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 It wasn’t fighting, urination or swearing in the street that led to his club’s late license being withdrawn but angry dwarves and wheelchair users who just wouldn’t move out the way.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

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.