Disability and the return of blame culture

From newspaper columnists, to politicians, to nightclub owners, myths and distortions are spreading.

It’s no longer enough to be disabled. One must, in modern Britain, be a type. Are you the real type? The genuine that is, the sort that sits there quietly and is grateful for any hand-out they receive. Showing a bit too much life, there? Then you’re a faker, dear, undoubtedly a scrounger – and that objecting attitude means you’re a manipulative threat. It’s not enough to be disabled in these days of cuts and exclusion. There’s a right way to be lame and a wrong way, and if you spot someone doing it wrong it’s your duty as an able-bodied to let someone know.

Cristina Odone did her bit this week in the Telegraph, valiantly supporting Iain Duncan Smith’s “defiant stand” in reforming disability benefits despite him basing it on six inaccuracies. Using lies and distorted facts to win a fight against people deemed liars and fakers is an irony we’re not meant to talk about – or call the nasty hypocrisy which it actually is.

The good disableds stay quiet, as the myths and distortions spread. Myths that now include the power – and desire – to close down entertainment premises, that is according to Royalty’s favourite licensee Howard Spooner. It wasn’t fighting, urination or swearing in the street that led to his club’s late license being withdrawn but angry dwarves and wheelchair users who just wouldn’t move out the way. “If a dwarf says he can’t live opposite a nightclub,” he stated with apparently full mental function, “then it is impossible to have a nightclub there because able-bodied people are having fun.” Though not having the pleasure of Spooner’s personal acquaintance I’m assuming he needs no help to play the entitled fool. It’s saying something though when licensing laws are blamed on people with disabilities – and when it’s a correlation a person is confident in declaring out loud.

But the real disableds don’t scream about the blame culture, the one that’s been given new life by dire economic conditions. They sit by as it grips and excludes and pushes them outside, only brought back in when something on the inside needs to be declared their fault.

The true disabled take whatever’s done or said to them, dutifully lifeless in body and the mind. When they get a little vocal though, when they dare object and campaign and speak the truth – that’s when they become a different type of disabled, the type that Odone took the time this week to warn us against. This type are “savvy activists”, she told us; having the potential to succeed appears to be a reasonable ground on which to criticize the opposition. They favour “manipulation and shock value”, she distorted, citing the menacing vision of a few campaigners wearing a symbolic glove.  

True disableds fit the box that’s been made for them. Passive, needing and accepting. Just not enough to make Odone or the compassionate conservatives start to feel guilty; then it’s probably time to take your offensive need and go indoors. Luckily that’s starting to happen anyway, thanks to cuts to the benefits and services that enable many disabled people to leave the house. Taking a human’s dignity and freedom is all well and good of course, but one doesn’t want to have to look at it whilst it occurs.

Don’t worry though! There’s nothing to fret about, not if you’re the real disabled. These measures will only affect the liars and the fakers, the ones all this is out to get. The slashes to welfare and the hateful rhetoric is, as Cristina tells us, “for the sake of the disabled” and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.
Disabled people are enduring vilification and the arbitrary withdrawal of life-defining welfare. They’re now being told to be grateful for it.

Disabled protesters walk past the Houses of Parliament. May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.