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 It wasn’t fighting, urination or swearing in the street that led to his club’s late license being withdrawn but angry dwarves and wheelchair users who just wouldn’t move out the way.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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.