How Collectively Working to Eradicate Ableism Can Help Make A Better Future
As a white person, I am not qualified to talk about the intersection of racism and ableism – however, there are many BIPOC disabled people you can read and listen to. I’ve suggested some here, and please support them financially if you can or help by sharing their links if you can’t afford to. This is the third and final essay on ableism on the left, which I have written the in the hope that left will finally learn to listen to disabled people.
As I have said from the outset, ableism is a collective problem with collective solutions, so this last essay is focussed at looking at the positive steps that can, and should, be taken collectively by the left, in order to begin to make not just our spaces, but all spaces, safer, inclusive and empowering for disabled and chronically ill people.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, a narrative around people who had been in receipt of welfare over the long term developed momentum. Instead of the criminals who had brought the global financial systems to its knees with its shonky banking practices, the disabled and chronically ill found themselves labelled scroungers, skivers and worse. The already centre-right Labour government, battling poor polling and uncertain leadership, immediately responded as if it were true. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was not brought in by the Conservatives.
On a promise to deal with the ‘culture of dependency’ amongst welfare claimants, the Conservatives were able to take just enough in 2010, and found in Nick Clegg a willing compromiser who traded in his own promises quickly enough as the whiff of power seduced him. Under that coalition, the first changes were rapidly made, and disabled and chronically ill people suddenly found themselves confronted with a combative system which assumed them to be criminals.
Despite delivering the Equality Act 2010, the Tories did not practice what they legislated for – quite the reverse in fact. The welfare system has constantly shifted the goal posts for disabled people over the last decade, but the Work Capability Assessment is righteously deemed a kangaroo court by many activists in the disabled community. Imagine for a moment – you receive a phone call from the local police who tell you a charge has been made against you and you must come in for questioning. When you arrive, they do not tell you what the charge is, but ask you where you were on a particular day and time. Since you were at work that day, you tell them that you employers can confirm you were there. The police advise that the charge is deemed evidence enough against you, and you are imprisoned immediately for months, sometimes years.
That’s how the WCA works – the charge (of skiving/lying etc) is deemed evidence enough and using any means necessary, the disabled person is stripped of their income. That assessors lie about what the applicant tells them in 75% of cases for PIP alone, is not accidental.
The inevitable abuses might have been severe enough to warrant 2 critical United Nations reports, highlighting the human rights abuses, but the country voted 2 more times since 2010 for that same political party responsible for those rights abuses. In fact, it sped up the isolationist narrative that delivered the Brexit referendum result in 2016. Hate crime against the disabled has risen dramatically.
Our culture has never been less inclusive of disabled and chronically ill people.
Being ‘on the left’ does not make you immune to that cultural shift – and there is a world of difference between stating all of the above to score political points, and speaking and acting on that in your use of language, and treatment of disabled people in left wing spaces.
That’s not a demand to be perfect now: but if a disabled person says to you that a word or phrase you have used is harmful, and if your first reaction is to be angry at being accused of something you don’t consider yourself to have a problem with, and nevertheless take that anger out on the disabled person doing the asking – isn’t it about time you interrogated why you are responding so negatively, or why you feel inclined to defend the person reacting in that way? And yes, even if you are disabled. Being disabled in one way does not mean you understand what it’s like to be disabled in another way, or even in the way that someone similarly disabled is.
Perhaps, before that happens, talk together about that and consider the other persons point of view. Ask yourselves honestly if your spaces welcome critique and positive criticism about how to make your space more inclusive, and make a commitment to welcome positive critique from a disabled person within, and outside of, your space.
After getting away with grotesquely authoritarian treatment of the disabled and chronically ill (and our elders), the stridently authoritarian nature of Johnson’s regime comes as little shock to those who have been living under the cosh of that for more than a decade. It has successfully stalled trans rights reforms, criminalised the Roma and Traveller communities, put hard right media figures in charge of state broadcasting, and demanded that any teaching which is deemed ‘anti- capitalist’ in schools is withdrawn.
We cannot throw ablest words as insults at the regime, and expect it to change anything – the toxic nature of any authoritarian regime does not become less toxic by using its own weapons against it. For a decade those in the right of the Labour Party constantly criticised anything deemed a call for ‘ideological purity’, sometimes wilfully failing to understand why striving to be better in our conduct and policies benefits those who pay the price for that toxicity. The scandal of this regime’s treatment of BAME, GRT and disabled communities was best represented by Windrush, the horror of Grenfell and the criminal legislation that will obliterate the Roma and Traveller communities.
And then came the pandemic.
Unless this regime is removed, or overthrown, and replaced by a governance based on justice, reparation and healing, this is all only going to get worse. In the meantime, what we need is less talking, and more doing. Whilst we must – because the Opposition appease not oppose – continue to call out and enunciate the harm being done by these ‘politicians’ we must also organise on the ground to keep people alive. We need a politics of action and resistance – talk on social media grows of a general strike, but we also need civil disobedience. We live now in an era where staying alive as a marginalised or elder person is an act of resistance.
No blame, no shame
Finger pointing and in-fighting are not going to help us overcome this regime – but neither is bad faith. This isn’t arguing for an opportunity for you to feel forgiven and move on whilst changing nothing. Given that our naked emperor and his yes-men cabinet work hard to ensure that everyone else can be blamed for the consequences of their decisions, not matter how many people die, one thing we must do is practice taking responsibility, because a leadership that cannot, does not, and will not take responsibility is not leadership at all, as Johnson and Starmer both so successfully model.
Disabled people do not need our allies to magically transform – a simple apology and the effort to change things is all that is required, because even once we have overcome this regime, the damage done to societies progress is significant, and we are long overdue political leadership that seeks to change negative cultural attitudes by demonstration and action, not just words.
Eugenics, and fascism, must never again be allowed to wreak its cruelty, barbarism and cult of death against human beings who do not meet their criteria for approval.
And we cannot do that by compromising our politics, our ethos, our ethics or our actions. It is easier to rebuild a society, than it is to resurrect the dead killed by those two monsters of humanity who now reign over us.