In her new book, journalist, broadcaster and campaigner Frances Ryan gives a damning insight into the state’s callous treatment of disabled people under austerity. Grace Krause, policy officer for Learning Disability Wales, applauds Frances Ryan’s passionate defence of every person’s right to live a dignified life, whilst exposing the extent of suffering that has been caused by austerity policies.
In late October 2019, just when I was starting to write this review, Sky News ran a story about 18-year old autistic girl called Bethany who has been confined in secure units in England and Wales for the last three years. The reporter from Sky News interviewed Bethany’s father who said that Bethany has experienced poor treatment and abuse and is being locked away from the world. In the hospital she is in now, Beth is locked into a small room around the clock and denied all direct contact with other people. Instead she spends all her time on her own in a room which has no furniture but a mattress and lights that are too bright for her.
I kept thinking of Bethany and all the other people with autism and learning disabilities in similar situations in the UK while I was writing this review. Maybe the most upsetting thing about Bethany’s story is that it is far from unusual. Her bad treatment is the tip of the iceberg of the world that almost ten years of austerity politics have created for disabled people in Britain. It is this world that Frances Ryan describes in ‘Crippled – Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People’.
What is the book about?
Under the austerity politics introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 the spending on welfare benefits for the UK’s poorest families will have shrunk by nearly a quarter by 2020. Disabled people were affected worse than others with cuts of £28 billion hitting them specifically. As a result 4 million disabled people in the UK were living under the poverty line in 2018 with some disabled people being up to £4000 a year worse off than in 2010. Ryan looks at the results of these cuts and how they have changed people’s lives.
For this book Ryan has interviewed about a dozen people who have been affected by austerity and tells their stories. She combines these stories with a thorough overview of research about the lives of disabled people in Britain that give an idea of how many people live in similar situations to the people she’s interviewed. Ryan has divided her book into six main parts called Poverty, Work, Independence, Housing, Women and Children. There is far too much information in this book for me to summarise it all here, so I will only give a few examples.
Ryan writes about how disabled people are caught between two contradictory and damaging stereotypes. On the one hand disabled people are seen as infirm and to be pitied and on the other as lazy scroungers who are dodging work. These stereotypes mean that disabled people are not given the chance to prove themselves at work while also being punished for not having the jobs they are being denied.
One particularly cruel result of these attitudes described by Ryan is the use of benefits sanctions and “fit for work test”. With disabled people constantly under suspicion of “faking it”, these measures are applied in such a way that disabled people regularly have their benefits stopped leaving them destitute and leaving some in such a desperate position they commit suicide. As a result, Ryan writes “Death has become part of Britain’s benefits system, in which people who have life-threatening illnesses can be deemed ‘fit for work’, while those who need support for mental health problems are instead thrown to the Job Centre with their benefits cut.” (p.51)
In her chapter on independence Ryan looks at how many disabled people are not having their social care needs met. As a result of the cuts many of the hard won accomplishments of the last decades are now eroded. Through to social care funding many disabled people are losing the ability to live independently and are moving into residential care homes in increasing numbers. Ryan writes that “Shipping off disabled people into care homes is the inescapable consequence of a political climate that puts a price tag on certain people’s lives and, at the same time, fans the belief that disabled people are a cost that the so-called hardworking taxpayer shouldn’t have to pay.” (p.88)
This is a particularly distressing fact from the perspective of organisations like Learning Disability Wales who have been campaigning for people with a learning disability to live in the community for over 30 years. One of the reasons we have been committed to this for so long that we know that once in institutions disabled people, like Bethany, are likely to experience abuse and neglect. But even when they are being treated with respect and dignity, living in institutions instead of the community limits the ability of people with a learning disability to participate fully in society. Losing support means not being able to go out and see friends and family, to do the shopping, to go to work or to take care of children. This can mean that people with a learning disability, and people with other disabilities, can end up isolated and lonely. It certainly means that they have less opportunity to participate in and shape our society at large.
What I thought of the book
This book is not an easy book to read. Ryan’s technique of weaving people’s stories and research together is devastatingly efficient in giving disabled people themselves a voice to describe what is happening to them while making readers aware of the extent of suffering that has been caused by austerity policies. At the same time, however, this book is more than just a list of terrible things happening to people. At it’s heart, “Crippled” is a passionate defence of every person’s right to live a dignified life. What impressed me most in this book is Ryan’s rejection of the idea that disabled people should be protected because they are somehow inherently vulnerable. She writes that “Contrary to the cultural myths surrounding disability, it is not inevitable for people with disabilities to be afraid, desperate or isolated. Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives – knowing full well the misery it will cause”
Austerity politics, Ryan argues, is a choice. And since it is a choice, it is one that could have been made differently and can still be changed. She ends the book with maybe her most powerful words: “The rallying cry for our time is clear: how things are is not how they need to be. Disabled people’s lives depend on it.” (p.200)
You can buy ‘Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People’ by Frances Ryan here, and watch videos of Frances Ryan talking about her book on the publisher’s YouTube channel here, and below.
Policy Officer, Learning Disability Wales
Follow me on Twitter at @Grace_LDW.