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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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

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