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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.

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.