Opinion Articles

Superhumans or scroungers? Disability past and present

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Attitudes towards disability are once again in the spotlight ahead of the Paralympics and, following the participation of disabled South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius in the Olympics, official attempts to classify and categorise disability have come under fresh scrutiny. Public opinion responds positively to those who confound expectations and triumph over adversity. Pistorious' experience shows that what constitutes 'ability' or 'disability' is not always clear cut. But the blurring of boundaries can also lead to suspicion and distrust. The testing of ability to participate is central to current efforts to reduce spending on welfare. The Coalition Government's policy of returning sick and disabled people to the workforce, using controversial regimes of medical testing for claimants, has fuelled media stereotypes of 'benefit scroungers' and 'sick note Britain'. Nearly half the disabled participants in a recent survey published by the charity Scope said that people's attitudes towards them had got worse over the past year and blamed this on negative portrayals by Government and the media.

Suspicion of welfare claimants is rife, but not new. It was all too familiar to Charles Simcock, a poor Lancashire man who walked with a crutch after losing the use of his leg. In the 1830s he faced 'repeated enquiries' about his medical condition and 'impudence' from neighbours who questioned his impairment. It was also the experience of William Friend of Ickenham, Middlesex, 100 years earlier, whose disabilities were publicly scrutinised at the Old Bailey after he was accused of robbery. Friend was maintained by the parish being 'lame of his Hand and his Leg', but one of his neighbours claimed he had 'often made use of his lame Hand' and although he was at sometimes 'very lame indeed' at other times 'he walks better'.

Britain has a proud tradition of supporting the most vulnerable members of society. Long before the provision of free NHS healthcare, celebrated in Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony as one of the 'values we feel are true', the Old Poor Law of 1601 ordered the raising of taxes for the 'necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old and blind'. This fostered a strong sense of social duty towards the sick and disabled and a sense of moral obligation among the powerful to assist the 'weak'.

But since the birth of welfare, there has also been a tendency to scrutinise the authenticity of impairment. The Elizabethan equivalent of today's benefit 'scroungers' were known as 'rufflers', 'palliards' and 'clapperdogeons', 'sham cripple' beggars who supposedly plastered their bodies with fake sores. In the eighteenth century newspapers reported on violent robberies committed by fake disabled beggars, or lamented the 'infestations' of disabled poor on city streets who thrust their stumps at passers-by and implored assistance. The press was instrumental in the sorting of disabled types, contrasting the 'innocent afflictions' of disabled children and war heroes with those whose impairments derived from 'irregular courses' of living. Georgian philanthropic hospitals aimed to distinguish the genuinely afflicted from the fraudulent and to place welfare relief on a firmer medical footing and attempts to root out fraud intensified during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the range of disability benefits expanded. These concerns persisted into the Welfare State era, where the duty of the state to provide assistance to the needy has always sat uneasily with the need to safeguard the interests of the taxpayer.

Distinguishing the genuinely needy from the rest of the poor has been integral to welfare policy and discussed by the media over hundreds of years. The sorting of 'good' and 'bad' disabled types has required recipients to conform to cultural values about what a disabled person should look like and how they should behave, rather simply to demonstrate need. Benefit fraud has always existed, but there has never been evidence that large numbers of people prefer to live on low benefits if they are capable of working to earn more. Historical evidence suggests that people with impairments and chronic conditions have often worked, usually in menial and low-paid roles, seeing reliance on benefits as a last resort. No government, including the present one, has found a way to enable disabled people to be socially useful (by employment or otherwise) that does not simultaneously undermine this aim by reinforcing stereotypes of fraud and blame.

Scope's poll highlights the abuse and hardship faced by disabled people as a result of welfare reform. Sick and disabled campaigners have attacked the descriptors used in the Work Capability Assessments claiming they make it difficult for even seriously ill people to qualify for support. They point to the potentially devastating consequences of wrong decisions and argue that, rather than cutting the cost of welfare, the high number of appeals increases the cost to taxpayers.

The voices of disabled people in the past are fainter, but no less defiant. Charles Simcock defended his right to relief in a letter to the parish and offered to submit medical evidence to provide 'satisfaction of the truth of my severe affliction'. William Friend likewise defended his disability as self-evident and unambiguous: ''Tis easy to see, that I am a lame Man, my right hand is lame, and my right leg and thigh is not bigger than my wrist'. His defence that the prosecution had acted 'out of Spite' was believed by the jury, who acquitted him.

The rising cost of welfare is a real political problem, caused by a rising and longer-living disabled population rather than by demonstrable fraud. Effective consultation with disabled people and their advocates, listening to their concerns and communicating better the objectives of policy is crucial to addressing this problem. The Paralympics will show that people's ability to participate in elite sport, or in society more generally, cannot be pigeon-holed as easily as policymakers might wish. But while the Paralympics give us an opportunity to celebrate achievement in its many forms, we should remember that for many disabled people, the ability to participate is constrained, not just by their medical symptoms, but also issues of accessibility and lack of real economic opportunity. Divisive social and political attitudes towards disability, epitomised by an unhelpful fixation with 'scroungers', impedes progress towards policies that could address these barriers and enable more sick and disabled people to achieve their full potential, in society and the workforce.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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