Really POLITICAL: What Disablist Language Tells Us About How Much People REALLY Know About What Makes Disability “Real”

MP for Norfolk, George Freeman has labelled recent tribunal rulings on benefit decisions  “bizarre” and claimed that tribunal decisions now mean benefits are being given to “people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.” Well, yes, quite a lot of disabled people take pills and are at home. It kind of goes with being unable to get out of the house! But it’s interesting you should say that, George. Does he mean that the only people getting PIP for anxiety should be those in long stay mental health institutions? Because frequently they have to fight just as hard to get benefits as those with both  cerebral palsy (CP) and C-PTSD and anxiety who take antidepressants but manage still to live in the community with help, support and full-time care. Or does he perhaps  mean that only disabled people who are seen out and about looking suitably stereotypically ‘real’ being ‘inspirational’ qualify and that somehow being too ill to leave the house is proof you have less wrong with you than someone who can get out and about and be inspirational while doing it? And then hey ho, that old chestnut, that tired old phrase of the clueless Blue majority, ” “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.”   Responding to criticism online to his interview on BBC 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics, Mr Freeman later tweeted that he had suffered from anxiety and depression in childhood, adding: “I don’t need any lectures on the damage anxiety does.” Which if anything, is a worse gaffe than the first one. Well apparently he DOES need a lecture. So here goes:

Of course someone who says what you said about having had anxiety and depression in response to criticism now deserves a free pass to say whatever they want about anxiety and depression. And of course the fact that what you say sounds just like the sort of thing ignorant Joe_public who knows zip about disability would say is pure coincidence? Forgive us, but mysteriously “ex-disabled people” who “got better” but can now conveniently claim absolute knowledge of the whole experience of disability are two-a-penny where ignorance and manipulation needs to be cloaked in a veneer of superior knowledge.

“I know what disability is like so therefore I know better than the disabled person who has just corrected me how to talk about disabled people” is at the top of the list of assumptions disabled people dread coming across when non-disabled people haven’t the guts to apologise and admit they made a mistake and actually know very little about disability. Despite the disabled person or their allies having already called out a lack of knowledge or etiquette, it is somehow expedient for many non disabled people to claim a disability when challenged even though in fact their knowledge of any particular issue is so thin as to be akin to a claim that child abuse is all the fault of immigrants or to have good friends who are gay if pulled up for biphobia. In each of the foregoing, the person pushing back is subtly indicating a lack of knowledge of the things that cannot be used as bargaining chips within the social groups concerned yet expects the claim of superior knowledge to carry the day. To claim to _be_ part of the culture you have just demonstrated you despise and disrespect is highly problematic but in the case of disability a broad unsubstantiated claim to be part of the group you wish to talk down to and control can be used because that group is perceived as somehow based upon experience alone and without cultural basis, specific identity markers or specialised knowledge. It is also simply harder to prove that someone has never had a disability because it is assumed that past disability will be hard to disprove. Blatant cultural appropriation is harder to disprove partly because disability is not seen as a culture or an identity. Taking the appropriation route out of a misstep claiming absolute knowledge indicates that people consider that no specialist knowledge, no culturally specific phrases belong to disability and that disability is a thing owned by all because all may one day become disabled and because culturally (though it is often more expedient to ignore this) disability walks among us in our communities whatever our race, gender, sexual orientation or class and can therefore be claimed by all even though for the most part it is ignored, unwanted, stigmatised until it is made a political hobbyhorse.

So. How am I to prove that someone has never been disabled or never had chronic illness when someone who criticises disabled people for “sitting around at home all day” responds with, “But I know about this because I had depression” or “I know about this because I have worked with disabled people” or “I know because my wife/mother/cat/ goldfish/boyfriend had it”? The answer of course is that I do not need to disprove or prove someone’s state of health – in fact ‘checking up on’ a person’s disability based on its medical markers is a behavior that is not commonly found amongst disabled people and is considered ill-mannered largely because it is founded on disablist notions of the root of disability. Non-disabled people faced with the criticism of disablist assumptions or called out for ill thought out comments make the mistake of assuming disability has no culture and no identity and thus fail to recognise that you cannot appropriate the _experience_ of disability simply via the markers that non disabled culture recognises disability as being; that of ‘having’ a disability or having ‘suffered from’ (sic) an impairment. They fail because standing outside the community looking in, they have no knowledge of the conversations that go on, of the experience of diagnosis (or the hell of non-diagnosis over years of distress and disbelief) of the growth into maturity of ones early confused feelings about finding oneself isolated and treated differently by society, a growth that is often a growth into deep and often analysed feelings that few non disabled people are aware of, of the currency of information that is passed between folk within different and overlapping disability circles; chronic illness, cognitive impairment, hidden disability, congenital disability, mental illness, physical disability, childhood ill-health, depression, and within the wider circle of disability as a whole.

Within the culture_ of disability the physical fact of sickness or mental illness or impairment is to some degree a side issue in our discussions of experience and has only become foregrounded in the last ten years or so as the demand that we ”prove” our disability and entitlement to benefit through showcasing our visible impairments to the scrutiny of untrained assessors and uncaring ‘healthcare professionals’ , or less obvious markers like having been incarcerated under the Mental Health Act, ‘rocking’ during assessments or actually dying from our distress (which is then no fault of the DWP) Why do these folk persist in believing they can fool us they know ‘all about disability’ when all we have to say is, “Ah, really, do you remember when X did that speech” at Disabled People against Cuts rally or, “What did you think of the latest piece on sanctions?” Is it that we don’t do this because we understand that access issues mean many disabled people don’t have this sense of a common shared culture of ideas and that disabled activists (whose conditions range from fibromyalgia to anxiety, to CP and beyond) are a privileged few relatively able still to express the experience of a trap that many sink into but few can articulate. Or is it that it simply never occurs to Joe Public that there is more to life as a disabled person than the actual impairment (not that they know the term ‘impairment’ of course? Ranting about ‘the really disabled’! Oh, please!  How to rally people with CP and anxiety into a mean phalanx of crutches, keyboards and wheel-spinning fury! You can’t claim anxiety is non-condition then try to claim you know all about being disabled because you once had depression”. Pathetic. It all comes from the “we know best because we have run things for you” mentality. It never occurs to them that the majority of disabled and chronically sick and mentally ill and cognitively impaired people agree on one thing – that  the enemy – if there is an enemy – is not other disabled people and the only people fooled by this breaking of disability down into ‘able and unable’ “willing and unwilling” hero and fraud” “really disabled and “merely mentally ill” are non-disabled people. We really seem to be no distance from being treated like kids and taken for fools.

Freeman has labelled recent tribunal rulings on disabilities as “bizarre” which immediately signals where he sits on benefit cuts and disability equality and also a basic lack of understanding of how disabilities can be more complex than they appear at first sight.  The idea that granting support or benefits to people who suffer from anxiety is somehow unreasonable, is quite common in our current Parliamentary omnishambles and in our press but it’s interesting that a former Health Minister and Policy Adviser should follow this line. Does this former policy advisor and self-styled disability expert mean that the only people getting PIP for anxiety should be those in long stay mental health institutions? If so this points to an interest in removing funding for care  from all but those who _are_ in institutional care, when already many thousands of people with profound learning disabilities will miss out on PIP because despite the descriptors relating to cognitive impairment, people with learning disabilities disproportionately lose out because assessors lie about just how little they can manage and refuse PIP to people with Downs Syndrome who can count to five? Or the many thousands of physically disabled people who have lost and will lose their Motability cars or the mobility component of their DLA because they are deemed to be able to ‘mobilise’ a certain distance regardless of how difficult that is ort how unrealistic it is to base an assessment of impairments or daily needs on the ability to walk (or wheel) a short distance.OF COURSE, Mr Freeman. We understand perfectly now. Totally. You and the Prime Minister “totally” understood anxiety when you set up these proposals and cuts to physical and mental health services, and continued with the previous PMs  draconian welfare reforms and punitive assessments. You must be sincere and knowledgeable to have written it all out in a mental health strategy so that we can _see_ how seriously you take it, and you absolutely have a total grasp of how to endear yourselves to the very people you claim to be so expert in! What other group of adults has to endure being told, “We know what is best for ‘these people'”,  what other group of adults or children expects to be so talked over and then to have the wider public agree that of course, if the Government say it is for your own good then it must be so? Well, possibly asylum seekers, and elderly people, but few other groups.

And there’s the problem: your words, your actions, your jargonese and the impact of your policies _upon_ the sick and disabled people you claim to understand so well is language which constantly and consistently demonstrates that you haven’t the faintest idea. We’ve spent a good bit more than five minutes in your company and we probably have a much better idea of how Government impacts disability than Government understands how disability impacts us. A Government that consistently refuses impact assessment and refuses to listen to the voices of opposition MPs, Disabled People’s Organisations, charities, psychologists, doctors, think tanks or committees (unless committed to the ruthless agenda of destroying the Welfare State) must know it all, now. That’s all right then.

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