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Class War – One of Disabled People’s Many Battles

Penny Pepper explains why class continues to be so oppressive for working-class disabled people

A painting of Stephen Hawking at London’s Science Museum. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters/Alamy

Class WarOne of Disabled People’s Many Battles

Penny Pepper explains why class continues to be so oppressive for working-class disabled people

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As the dire Conservative leadership race unravels at turgid speed, class is at the front of my thoughts. 

While not as wealthy as the obscenely well-off Rishi Sunak and his wife’s £730 million pot of gold, Truss’ net worth has been cited as £8.4 million. They are clearly not politicians for the common people and I find it repulsive – obscene – that one of them will be our next Prime Minister based on the votes of 160,000 Tory members.

Working-class me was forced to go to a special needs school. It was this which first exposed me to the realisation of class difference and the inevitable buttress of wealth. I lived on post-war council estates in leafy towns across the Chilterns, always a hinterland away from the quaint centres.

I would sit next to my friend Dee on the special school bus. Occasional visits to her house opened my eyes – it was huge, with a fluffy carpet throughout, and a downstairs toilet indoors. They had dinner, not tea. Mayonnaise, not salad cream. In these Tory heartlands, we always seemed to be an afterthought – an inconvenience for the Middle England mindset. 

My family, with me the disabled child, endured greater challenges and poverty – the two are inexorably linked. To be disabled and working-class ups discrimination in a particular way, which has scarcely changed since those days. And with the oppressive ideological shift from Thatcherism onwards, it’s got worse.

Historically, disabled people from monied backgrounds were cushioned, and this led to a level of validation particularly if they were also educated. 

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Maria Theresia von Paradis was an 18th Century blind Austrian composer and daughter of a court councillor to Empress Maria Theresia. Known to Mozart and other luminaries of the time, Paradis was unburdened by concerns of daily survival. 

More recently there was the late Stephen Hawking. Though openly a socialist, he was never likely to fall through a social services safety net with his comfortable middle-class background. Hawking’s class and affluence sustained freedoms most disabled people can only dream of.

Private resources provide supplementation to the scant provision provided by government and also mean disabled people can avoid the humiliation of having to jump through assessment hoops and the need for charity. This is at the heart of the ‘social model of disability’, which I have written about before in this column, whereby barriers are dismantled at a personal and societal level when opportunities are made available for this to happen.

By my teenage years, class differences were confrontational and my definition as ‘disabled’ magnified them. To be poor, disabled and from a working-class background meant no fulfilling future was expected, let alone predicted. There was nothing to look forward to – we couldn’t work and wouldn’t find any. 

This meant I was often the ‘charity case’ with wealthy, upper-class, well-intentioned social workers sourcing pots of money. These would primarily be for clothes and occasionally special needs equipment – never what I dreamed of, such as books and an electric typewriter. Why would I need culture and literature after all?

The lack of expectation permeates throughout the working-class disabled. We are groomed to expect very little and so we don’t. This links to the concept of ‘anticipatory justice’, explored by Dr Alice Baderin, who observes: “I talk to my black child about the risk he will be racially discriminated against, but with the fear that this necessary warning will lead him to feel alienated or demotivated.” 

I went on to a further education college, the only visibly disabled person there. My favourite (middle-class) English teacher had to fight to get me there. It was a love-hate experience. I didn’t flourish and felt the weight of conditioned uselessness. But I did meet many younger people from across the classes and I was at least seen as smart – this set me on my way to believing it myself.

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Some middle-class disabled kids experience what one friend has called ‘the gilded cage’. Parents from wealthier backgrounds may overreact to disability – buying the best car, the swankiest equipment, and almost enjoying the extended ‘childhood’ of their offspring. This leaves the disabled adult in a conflicting grip of infantilisation – of steadfast support at the cost of freedom of choice and control. 

Other disabled people are shut away, guilt mollified that they are in the best place money can buy – and don’t need thinking about.

In his memoir Sectioned, John O’Donoghue has written that “diagnoses seem to be class-based with psychiatrists very middle-class white men. I was on a ward that ostensibly admitted patients from a largely working-class catchment area. Those from middle-class areas were on different wards”.

I have received comments from friends that include the reality that disabled people are seen as there to make money for others – like private care companies – and benefit shareholders and investors. We are kept from making a secure income, but only have worth when we contribute to capitalist production. Disabled people are the undeserving poor and become deserving when they somehow create a means to be part of this.

I may now live in the marginal space of class fluidity which often comes with a creative career, but like many disabled people, I know class still oppresses. It’s something we experience every day.

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