Disability, the UK General Election, and what it means for bioethics

It may not have escaped your notice that Britain has just had a general election. The result decides the flavour of the government, probably for the next 5 years. The outcome on 8 May was widely unpredicted: the polls had all said that the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would morph into some other form of coalition, unholy or not. Instead the Conservative party walked away with an outright majority, giving Britain its first purely Tory government since 1997.

Quite what this will mean for life in Britain remains to be seen. There’s been no lack of discussion in the media and on the street. Some things are foreseeable, others less so. The government has already swung into action behind a couple of its manifesto promises; these include the holding of a referendum on whether or not Britain should stay part of the European Union, and the promise to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights. The two issues aren’t unconnected, and if they went through would have immense consequences for Britain, Europe and ultimately the rest of the world.

Perhaps less attention has been given to what the new regime’s plans mean for disabled people. The previous government had form[1] here, and there’s little indication that things are going to improve. Over the last 5 years vicious cuts have been made to the level of social and other support provided to disabled people: support to which disabled people have a right, according to (among other things) international agreements like that pesky European Convention. The cuts have reduced or eliminated altogether access to interventions that enable disabled people and their families to live as independently as others, to work, to get an education, to be active in society; to have, in other words, a halfway decent life. The incoming government now has to make good on its manifesto promise to enact a further £15 billion-worth of cuts to the welfare budget by 2018.

Disabled people aren’t the only people hit by the dismantling of the welfare state, of course, but it’s become increasingly clear that they are among the groups the Conservative party is specially targeting, for reasons that seem more ideological than economic. A key illustration here is what it has done to a scheme called Access to Work. This provides a range of supports, from taxi fares to text-to-speech software to sign language interpreters, with the aim of enabling disabled people to function in their workplace. It’s expensive: the overall spend on Access to Work in 2013/14 was £108m, covering 35,540 people. But it’s also widely acknowledged that the return, for example in the form of income tax paid by people who would otherwise not be able to hold down a job, more than covers the outlay. The government’s own figures say that for every £1 spent the Treasury gets back £1.48.

Prior to the election, plans were announced to cut back even further on Access to Work. It was purely coincidental (not even the Tories would be that insensitive) that the impact assessment on those plans were released in the first few hours after the election result.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve used equipment bought through Access to Work to do my university job for the last 8 years. But I’m among those in the relatively fortunate position that, if it really came to it, could probably pay for it myself. Not many disabled people in Britain today are in that position.

One of the reasons these actions are relevant to bioethics is the question of their ideological basis, and why that ideology is focusing on disability. Given that most of the cuts affecting disabled people either have only minimal impact on the total benefits bill, or actually make no economic sense at all (as in the case of Access to Work), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are about something other than simple accountancy. I want to suggest that what they reflect is an underlying conviction that any form of dependency is unnatural, abhorrent, and to be prevented if at all possible. This understanding of dependency means that disabled people, as a group seen as excessively dependent, become obvious targets. Many feminist bioethicists would challenge that particular understanding of dependency, and would also be conscious of the way that it results in a kind of visceral discomfort about disability, not just on the part of politicians and policy makers, but running through society as a whole – including, at times, bioethics’ own judgements.

[1] Upon inquiring with the author, I learn that this is a British colloquialism. Formally it means to have a criminal record; colloquially it means “they’ve done this before, and not in a good way.” And so I learn something new everyday –PJW

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Disability, the UK General Election, and what it means for bioethics — 1 Comment

  1. In regards to the US, as compared to the situation in the UK, ableism, while still affected by neglectful government policies, remains more of a social issue above all else. While the government often fails to take into account the significant disabled population in the United States, through issues such as unsuitable funding for programs and organizations aiding disabled peoples, the stigma and marginalization of the disabled community in the US is caused mostly by the social constructions of disability and failures in understanding its conditions (Wendell 106). Examples of this can be seen in the tendency of school systems to ignore or neglect their disabled students in their teachings, in the unrepresentative popular media that often misrepresents disabled individuals, and the physical structure of most public places in the US which often fail to take into account individuals that are not able bodied. In all of these examples society constructs the concept of disability, making it out to be not just different, but wrong in a way. As such, the most effective way to combat this issue is to challenge the current social constructions of disability and remove stigmas surrounding it.

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