News and Comment

The polarised view of disabled people in the public and the media

Tuesday 23 October 2012

A new report published yesterday by Hardest Hit, a coalition of 90 disabled people’s organisations, has highlighted the precarious circumstances in which many disabled people find themselves living in today. The headline grabbing statistics in the report are alarming. 450,000 disabled people for instance, could potentially get less money under the Universal Credit system than they do now.

Equally concerning, is the polarised public perceptions of disabled people which the report alludes to. Many have commented that this summer’s Paralympic games marked a watershed moment. The talents and achievements of Britain’s Paralympians were lauded on a scale never before seen in this country. Channel 4’s clever marketing slogans – Meet the Superhumans and Thanks for the Warm-Up – appeared to tap into a national-mood in which all of Britain’s athletes, Olympian and Paralympian, were celebrated on equal stages. As noted in the report: “For once it seemed like Britain truly understood what it meant to be disabled. Something more fundamental than spectator sport was taking place; it appeared the mood of the nation was changing.”

Yet this is only part of the story. As the report also makes clear, “around the same time we heard the number of recorded incidents of disability hate crime in England and Wales was at its highest total since records began” and September’s British Social Attitudes Survey showed a hardening of public attitudes towards the recipients of welfare.

How are we to make sense of these contradictory views? It seems that for certain sections of the public a deserving/undeserving dichotomy has formed: in which a relatively small number of successful disabled athletes are viewed with respect, whilst the majority of less privileged disabled people are treated with disdain.

Through our work with members of the Hardest Hit coalition, including Inclusion London, Scope and the RNIB, we’ve seen how the affects of the economic downturn and public spending cuts have hit disabled people particularly hard. And whilst there has undoubtedly been progress, as the glitz and the glamour of the Paralympics fade away to leave the harsh economic reality that preceded it, perhaps we have to accept that on the whole, people’s attitudes towards disabled people haven’t moved on quite as far we thought they had.

During the days of the Disability Rights Commission for example, we know that the annual ‘Attitudes and Awareness’ surveys showed that despite high profile campaigns, understanding of disability and attitudes towards disabled people did not really improve over time. Similarly, the first-ever Disability Module of questions in the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed beyond doubt that prejudice towards disabled people, particularly those with mental health conditions, are prevalent.

Conflicting representations of disabled people in the media do little to help change these attitudes. A joint report commissioned last year by Inclusion London and carried out by the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Group showed how media coverage of disabled people in the context of government spending cuts has led to a significant increase in the number of articles that focus on disability benefit fraud, despite the fact that the DWP’s own figures show that only around 0.5% of claimants are fraudulent.

Even the more positive “superhuman” representations of disabled people can be seen somewhat problematically in promoting the idea that all disabled people can ‘overcome’ barriers if they put their minds to it, and if they don’t it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough.

Depressingly, it would seem that another unwanted consequence of recession is a menacing atmosphere in which suspicion and cynicism flourish and compassion sadly withers.

We’ll be blogging on this topic throughout the next month following this week’s NCAS conference considering, in particular, how Local Authorities can use asset-based approaches to help society’s more vulnerable groups to cope during these tough times. We’ll also be hosting a public interest seminar on this topic in the first week in December, so if you’re interested in hearing more about this event, please get in contact for more details.