Monday, 5 December 2011

Fear and Loathing in London

Felt like this!
It hadn’t started particularly well. I had put my hair up in a Chinese style chignon but it was TOOO tight and although I looked hugely perky it was because I couldn’t really shut my eyes. Due to that (and also the fact that with visual impairment like mine I can’t always do the blink reflex in time) I then managed to stick the thick wool collar of my coat into my eyeball as I was getting ready to catch the train. This meant that by the time I got to the station I had an almighty headache and a sore eye but it didn’t matter as my hair was too tight to allow me to scowl.

 I was in London to attend a series of talks called ‘The Representation of Disabled People in an Age of Austerity’. It was fascinating if devastating stuff. Professor Nick Watson of the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Allen Sutherland of the Edward Lear Foundation fed back from a study commissioned by Inclusive London in which they had analysed all articles mentioning disability in a series of newspapers over two time blocks in 2004/5 and 2010/11. Articles were scanned for emphasis, political angle, language, and so forth.

The study had been followed up by several focus groups to test general public attitudes and those of people living with chronic illness or a disability.
Here is the link to the article : and I am going to just quote a couple of the major findings from the study here but as you can imagine it was pretty grim stuff.

• These articles are impacting on people’s views and perceptions of disability related benefits. The focus groups all claimed that levels of fraud were much higher than they are in reality, with some suggesting that up to 70% of claimants were fraudulent. Participants justified these claims by reference to articles they had read in newspapers.
• This strength of fraud as a tabloid theme conflicts with the reality of levels of incapacity benefit fraud and focuses public perceptions of responsibility for Incapacity Benefit levels on claimants rather than problems in lack of labour market demand, economic policies or discrimination.
Its actually 0.03%!!

• There has been an increase in the number of articles documenting the claimed ‘burden’ that disabled people are alleged to place on the economy – with some articles even blaming the recession itself on incapacity benefit claimants

This talk was then followed by feedback from a study conducted (and ongoing ‘Hidden In Plain Sight’) commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on disability related harassment. The young woman presenting (I apologise as did not catch her name) said they had been inundated with information, examples, experiences and more. The report shows undeniably that ‘... harassment is a commonplace experience for disabled people, but a culture of disbelief and systemic institutional failures are preventing it from being tackled effectively.’

The speaker asked us to put up our hands if any of us had experienced harassment due to our disability...and almost every person in the room put up their hand. The woman advocated standing up for ourselves, taking a hard line stance but we all know that it is precisely this kind of engagement which in the current climate of aggressive misery can lead to real trouble. We nodded wearily.

The last speaker Deborah Williams of Reality Productions, reenergized us with a couple of exercises to ‘create’ the ultimate disabled person from attitudes of current media.

What is a good disabled person?

Quiet! Stoic! Sexless! Grateful! Dead or cured! We yelled. ‘Paraolympians! Ex- Army! Tiny Tim! Blunkett!

And a bad one?

Fraudster! Whiner! Political! Angry! Confrontational! Aggressive! Sexual! Mentally unstable! Heather McCartney! Captain Hook! Hoodies with Attention Deficit Disorder! Err Blunkett again!

It's our life!
This was fun but when we all got up to leave I was glad that speaker had written it all down with a pale pink pen and I couldn’t see all the words littering the white board.

This is not just a game after all....