated. It directly influences policymaking in the most clinical and ruthless of ways. Bear in mind that, besides its highly publicised cuts to secondary and higher education funding, this government is also taking away benefits from disabled people: housing benefit, income support, the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance and other vital sources of funding are being cut back to the bone or removed entirely.

The withdrawal of the mobility component for people in residential care is a particularly nasty slash, as this benefit allows people with mobility difficulties a modicum of independence, something that, in the eyes of this government, real disabled people should neither want nor need. It pays for taxis, motorised scooters and wheelchairs – wheelchairs like the one the police damaged when they tipped Jody McIntyre right out of it.

On top of this, those claiming sickness benefits or Employment and Support Allowance will be obliged to take another round of punishing tests that are acknowledged to be designed specifically to prevent hundreds of thousands of benefit recipients from receiving any more money.

"Currently, nearly a third of all disabled people live below the official poverty line, with a quarter of families with disabled children unable to afford heating," said Eleanor, a spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) who protested in central London today about what the group sees as a direct assault on disability rights in the UK. "A tenth of all disabled women have incomes under £31 per week," she said. "And yet, the government intends to slash the number of claimants on Disability Living Allowance by 20 per cent, although the fraud rate is estimated to be a mere 0.5 per cent."

Six months ago, when I was helping my disabled partner, who has severe mobility issues and chronic pain, prepare to claim DLA, we realised that he would not be considered sufficiently disabled unless he was prepared actually to demonstrate to a partial outside observer that he could not walk 30 steps without falling on his face. It was humiliating and it was inhumane, and eventually, like many others, we gave up. The subsequent poverty and the stress of watching my partner struggle to cope with his disability with no support eventually ended the relationship and left me with a profound understanding of how successive administrations have used welfare reform to humiliate and terrorise the most vulnerable into abject complaisance.

All of this is justified by the assumption that most people claiming disability benefits are, to put it bluntly, faking it. That's right, hundreds of thousands of people with mental or physical health problems that prevent them from working have the audacity to want a scrap of agency, a life that is in any way full or useful, so they must be faking it all.

This government would prefer it if people with disabilities were not also people with opinions, desires and personalities. This government would prefer it if there were a clear demarcation line between people with the ability to stand up for themselves in any way whatsoever and people who are entirely reliant on the state, who ought to know their place: head bowed, hands outstretched, mouth shut, uncomplaining, accustomed to poverty and public derision. This government, with its utter contempt for the entire concept of social security, would prefer to be obliged to support only those who are prepared to sacrifice absolutely every bit of personal agency, to put up and shut up.

This is, of course, utter rubbish. This is not a Victorian melodrama, with the world neatly divided into people who are whole and hale and mawkish, abject cripples who are terminally grateful for any charity thrown to them and permanently followed around by a chorus of tiny violins. In the real world, the only difference between people with disabilities and everyone else is that people with disabilities sometimes need a little extra support to live the best lives that they can. They should get that support – and they should not have to ask nicely.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's Brexit policy is getting lost in translation

Labour politicians can agree on what words to say - but they disagree on the meaning. 

As far as Brexit goes, Labour agrees on the words and disagrees on the meaning. The party’s position is for a Brexit deal that puts “jobs first” and secures “the exact same benefits” as the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has.

That was the position articulated by Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, in a series of interventions designed to clarify the party’s position after both Jeremy Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, both ruled out continuing membership of the single market and the customs union.

The advantage that Labour’s line has is that it unites the parliamentary Labour party, the membership, the trade unions and the leadership. The difficulty comes when you ask what the words mean.

For the bulk of the trade unions, the members and a large minority in the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and the “exact same benefits” means the exact same arrangement: a Brexit that takes Britain out of the political structure of the European Union but retains the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market and the customs union. Not all of this group would agree that the only real way to have a “jobs-first  Brexit” is not to have one but they wouldn’t disagree all that strongly, either.

For a minority in the party in the country and the labour movement, and a narrow majority of the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and “the exact same benefits” comes with a fairly hefty caveat – without the free movement of labour and/or the rules of the European Court of Justice, both of which rule out continuing membership of the single market or the customs union and guarantee both fewer benefits and job losses.

(People often speak of this group being represented by Labour MPs “from the North”: in fact the biggest and most vocal MPs advocating for this approach have seats in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Some of Labour’s North-West MPs are planning an intervention with Keir Starmer, who they feel is unfairly using their region as an excuse to beat back complaints from Labour’s London MPs.)

Among the minority of that majority in the parliamentary Labour party, “jobs first” means a radical programme of public investment and state aid that, they believe would lead to the creation of new better jobs and a rebalanced economy. The agenda of Labour’s pro-single market MPs and trade unions is, first and foremost, to defend existing jobs.

Both opinions are well-represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. And although the leader himself is a Eurosceptic of long standing who instinctively favours a more drastic exit, it is fairly far down his list of priorities, according to those who know him well. Pro-single market trade unions feel that this is an area where they might be listened to.

What the leader’s office agrees on is the need to avoid culpability. Their view is that the Brexit talks, both in their timing and the unrealistic expectations the public have for the outcome, are a Conservative problem and that Labour must avoid at all costs sharing the blame for a bad Brexit deal. (The leader’s allies often talk about the fallout from Britain’s exit from the exchange rate mechanism and the global financial crisis, when neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron were blamed for the failures of policies they had supported in Opposition.)

And that might be the biggest Brexit difficulty. Conservative Remainers will break away if they think they can force government concessions – they won’t rebel if they fear their votes will be cancelled out by Labour Brexiteers. But Labour MPs in leave seats are in the same situation. And that shared paralysis is probably the biggest barrier to a softer Brexit. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.