Austerity’s dog whistles inform systemic violence – disability discrimination

SWU Blog Series | Part 5: Austerity's dog whistles inform systemic violence – disability discrimination

Disability Rights UK is the UK’s leading organisation led by, run by, and working for Disabled people. We work with Disabled People’s Organisations and Government across the UK to influence regional and national change for better rights, benefits, justice, quality of life and economic opportunities for Disabled people.

By now, many of us are aware of the language and portrayal of Disabled people and the wider working-class. We might be aware of it because it’s how we ourselves are spoken about, how family members are spoken about, or how the latest newspaper or news item reports on us. We are ‘benefits scroungers’, ‘fraudsters’, and a ‘burden’ on the economy. 

Another dog-whistle that might be less obvious is the Government’s newly branded ‘economically inactive’ class – in other words, Disabled people who are unable to work. 

Coded in austerity’s language of alleged economic necessity, the new Work Capability Assessment (WCA) reforms are going to force hundreds of thousands of Disabled people to look for work that they can do from home or face having their benefits cut by £4,680 a year. The only other option is sanctioned benefits, taking people even further below the poverty line. This is apparently a way of bringing us out of the ‘economic inactivity class’ – who knew working when you are too sick to do so could be so miraculous? 

Over time, the latest changes to ‘fit for work’ tests will more than halve the number of new claimants deemed unable to work, whilst the OBR estimates that only 2.7% of those affected will actually find a job. 

The latest changes to our welfare system, punishing Disabled people for being too sick for work, are almost always pushed through alongside a slew of ableist language that positions Disabled people as burdens, a cost to the economy and a community that should be demonised.  

It is this language that justifies pushing us further into poverty, something that is seen as our fault for being Disabled and unable to work. This leads to further societal repercussions, with the mainstream media and individuals digesting and regurgitating these talking points about Disabled people’s lives and suffering. 

Whilst inter-personal and dog whistle discrimination against Disabled people have a significant impact on our day-to-day life, we know that the most harmful forms of discrimination come at a systemic level.  

Ableist policies not only contribute to and formalise the environment where individual acts of discrimination run rife, but they leave us forced into poverty, without accessible homes, sometimes locked in care homes and isolated from wider society.  

A very recent example of this is a proposed City Council policy to consider “other cost-effective alternatives” if a Disabled person’s in-home care is not deemed “best value” – with the alternatives including institutionalisation in a care home or nursing home. We wrote to Bristol City Council this year to demand better – but the lives of Disabled people in the borough still hang in the balance. 

However, as a community we have never been willing to lie down and suffer without fighting back. From the protesters of Disabled People’s Direct Action Network who chained their wheelchairs to public transport highlighting bus inaccessibility, to the establishment of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) protesting austerity, we have always been creative and militant in our forms of resistance to discrimination. 

The Disabled People’s Manifesto urges the government to accept that dismantling fundamental societal barriers Disabled people face requires significant investment, to end austerity, and to create a society where everyone has equal life chances and is valued and treated equally. 

The latest in this list is the Disabled People’s Manifesto, written and co-produced by Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) across England, all bringing unique experiences and insights to draw up a manifesto of inclusive and transformative policies we can demand of the next government. With policies tackling institutional barriers in areas such as health, transport, politics, social care, employment, benefits and housing, the root causes of discrimination against Disabled people will be tackled.  

The more inclusive and accessible a society is structured to be for all marginalised people, the less power and impact dog whistle bigotry has, as it will either be dealt with properly or will fall away into insignificance.  

The Moving Social Work programme supports social workers to reduce health inequalities and improve social justice for Disabled people. 

At Disability Rights UK, we are working to tackle these structural disadvantages that Disabled people face. One of these disadvantages is physical activity – factors such as inaccessible facilities, medical discrimination, policy barriers, the Activity Trap and a need for upskilling social and care professionals mean Disabled people are moving our bodies less.  

Our Moving Social Work programme, in partnership with Durham University, aims to work towards reducing these inequalities that Disabled people face. This not only includes barriers to physical activity itself, but also works towards identifying root causes of health inequalities that Disabled people face and working collectively to change these for the long term.  

The programme, which is about to move into the second phase, is an evidence-based and co-produced education programme designed to encourage social workers to speak about physical activity with Disabled people. It focuses on the role that social workers can plan in improving the quality and levels of physical activity for Disabled people, to help reduce health inequalities and improve social justice. 

Whilst it is clear we cannot currently rely on state power to dismantle the structures that disadvantage us, what we can do is work within our own communities and allied partners to support one another against the current environment of hostility aimed at Disabled people. 

Continue reading this blog series to learn about different types of dog whistles from people who have experienced them first-hand:

You may also be interested in reading the SWU blog Intersectionality is a valuable tool for Social Work Practice which is a precursor to this series.