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Where have all the disabled people gone?

Unexpected things happen at funerals. 

Certainly you do not expect to be considering how the VCS can respond to the austerity inspired changes to the rights and benefits for disabled people whilst paying your last respects, but hey, I suppose stranger things have happened and all that. So, sat at the wake of a relative the other week I got talking to relations of my wife whom I had never met before, and before long the subject of Politics arose.  

Normally I feel isolated in terms of my understanding of the effects and causes of austerity, but for once my views were shared. The best quote from this new found friend was “people used to be seen as either working or not working, now they’re seen as either tax payers or scroungers”.  Disabled people are at the forefront of this view and can either be seen as Paralympian superhumans or dishonest workshy people claiming untold fortunes in cars and money. To be honest I don’t know which is worse as both have an element of truth in them, but certainly don’t represent the majority of disabled people’s lives.

This was followed up a few days later with a meeting with an old friend who now works for a national specific impairment charity. Although this charity is doing a piece of work around the “20 metre” rule in the Personal Independence Payment scheme (PIP) we discussed how difficult it is for these charities to move away from their medical focus to look at the wider effects of social issues upon their users.

Bedding in the social model of disability

The social model of disability is a reaction to the dominant medical model of disability which in itself is a functional analysis of the body as machine to be fixed in order to conform with normative values. The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people.

The “go-to” issues of most disabled and non-disabled people are physical access and care in the community which are commendable issues, but still follow the medical model of disability. In my opinion, to take forward the rights of disabled people (and therefore achieve the appropriate support) we need to bed in the social model of disability and there is the crux – can medical orientated charities follow the social model?  

In short, the answer is – of course they can’t – well, not fully anyway. I think national charities such as SCOPE have made a good fist of it, but unfortunately revel in the introduction and implementation of things like PIP which follow the medical model. These charities are comfortable in their understanding of policies which locate the problems disabled people face within their impairments, but shudder at the prospect of seeing the problems external to the disabled person.

But the disability movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s argued and explained the social model of disability. It gained traction in national and local policy, with social workers happy to explain it and indeed the recent Labour Party manifesto re-committed the Party to the social model.

Have we taken a big step back in equality and independence?

We also began to talk about hate-crimes against disabled people, viewing disabled people as economically active with anti-discrimination legislation and providing support for User-led Organisations (ULOs). So… why does it feel that we’ve taken a big step back in our commitment to not only equality for disabled people, but also our independence?  

I could answer this by talking at length about the Government led-austerity, and a media-led campaign to paint all non-workers as “scroungers”, but this is a too simplistic an argument. In fact this rowing back, in my view, was instigated by the last Labour Government with the introduction of Work Capability Assessments, the contracting of ATOS and the lack of heavy fines for organisations who discriminated against disabled people either in employment or service delivery.  

Where have all the disabled people gone?

So what else is there to talk about? Well my question is – where have all the disabled people gone? Where is the aggressive, challenging and vocal disabled people’s movement? Why are we not on the streets demonstrating and demanding change like we were 20 or 30 years ago?

I do not know the answer to any of these questions and am puzzled on the basic level of where disabled people are because I do not see them in numbers shopping, going to pubs, or in work meetings. My confusion is doubled when I know that traditional day-services and support has been cut by local authorities, so I can only assume they are all at home watching Jeremy Kyle!?

What can the voluntary sector do to respond to these issues

So….. getting back to my original question, what can the voluntary sector do to respond to these issues. Well firstly it is not all doom and gloom as there are a few disabled led and VCOs challenging Government Policies (e.g. Disabled People Against Cuts), the UN continues to publish reports which highlight the effects of austerity and we have the Paralympians, war veterans highlighting issues, a number visible disabled people on TV and mental health is becoming more mainstream (although still needs work). 

Secondly look at what’s happening locally? No, that’s a question? What is happening in Middlesbrough? Or even Teesside? Or even the North East? Words of two syllables come to mind. Surely there are other disabled people like me who are aware of the unjust policies and procedures adversely affecting them, their friends and family and who want to do something about it and to have a voice? 

So I suspect the first thing the VCS can do is to encourage these individuals to do something, put people in touch with each other, to skill them up to establish their own groups, to follow any comments on this blog or simply put them in touch with me at MVDA.

All this and I hate funerals!

Craig Duerden


In February 2007 Craig joined the Planning & Partnership team with a focus on Health & Social Care.  He left MVDA in 2010 and re-joined us in August 2014 as Strategic Development Officer.  He is currently acting as the partnership manager for both the Middlesbrough Carers Partnership and Middlesbrough Mental Health Partnership as well as leading MVDA’s work around VCS intelligence and supporting the Health and Wellbeing VCS Forum.