The UK is Guilty of Dehumanising Disabled People

The Paralympic Games taking place in September in Rio de Janeiro are an international showcase of how disabled people can excel despite their limitations, with many of the athletes being former Olympians who have adapted to injury.

The official UK broadcaster of the Paralympics, Channel 4, is promoting the games with an advertisement campaign based around the tagline “We’re the superhumans".

Though this may be a message that intends to promote the equality and empowerment of disabled people, Lucy Catchpole argues that framing disabled people as “superhumans” risks trivialising the adversities that many disabled people face, by making the complexity of disability “even more frustrating and confounding” to the public.

Catchpole refers to the ugly truth that cannot be ignored when discussing disability: that disabled people face not only the obstacles caused directly by their disabilities, but also those caused by the hostility and apathy towards them as people.

On 26 July in Japan, a 26-year-old man killed 19 patients at a care home by stabbing them to death in their beds. The perpetrator of this atrocity was motivated by a hatred for disabled people, remorselessly describing his actions to have been a “mercy killing” of his victims.  

The killer’s language echoes Nazi Germany, which first targeted “useless eaters” with physical and mental disabilities for mass murder before it progressed to the genocide of racial minorities. It was more socially acceptable to carry out this “euthanasia” of people deemed burdens on society.

Disabled people are the easiest targets for dehumanisation. In the UK, disabled people are subjected to media attacks, being framed as “benefit scroungers” and “workshy”, while police forces reported a 41% increase in hate crimes against disabled peoplein 2014-15.

Simultaneously, disabled people have been among the hardest hit since the Conservatives began their austerity programme in 2010. Senior politicians have pandered to hatred with us versus them rhetoric, such as defending “fairness” and “hardworking people” to justify cuts ruthlessly targeting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

This is most obvious in the impact of disability benefit reforms. The eligibility criteria for Employment and Support Allowance - introduced by a Labour government but expanded by the Tories - has led to dozens of cases of chronically sick and mentally ill people dying after being deemed “fit for work” and having their benefits cut.

we cannot tear down the barriers we face without taking a stand against our dehumanisation

To assess disability benefit claims, the Department of Work and Pensions has contracted medically unqualified firms who have a profit-driven incentive to cut costs, with organisations like the British Medical Association condemning the physical and psychological damage caused to their patients.

The disastrous replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments is based on the same model as ESA, which is denying thousands of disabled people vital support to live independently. David Cameron’s government was forced to renege on cutting PIP payments, a plan that even outraged anti-welfare hardliners like Iain Duncan Smith.

The change to PIP affected the Paralympian wheelchair racer Carly Tait, who had to appeal against the DWP removing funding for her mobility car; so much for Britain backing its “superhumans”.

There are various other measures undermining the life chances and well-being of disabled people: underfunding of special educational needs in state schools, cuts to social care services, the abolition of the Independent Living Fund, inadequate NHS funding of services for autistic people, and the scrapping of support for disabled university students.

The assault on disabled people is exemplified by the bedroom tax in social housing. This predominantly affects disabled people reliant on housing benefit, who have been threatened with homelessness for being unable to afford rent arrears caused by “spare rooms”, in some instances storing their mobility or medical equipment.

The United Nations has even intervened with concerns that the UK government’s treatment of disabled people potentially breaches international conventions protecting their human rights.

Channel 4’s portrayal of disabled people as “superhumans” whose opportunities are limitless may be well-intentioned. But ultimately it badly contrasts with the worsened immobility, and the deprivation of assistance for a basic quality of life, that is afflicting thousands.

Disabled people, such as me, have as much to contribute to society as non-disabled people, but we cannot tear down the barriers we face without taking a stand against our dehumanisation, which this state-sanctioned neglect and cruelty is excused by.

 Jacob Richardson

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

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