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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.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories