'The disabled and sick': a breed apart?

By Karen McAndrew
23 Jan 2012

Since the incredibly successful Spartacus campaign on the internet - which began with the Responsible Reform report written by people who are directly affected by the highly controversial Welfare Reform Bill - the press, TV, radio, blogs, websites, and Twitter have all been awash with articles discussing the issues and their impact.

I have read and seen many of them and they have all prompted this article. They all say the same thing. This Welfare Reform Bill is harsh, unjust and is not based on sound research, consultation or impact assessment. It will be disastrous if it goes through as it is. The people who will be affected are in the millions and the majority of them are the most vulnerable in society, people who are sick and disabled.

Everywhere I look I see this phrase - “The Sick and Disabled”. It is as if somehow 'these people' are a separate commodity - other than us. A breed apart. And of course seeing ‘them’ like this is what allows politicians and journalists and everyone else in the end, to discuss ‘their’ future in terms of statistics and graphs and percentages. Talking of ‘them’ in these terms makes it easier for people to dissociate and thereby give consent for actions which will have an adverse effect.

Anyone who saw Stephen Fry’s excellent TV series, 'Planet Word', will remember the episode where he discussed the political use of dehumanising language - repetitive rhetoric deliberately used as a precursor to previously unthinkable behaviour. A technique which has been the forerunner to so many atrocities in history.

It is blatantly obvious to many that a form of dehumanisation has been employed for the last year or more in the tabloid press, unstopped, perhaps even promoted, by government, in order to discredit and ultimately render contemptible, those on benefits - in particular people on Incapacity benefit and DLA. People who are sick or disabled. Politicians are using the term “stock” to describe people on incapacity benefit who are being “migrated” onto ESA. Scum, cheats, feckless, work-shy, scrounger, fraudster etc have all been used in the Press. It is dangerous. And I abhor it.

However, it also worries me that “The Sick and Disabled” could become a term so commonly used and familiar that, at a subtle level, we too may be guilty of perpetuating the myth of ‘us and them’. It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking - It clearly doesn‘t affect my life but ‘they’ should be pitied, or we owe ‘them’ in some way, or even 'they' deserve support. People who are sick and disabled are not some segregated species within our society. Although undoubtedly it does feel like that at times.

‘They’ are us.

The favourite Uncle who is slowly disappearing behind the veil of Alzheimer’s. The friend who discovered she had bone cancer after giving birth to her first child and endured five operations to fit prosthetics inside her leg after her bones were cut away. The husband who suffered brain injury after a car crash and now does not remember who you are. The mother whose arthritis prevents her passion for gardening, who cannot even prepare meals anymore. The wife who discovered her back ache was kidney cancer. The obese man in the supermarket whose weight gain was caused by the steroids he has to take to control severe pain. The beautiful daughter who is autistic. The woman down the road who never goes out because she suffers agoraphobia and panic attacks. The cousin, whose sore throat turned out to be cancer, having radioactive treatment to kill off her thyroid, and will take years to fully recover. The sister who can’t take her kids for a walk because of heart disease and asthma. The girlfriend who after getting her degree couldn’t take up her dream job because of the pain, sickness and debility of M.E. The brother who cannot join you on holiday because severe depression doesn’t allow him to get dressed or move from his bedroom for days. The son who proudly went to Afghanistan and came back with Post Traumatic Stress and no legs. The alcoholic school-friend who was abused as a child and started drinking to block out the trauma. The old friend who confided she had strange symptoms and the next time you saw her could not move or speak or eat - because it was actually motor neurone disease.

Our friends, our families, our loved ones. If the support is cut, how will they cope? If welfare is stripped away, just how will they survive?

And then there are those who have no family or friends or loved ones. What about them?

Coping with sickness and disability is hard. A lot of us are on our own. Many people around us can’t or don’t want to face it. After the initial stages friends tend to disappear. Perhaps it is fear which drives them away. Fear of facing the fact that we as humans are not invincible. We are vulnerable, can lose control, become dependent.

The subliminal fear that whispers - if it can happen to them it might happen to me. And it can. This is exactly the point. If only people could face that fear, admit it, rather than detaching themselves from it, society would change for the better.

Sickness and disability is not something which happens in some distant place away from the rest of life. It happens in the midst of life. Every day someone somewhere gets a diagnosis, has an accident, is born disabled. These people’s stories are not unusual. They are not remote. Behind the multi-coloured doors of every street in Britain there is someone who is affected in some way. Not work-shy, not feckless, not scum, not even ‘the Sick’ or ‘the Disabled’ - just human beings.

People with disabilities. People who are ill. People like you.

* e-petition to HM Government: Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families - please view and sign online here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

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© Karen McAndrew lives personally with issues of illness and disability on a daily basis, and is researching and campaigning against policies and cuts - and language - that inflicts damage on human communities. She is author of Betraying disabled people and welfare (Ekklesia, May 2011).

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