Disabled people have never had it so bad

Media rhetoric and verbal abuse in public places.

Many people have been shocked by a story which appeared on Twitter yesterday. Alex has collated the tweets here. To put this in context, the poster Thomas Hemingford’s twitter profile reads: "Man. Married, disabled wife. 3 Children, 1 disabled." Now read on:

"A good friend took me & my wife out last night to a restaurant, it was a really nice gesture, until this guy came up to our table, shouting....  He went on, for ages, saying how he supported David Cameron and how he's "putting disabled people in their place".....He went on at us for about 15 minutes, it was very difficult and we were made to feel worthless.... My friend had to restrain himself, we thought he'd done, then he started making out all disabled people don't work & get £500 a week....This idiot had been drinking, but he was well spoken, it's alarming people can think like this and say such things. ...What was bad too, there were others in the place agreeing with him. It's very alarming, this Govt have created this mentality...I've felt attitudes have changed over past 2 years, I've never experienced so much abuse and discrimination. It's both Govt and media."

This is not an isolated incident. There is growing concern about the number of well-documented cases of disabled people being subjected to verbal abuse and worse in public places, and the belief that these incidents are driven by political and media rhetoric on welfare reform is widespread.

Of course it is very difficult to show either that the number of incidents is increasing (people may be more likely to report them) or that there is a causal link to what the media and politicians are saying.  But it is possible to look at whether the vocabulary and content of media and political discourse has grown more or less negative over time: the results show that whether or not they are contributing to the problem, it is very unlikely they are helping.

The figures here come from analysis of a large dataset of articles on welfare published in UK national newspapers between 1995 and 2011. We assembled the dataset as part of a project on benefits stigma commissioned by the charity Turn2Us last year. (You can read the report here). The report wasn’t specifically about disability benefits, and there wasn’t room to include all the analysis we would have liked, so these are new figures.

We analysed the content of articles using a set of "themes" which occur in a lot of coverage of benefits: the most important of these were need, fraud, ‘scrounging’ – people claiming who shouldn’t be for reasons other than fraud- compulsion to take up work or training, claimants being better off on benefits, large families on benefits and anti-social behaviour.  Only articles where these themes made a substantive contribution to the content are included- these are not articles that make glancing reference to  need or fraud, for example.

The headline results for articles dealing with disability and benefits are shown in the chart. We’ve divided the entire period covered by the data into two sub-periods of equal length, breaking in June 2003. In the first period, up to June 2003, 42 per cent of articles dealt with need compared to 29 per cent using one or more of the negative themes. In the second period, some 58 per cent of articles used negative themes to only 27 per cent of articles in which need was a theme. So the sense that newspaper coverage has grown more negative over time seems fully justified. There has been both growth in articles with negative content and a fall in articles with more sympathetic content. (There is an overlap between these two categories, with some articles combining negative and sympathetic themes: this overlap has also reduced, with more articles containing only negative themes.)

Source: Consistent 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian

In fairness, we should point out that one of our ‘negative’ themes is ‘compulsion’- articles which refer to measures to oblige claimants to take up work or training. This plays an important role in the growth of negative coverage, reflecting both the previous and current  governments’ emphasis on benefit conditionality.  While the prominence of compulsion in public debate may be a driver of broader negativity towards claimants, it would be unfair to blame the media for simply reporting government policy. But when we exclude articles in which compulsion is the only negative theme, while the growth in negative content is reduced, we still find a doubling of the percentage of negative articles (from 20% to 41%).  So straightforward reporting of government policy isn’t the main driver of increased negativity.

We also looked at the vocabulary used in articles about incapacity benefit (and its predecessors and successors). For this, we used word-lists intended to capture specific types of negative associations: the most important were fraud (words like cheat, fiddle), non-reciprocity (handouts, scrounger, feckless, idle)and dependency (e.g. languishing on benefits). As can be seen, there was a huge growth in the number of articles on these benefits from 2003, and an increase in negativity. Both the total number of articles and the number of negative articles peaked in 2010. However there is also an important peak in 2008, coinciding with Labour’s incapacity benefit reforms- while there were more articles in 2010, the share of negative articles is similar in 2008.

Source:  Main 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian Telegraph Sun Express

Does negative media coverage affect public attitudes? Almost certainly: in our report we showed that the level of negativity in the newspapers people read had an effect on their perceptions of benefit fraud, even controlling for other factors that influence attitudes. Media coverage is not the only factor, and probably not the most important factor, but it serves to reinforce suspicions and ill-founded grievances against all people of working age on benefits, including disabled claimants. The extreme views of people like the idiot who ruined Thomas Hemingford, his wife and friends’ evening are hopefully confined to a tiny minority, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the biggest selling UK newspapers: media coverage helps form a public environment in which people can think this sort of behaviour is socially acceptable. And as we showed in our report, politics is the big driver of negative coverage, with Conservative, Labour and the coalition governments all playing a role.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ben Baumberg is a Lecturer at the University of Kent and co-editor of the collaborative blog Inequalities, Kate Bell works mainly at Child Poverty Action Group, and Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. Together they published "Benefits stigma in Britain".

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.