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Crippled by Austerity

Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People by Frances Ryan

Reviewed by Simon Duffy

Our thanks to the Fabian Society for publishing a shortened version of this review in the Fabian Review (Summer 2019).

I was radicalised by Austerity, and I remain astonished that so many have not been. Recently, talking to an old friend, and fellow member of the Labour Party, I found he was more outraged by Brexit than by Austerity. He was even thinking of joining ChUK! So Crippled, this powerful book, by respected journalist, Frances Ryan is the perfect wake-up call for anyone sleep-walking through Austerity.

Crippled integrates moving human stories and an array of facts and data to demonstrate the vicious harm caused by Austerity. It describes how disabled people are the primary target of welfare reforms, savage cuts to local authority funding, the collapse of legal aid and multiple other damaging policy changes introduced since 2010. It brings the impact of these policies into harsh and painful light, through the testimony of the disabled children and adults who are being pummelled by the UK Government.

Statistics mean something more when you realise that they are describing: malnutrition, homelessness, debt, physical and mental illness, prostitution, young children caring for their parents, women who cannot afford to flee domestic violence, suicide and unnecessary deaths. Austerity kills and it is killing disabled people. Ryan does a brilliant job of describing the human cost of Austerity.

As she outlines, these attacks come on many fronts:

Poverty - The financial crash was caused by gambling by the wealthy and debt-fuelled house-price inflation. Yet its price has been paid by those on the lowest incomes, few of whom own a house and who have see a series of cuts to income, combined with increases in the taxes (like VAT) which target the poorest.

Work - The aspiration of many disabled people to work has been turned into a vicious system of dim-witted and unreliable ‘work capability assessments’. Some people are pushed into low paid and insecure work, which often leads to worsening physical and mental health. Others are drawn into an increasingly punitive and insecure benefit system which has led to increased suicides.

Independence - We have had decades of slow, but steady progress in Social Care, seeing growing numbers of disabled people get support they can control and enabling independent living. This progress has been put in reverse. In England Social Care support has been cut by 44% and increasingly young disabled adults are being institutionalised in care homes for older people.

Housing - Social housing has been in significant decline since Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy was developed. But the negative impact on disabled people has accelerated since the Coalition Government reduced housing rights and introduced the Bedroom Tax and other Housing Benefit cuts. People are left living trapped inside inappropriate housing, unable to get adaptations or access to a community life.

Women - There is a disproportionate negative impact of Austerity on women and in particular on disabled women. Women are more likely to be abused, raped and subjected to domestic violence, but the support people need to escape these crimes is disappearing.

Children - A society that prides itself on its concern for children has seen growing numbers left of disabled children left without support, while other young children must provide intensive and intimate care for a disabled parent. The goal of inclusive education has been abandoned and growing numbers of children find themselves excluded or even institutionalised because of these severe social policy failures.

These policies are human rights crimes. But they are also economically illiterate. Cutting support that enables people to participate in society just makes society weaker. Failing to offer early and preventive support leads to death, suicide or other social and economic costs. Redistributing resources away from the poorest and from local communities simply siphons money into tax havens and the bank accounts of the wealthy. There is no trickle down - this is backwards economics - and it is taking the UK backwards socially, politically and economically.

As Ryan explains, part of the reason that the UK Government has got away with this is that disabled people are not seen as equal citizens. While some disabled people, like Stephen Hawking are idolised for ‘overcoming’ their disability, too many people are pitied or shamed for failing to do so. Worse, as economic times get tougher, and the powerful need to distract us, it has turned out that disabled people are a perfect scapegoat group. The rise of disability hate crime, fuelled by political and media rhetoric, reveals the shabby moral fabric of modern Britain.

Ryan ends the book on a hopeful note and John McDonnell, one of the few politicians who has been a consistent ally of disabled people, says that the book “should shake the political system to its foundations.” But I am left wondering whether our system has any foundations worth the name.

For Austerity is also the story of the complete failure of the political system and civil society to protect the human rights of disabled people. The United Nations has published several severely critical reports describing flagrant abuses of human rights. But the Government shrugs off each criticism and the media and civil society quickly move on to the next issue. “What could any Johnny Foreigner possibly teach us?”

It is also worth remembering that, particularly between 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party often found itself supporting welfare reforms ‘in principle’ and that many of its ‘principles’ were prefigured by New Labour policies. The infamous Benefit Thieves campaign was an effort by New Labour to appear tough on benefits, and it has played directly into the hands of those wanting to stigmatise the poor and disabled. Benefit fraud was, and remains, statistically insignificant, but when good people fail to resist lies and injustice they risk legitimising them.

Also striking has been the complete failure of civil society to resist Austerity. Despite cuts which have seen, for instance, a 44% fewer people receiving Adult Social Care, there has been no powerful and organised campaign to resists these cuts. Local government, the church and charities have sometimes issued critical statements, but they tend to understate the crisis, and after a little flurry, everything goes quiet again. The only effective resistance has come from grassroots organisations like DPAC (Disabled People Against the Cuts). It is perhaps no coincidence that the best campaigning comes from those not dependent on government funding.

Austerity should end our faith in any inevitable law of social progress and encourage us to question whether the powerful will always act for the common good. Jess Phillips said of Crippled “This book is so important, it should be read at least by every policy-maker in the country.” But the fallacy here is the idea that policy-makers don’t know what’s going on and would care if they did. Many of us have been explaining the impact of these policies since 2010 and yet most politicians, civil servants and the media have remained with their head in the sand.

Austerity happened because the elite can target groups who are politically weak, without consequence. If we want to build a society with a real commitment to social justice then we are going to have to focus on making it much more difficult for politicians to exploit people’s fear and prejudice.

One dimension, which Ryan does not explore, is constitutional reform. In Wales and Scotland, Austerity has been somewhat softened because of increased democratic control. But we also need to put the protection of human rights - including social and economic rights - at the heart of our legal system. It is essential that we restore the integrity of civil society and reduce its dependency on political patronage to ensure that the voices of those harmed can never be silenced again.

The book is available to buy at Verso books here.


The publisher is Verso Books.

Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People © Frances Ryan 2019.

Review: Crippled by Austerity © Simon Duffy 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.