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Getting Serious About Citizenship

Author: Simon Duffy

Inequalities come in many forms and some are worse than others. In Scotland income inequality is significant and corrosive, but for some people inequality takes even more damaging forms. This is especially true for disabled people, whom society often treats as second class citizens - or not even as citizens at all. 

And it is important here not to cover up the fact that the category ‘disabled people’ quickly fractures into multiple groups who do not always recognize their shared concerns: 

  • people with physical impairments, 
  • sensory impairments, 
  • learning difficulties, 
  • mental illness, 
  • dementia, 
  • frailty, 
  • chronic health conditions and many others. 

As is often the case, the most oppressed groups are often divided against themselves and an internal pecking order can emerge. As a very rough rule of thumb, it turns out that those whose disability is ‘cognitive’ or who are getting older find themselves particularly vulnerable.

For these groups inequality is reflected in lower income, but it is also experienced as:

  1. Demeaning attitudes and a failure to recognize the individuals’ unique worth
  2. Lack of basic freedoms and reduced access to the full range of human rights
  3. Insufficient income, extra taxes (charges) and inadequate controls over that income
  4. Homelessness, although often disguised by institutional residential provision
  5. Inadequate care, rather than useful support that the individual control
  6. Exclusion or significant barriers to community, work, leisure and a full life
  7. Fractured families, lovelessness and isolation

All of this is unnecessary and deeply damaging to our social fabric. Nothing is to be gained by treating people as passive objects and failing to respect their gifts and capacity for contribution. But society seems unable to undo the history of prejudice, fear and stigmatisation upon which these injustices are built.

Yet thinking about the meaning of citizenship might be one powerful way of challenging ourselves to break this pattern of thought. 

The notion of citizenship is rooted in three interlocking ideas:

  1. Equality - citizens are equal, not by being the same, but by being equal in status, equal in dignity, within the community.
  2. Difference - citizens are different, they bring together different needs and gifts, and it is from the respectful combination of these that community is built.
  3. Justice - citizenship is achieved by a shared commitment of community to treat each other as equals and to found its laws and institutions upon that equality.

At this important crux in the history of Scotland there can be no better time than now to start thinking hard about what citizenship demands of us. As we do this, disabled people, all disabled people, have a significant contribution to make - because they know better than most how easy it is for others to misunderstand or disregard our fundamental human worth.

As IRISS begins an exploration of this issue with disabled people and their allies here are some questions for us to think about:

1. How deep do we need to go? 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities provide us with strong intellectual foundations for our thinking. But these are ideas are not well reflected in the current welfare system and our attempts to use them as leverage for change are piecemeal and tactical. Is it time for a more fundamental, and constitutional, approach to change?

2. Are we organised for change?

The divisions between disability groups and expectation that the state should provide the plan for positive change leaves the disability community weak. Hard work leads to some success, but the default, business as usual, approach of society goes unchallenged. How would we find the urgency and sense of direction that will bring about real and fundamental change?

3. How do we challenge the new institutions?

Residential care, special units and many forms of enforced group living still dominate social care provision. Despite that fact that these are inefficient and unsafe, they have become the default option in the eyes of the public and of policy-makers. Can we confidently articulate how real life citizenship should work for all disabled people, without the institutions?

4. What is the proper role of local government?

As is often the case when combatting oppression local government is often blamed for problems that are rooted in central government. The desire to see local government improved can then lead to power being increasingly centralised and local communities blamed. What kind of local controls and powers will really help people achieve full citizenship?

5. Do we really want to hang on to the health and social care divide? 

It is true that the social model has certainly thrived somewhat better out of the shadow of clinical control. But the price we pay is to allow social care to exist as a stigmatised, misunderstood and - by perception, not logic - a non-universal service. When hard times come it is the NHS that is protected while social services are cut. Should we reintegrate health and social care - but then distinguish a different dividing line: self-directed support versus genuine clinical care?

6. Can we connect to the emerging political realities of a modern Scotland?

Ideas and policies are framed by politicians as part of the cut and thrust of achieving political power. Consensus can seem attractive, but the reality is that when there is no political capital at stake then there is very little to activate busy politicians who need to win popular support in order to gain power. Is it time to think a little harder about the real politics of change and to try and work harder at making the votes and voice of disabled people really count?

These are some of the questions we can cover as part of the IRISS discussions on citizenship in social services. There will also be plenty of opportunities for challenge and for positing of new questions. But the goal must be to think in terms of real outcomes, rights and substantial changes. It is time to leave behind some of the stale battles and jargonised forms of thinking that have never served disabled people well.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform. This piece was developed as an early provocation for a joint project with IRISS on citizenship and social services.

Getting Serious About Citizenship © Simon Duffy 2012.

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.