Today
Thu 29 July 2021

As members of the House of Lords discuss lifting pandemic measures put in place to enable disabled peers to discharge their duties from home, Penny Pepper explains how archaic attitudes are still plain to see in society

Not much shocks me, especially with language, but coming across the unpalatable and outmoded word ‘infirmity’ is one of those times.

Needing to explain in 2021 why use of the word bothers me and many disabled people was unexpected. Behind it lurks the idea that impairment equates to very ancient notions that an individual cannot work, actively participate in public life, or have a career. Or not have much use at all.

A Conservative quartet – Lord Farmer, Lord Howard, Baroness Noakes and Viscount Trenchard – from the Upper House made an announcement. Measures in place to enable disabled peers to discharge their duties online from home – called a ‘hybrid’ measure during the Coronavirus pandemic – should no longer be continued. It was an excuse for not attending the House, they grumbled. Infirmity, as they called it, apparently means that some people are not making a decent enough effort for the nation.

Disability News Service gave this incident the most coverage, reflecting the annoyance many of us feel. Not only at the archaic language but the wearisome repetition of ideology concerning how disabled people access work.  

The Service quoted Baroness Campbell, a disabled crossbench peer, as saying that the “capacity to join in remotely has swept away many of the barriers that some of us encounter daily… it was a relief to watch debates at home on my night-time ventilator and to vote… I worked harder… than I ever had done before the pandemic. Yes, I did my duty better”.

Governments always find disability employment issues a challenge and our current one has a strategy that varies between being negligible and bullish – as the views of this Conservative quartet inadvertently highlight.


Ministry of Barriers

Accepting that we live in a society that disables individuals by the imposition of multiple barriers – as per the ‘social model’ – would result in the barriers to work being plain.

Environmental obstacles haunted me from my first job interview. A nervous 18-year-old clutching exam merit passes in secretarial studies in 1979, a disability employment advisor managed to get me one interview for the Ministry of Defence. He drove me there and took me, a wheelchair user, to a flight of stairs in the MoD building. Suffice it to say, there was no job and no moving up from the typing pool into an exciting life in espionage for me. 

The Government building in question had made no ‘reasonable adjustment’ – a key aspect of the Disability Discrimination Act (now part of the general Equality Act 2010). These days, there would be a legal requirement to offer that job in an accessible space or move the typing pool to be accessible to all. 

In reality, reasonable adjustment has not been used to great effect. Look at our unemployment statistics from a House of Commons briefing paper of May 2021, stating that 400,000 disabled people are unemployed. 

As for negative attitudes, we’ve heard them all – right up to this recent outburst in the Lords. When Lord Freud said that disabled people weren’t worth paying the same to work as non-disabled people, I bagged a BBC Newsnight spot to confront a Conservative on the issue. At the last General Election, we had Sally-Ann Hart – my own MP – caught on video by friends at the local Hastings hustings saying more or less the same thing as Freud. 

Returning to Baroness Campbell, “surely remote working should at least be seen as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equality Act?”


Moving Beyond the ‘Medical Model’

Access to Work (ATW) is a government scheme which supposedly supports disabled people across the employment spectrum, to remove obstacles under the premise of reasonable adjustment.

For me, supplying the best dictation software removes barriers to typing. Delivering work from home, with ATW-provided equipment for example, can eliminate many barriers. When ATW works, it’s great – but getting and keeping the support is a challenge. The assessment and review process can stretch beyond common sense.

A quick call-out for ATW stories brought in the following gems. C said: “ATW form with the word ‘deformed’ in the box asked about my impairment.” While S went through the familiar toilet-habit questioning: “ATW asked me how many times I needed to go to the toilet in a day to justify… PA cover in the office… I refused to clarify because who even counts how many times they need the loo?!” 

Access to Work should certainly remove all infirmities.

Some disabled people will never be capable of work in the traditional sense, which should never result in condemnation of them as burdens. Because the system is skewed to the standard ‘medical model’ of disability, I am not deemed ‘able’ to work. Yet I have done so for more than 15 years. 

Could Universal Basic Income (UBI) be an answer? Zoe Williams has argued its case in the Guardian recently. For disabled people, UBI might seem like a progressive move – a system that has no horrific assessments, no pointless claims of fraud, and a baseline guaranteed income in place to keep everyone out of poverty. 

But disabled people’s organisations fear that, as usual, we would be lost in the mix. The Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) group is particularly doubtful in its report – UBI: Solution or Illusion? – noting that, on its own, UBI “would never cover the additional costs of disability or be too expensive and difficult to distribute”.

Contentment within employment works for many but, equally, there will always be people deemed disabled (or not) who can’t work through the stultifying chains of profit-driven 24-hour drudgery. The idea that we are valued only by our profitable productivity is one of the greatest ongoing evils of capitalism. And it condemns disabled people to a life of guilt and scrounger-shaming. 

Is work the same as purpose and fulfilment? That, surely, is the deeper question for us all.

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