The Undeserving Disabled

by Christopher Read

Beneath the justifications for the government's assault on disability benefits lurks the familiar Victorian moralising of inequality, dressed up in the language of neoliberalism.

First published: 23 July, 2010 | Category: Employment & Welfare, Health, Politics

“I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old.” - Neil Kinnock, Glamorgan, 7 June 1983

The neoliberal ontology of the human being, that is, its conception of what a human being actually is, reveals a great deal about its practical workings. In industrially developed societies it is practically a given – man is a rights bearing individual, capable of selling their own labour power and owning property. According to neoliberal thinkers like Friedman, Nozick, Rand or Hayek, we emerge ex nihilo from transparent cocoons at the age of 18, as asocial and ahistorical as capitalism itself, armed with rather occult rights, and those contracts we sign from then on are covenants with God. We can be held absolutely accountable for our actions, and justly punished or rewarded by the invisible hand, imagined by the son of a Calvinist minister, Adam Smith.

The fact that we are also sons, daughters, lovers, mothers or husbands is irrelevant to the cold calculus of the market. The fact that a sexually abused child cannot realistically recover and function as an independent adult without a great deal of counselling and support does not sway this particular Jehovah. The fact that the majority of the homeless in the UK were at one point in care systems as children is neither here nor there. In fact it doesn’t matter that we start off as babies. Or that we start to exhibit medical signs of stress and depression if we become isolated from a reciprocal community. It is, unfortunately for us, a profoundly skewed ontology, and few things reveal this more than the simple fact of disability. If you are disabled the neoliberal thinks: that’s your own look-out.

Recently George Osborne (heir to the Osborne baronetcy), Chancellor of the Exchequer and playground chum of our new Prime Minister, announced his emergency budget. He outlined numerous speedy welfare cuts to help fund the greatest transfer of wealth in British history, from the state to the international financial sector’s highest echelons, to protect them from bankruptcy. The financial sector, or ‘the city’, was certainly not inclined (for once) to allow the invisible hand to hold sway following their disastrous lending decisions of the last 20 years. In this budget Osborne announced sweeping changes to disabled benefits that would, he insinuated, end a culture of fecklessness and trickery, as well as help fund this massive wealth transfer of hundreds of billions of pounds.

He announced that all disabled recipients of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) would be retested, starting in 2013, regardless of any previous promises, and that this would include disabled children too. The retesting is explicitly designed to cut costs, making the tests themselves political rather than medical. Indeed, he boldly announced his hope to save 1.4 billion by 2015. Presumably if medical professionals find that claimants are properly disabled, they will be cuffed round the head, Queensbury rules, and told to try again until the cuts can be made.

That is, if NHS doctors will be allowed to retest the current claimants. Last year it was announced by Labour that the recipients of Incapacity Benefit, now cheerfully renamed “Employment Support Allowance”, would be retested with the a priori aim of cutting numbers down. Incapacity Benefit is an unemployment benefit given to disabled people who are unable to work, suffering from more severe impairments, such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or high spectrum autism. Strangely, the NHS was not used to assess the tens of thousands of claimants, despite the fact that this would be the simplest, cheapest and most obvious choice (indeed, the NHS receives international plaudits for its assessment criteria). Instead an American private company, ATOS healthcare, was contracted to undertake the reassessment. ATOS regularly lobbies for further privatisation of European healthcare services and recently won a contract to provide key IT and information storage services for the NHS in the UK.

Amazingly, ATOS has found that 68% of all Incapacity Benefit claimants are in fact fit to work, meaning that they have uncovered the largest incidence of benefit fraud in UK history. The 68% figure is simply mindboggling. But there’s something a bit funny about the assessment. As Disability Alliance’s Neil Coyle notes, “they do not measure ability to perform work functions e.g. typing, packing or sweeping, but are based on someone describing their average day and simple tasks”.1 Nor do they measure carrying, lifting, using a keyboard or reach, but there was a single ‘picking up a coin’ exercise. The tests did not measure repetition of movement, strain, stamina or learning impairments, which would take a trained specialist.

A Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson helpfully said “the assessment looks at what people can do, rather than what they can’t2 - perhaps because evangelical self-delusion is an important part of the new politics. Mark Serwotka of the Public Services Union said that “the government’s draconian approach of forcing people off incapacity benefit when they clearly can’t work is having tragic consequences”.3

The Citizens Advice Bureau, a free public service also now up for budget cuts, was soon inundated with complaints, appeals and frightened phone calls from disabled people and their families. The CAB published a damning report of these tests aptly titled ‘Unfit for Purpose’. The report explains that:

”many clients with serious conditions are being found fit for work, including clients with Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, terminal cancer, Bi-Polar Disorder, heart failure and strokes.4

The Bureau reported ‘a massive workload helping clients’5 with the appeals procedure. CAB spokesperson Matt Lancashire said, “[t]he people we are talking about are not scroungers or benefit cheats, they are people who have suffered the tragic bad luck of becoming genuinely too ill to work.”6 Job Centre staff are also worried, as disabled job seekers join the lengthening queues, with impairments they have neither the specialist training or equipment to handle. Some frontline staff have even reported that disabled job seekers are unable to use the standard computer consoles to search for vacancies because of their physical impairment, such as a spinal injury.

The disabled community knew a fight was coming over Incapacity Benefit. After all, it is for disabled people unable to sell their labour power, a difficult concept for the neoliberal. But few suspected that Osborne would so quickly target Disability Living Allowance in the same way.

DLA was created in 1997 to help disabled people live independently. It was the culmination of decades of hard campaigning and ultimately it has saved the tax payer money. In the 1970’s many disabled people lived in residential or institutional care, attending separate schools and often eking out an isolated existence in special hospitals. Not only did this apartheid stigmatise disability and crush disabled self esteem, it was very, very expensive. In the name of freedom, Mrs Thatcher closed most of these dismal institutions and declared that disabled people should live in the community, which would, she assumed in her Methodist fashion, spontaneously provide care and support through acts of Christian charity. Disabled people had no desire to stay in those remote and drafty hospitals, but they knew they were being handed a somewhat poisoned chalice. Therefore the disabled movement developed the ‘Social Model of Disability’. The model argued that with fairly minor changes to our physical environment, it would be possible for disabled people to have the same access and opportunities as others. If you build a ramp, a wheelchair user can enter a building just as easily as anyone else. If you provide a document in large print or Braille, a visually impaired person can read it. That effectively equalises things. Eventually a special benefit was created shortly after Labour’s 1997 victory, to fund these changes: DLA. It allowed disabled people to purchase home adaptations, medication, treatment and equipment themselves. It is a modest benefit of around £70 a week, which in turn saves the taxpayer money because it allows earlier intervention, preventative treatment and, most importantly of all, it allows disabled people to work.

The majority of DLA claimants are in work and use the extra cash to pay for the transport, software, screen readers, tactile keyboards and orthopaedic chairs that allow more and more disabled people to do a 9 to 5. The closure of the care and residential homes and new-found independence has seen the disabled community go from being a cautious and sometimes fatalistic movement to one of the most dynamic and optimistic in Britain today.

Yet the Chancellor said that retesting DLA would ‘significantly improve incentives to work’7, despite the fact that DLA has nothing whatsoever to do with unemployment. He really should know this, what with being Chancellor. The retesting of disabled people who are mostly in work, and do not have the kind of severe impairments associated with Incapacity Benefit, will be more challenging and more pricey. Many conditions, particularly those involving young children or connected with learning ability, such as Down’s Syndrome, require around 48 hour observation from a highly trained NHS or educational specialist. Given that, to receive DLA, claimants must already go through a medical assessment, a secondary assessment will be expensive and intrusive. What is more, the DWP estimates that only 0.5% of current claims are actually fraudulent.8 This is because benefit fraud is usually committed through complex criminal scams using fake social security details, addresses or identities. The myth that one can simply hop in a wheelchair, feign a pained expression and demand public money is a tempting fallacy, but a fallacy nonetheless, not least because scammers don’t like the medical tests and professional assessments that go with such a high-risk crime. There are much easier ways to get money.

This tempting myth is propagated when the DWP itself, now presided over by Iain Duncan-Smith, writes that DLA ‘supports those unable to work’ (it does not) and that the changes emphasise a ‘commitment to improve work incentives and encourage responsibility… regarding DLA’.9 The Victorian rhetoric is perhaps unsurprising coming from an MP and former Tory leader who believes in an obscure modern form of phrenology, whereby children from mothers who have “different multiple partners”10 and council estate backgrounds will have smaller, shrunken brains. Just as Adam Smith’s and Margaret Thatcher’s devoted fathers explained, original sin and poverty are interlinked, and Duncan-Smith exorts: “as you track back you begin to realise that actually, for far too many people in society crime began before they were born”. However, Dr Bruce Berry of the American Child Trauma Academy said that Duncan-Smith’s whacky Victorian pseudo-science ‘grossly misrepresented and distorted’11 scientific facts.

Duncan-Smith’s penchant for nutty distortion continued on the day of the emergency budget. He claimed that disability benefits had ‘spiralled out of control’12 and that the system was ‘vulnerable to abuse and outright fraud’13. With impeccable timing Tory MP Stewart Jackson then announced to the Commons that ‘more than 6,000 of my constituents languish on disability living allowance’14. In a veritable orgy of Victorian pomp he went on: ‘it took courage in this Budget to tackle the entitlement culture, but putting this country back on track will require further tough decisions, which are the right thing to do… just as it fell to Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago to deal with the poisonous legacy of Labour profligacy’.15 Indeed!

Maria Eagle, Labour’s former disabled people’s minister responded in virtual shock at the smears: ‘people who work receive DLA. It is not a benefit that one languishes upon. It is recognition that disabled people need a little extra support to enable them to participate in life’.16 Eagle also described the upcoming retesting as straightforward ‘harassment’.17

Metropolitan Police campaigner against hate crime Anne Novis, herself a wheelchair user, said she was “appalled and dismayed” at the “targeted hostility” towards the disabled. “The ignorance around what DLA is and how it supports disabled people with the recognised extra cost of being a disabled person is perpetuating a myth that disabled people have it easy, get everything free and have an easy life. It reinforces the attitude that some have towards us that we are a burden on the state and should be got rid of or marginalised into more poverty by such extreme measures.”18 Stephen Brooks, disabled leader of the NUJ agrees: “I am deeply concerned by sensational headlines and stories about disabled ‘scroungers’ and ‘benefit cheats’”. He said the government was insinuating that “if only they can stop ‘disabled benefits cheats’ then other cuts won’t have to be so bad”.19

This is the ontology of the neoliberal. Strip it back and we find Victorian cant and mock solemnity in 1980’s power dressing. If you cannot sell your labour on the market, you are useless and no one has any responsibility to help you. The truth is, of course, that all men and women take joy in helping others and that we are all, to some extent or other, disabled. What’s more, we will all one day be old, infirm and tired. And we are all living under a Conservative government.

Christopher Read has an MPhil in Politics from Sussex University and works for a disability information service based in Edinburgh.


1 From The Observer, 3 January 2020 (story by Toby Helm, political editor)

2 (ibid.)

3 (ibid.)

4 ‘Unfit for Purpose’, Citizens’ Advice Bureau,

5 (ibid.)

6 STV News, 27 May 2010

7 ‘Emergency budget: George Osborne’s speech in full’, Tuesday 22 June 2010

8 DWP figures on estimated DLA fraud for 2009/10

9 Letter from K. Devlin, DWP, 9 June 2010

10 ‘Iain Duncan Smith ‘distorted’ research on childhood neglect and brain size’, Friday 9 April 2010

11 (ibid.)

12 DWP Newsroom, The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith, 30 June 2010

13 (ibid.)

14, Hansard 28 June 2010, Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con)

15, Hansard 28 June 2010 ,Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con)

16 John Pring at

17 (ibid.)

18 (ibid.)

19 (ibid.)

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