Downgrading disability

By Bernadette Meaden
September 4, 2012

Faced with the costs of an ageing population and more sick and disabled children surviving into adulthood, are politicians and corporations working to downgrade or deny illness and disability? As the Paralympics end, an event is taking place in London which may provide evidence of this.

The Sixth International Forum on Disability Management (IFDM 2012) at Imperial College London, 10-12 September, is hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine. This may suggest it is for Doctors and other health professionals, perhaps concentrating on new treatments and ways of making life better for those with an illness or disability.

The reality is that the event is co-hosted by Unum, a giant American insurance corporation which sells disability insurance, and has worked closely with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on Welfare reform.

What type of company has become closely entwined with the DWP and Welfare reform? In 2005 the California Department of Insurance launched an investigation into Unum and found "widespread fraud", prompting California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi to describe Unum as an "outlaw company."

In 2012 legal website reported, "Unum continues to suffer from a global reputation that it denies, delays or discontinues benefits in an alleged attempt to wear down policyholders in their pursuit of legitimate benefits."

So, co-hosted by Unum, it isn’t surprising to see that a significant proportion of the Forum’s speakers and facilitators come from insurance companies around the world.

The first morning sets the tone. After a keynote talk by Dr. Bill Gunnyeon of the DWP, there are presentations by the Swiss Academy of Insurance Medicine, the Claims Manager of the Accident Compensation Corporation of New Zealand, and the head of Australian company Return to Work Matters (RTW), which advises employers about managing workplace injuries and absences. Its website contains lots of advice for employers, including, ‘Top Ten Tips for Dealing with the Doc. "Demonstrate concern about injured employees….if the doctor picks up on an adversarial employee / employer (e.g. supervisor) relationship, chances are they’ll pick a side, and it won’t be yours."

Seminars at the Forum include ‘How do you persuade the medical profession to change their approach to the models of disability?’ The idea that there may be different ‘models’ of disability may be puzzling to the layman, but not to those in the industry. Unum favours and promotes the Biopsychosocial (BPS) model, devised by a American psychiatrist specialising in psychosomatic medicine. This places much emphasis on the attitude of the disabled person or patient, with an implication that some people just aren’t trying hard enough to get well. This is very useful for an insurer wishing to deny a claim, an employer wishing to avoid paying compensation, or a government department wishing to stop a benefit.

One of the keynote speakers at the Forum is a leading proponent of the BPS model, Professor Sir Mansel Aylward. He was at the DWP, but in 2004 became head of the Unum-sponsored Centre for Psychological and Disability Research at Cardiff University. He has in the past given presentations which included such statements as, "Obstacles to recovery and return to work are primarily personal, psychological and social rather than health-related 'medical' problems."

The next Forum will be held in New Zealand in 2014. Dr Jan White, Chief Executive of the Accident Compensation Corporation, which will be hosting it, plainly states the underlying concern and motivation of those involved.

’The changes in demographics, especially the ageing population, mean New Zealand, like many other countries, faces an increasing burden of disability over the next 20 years’.

If these Forums were motivated by care and compassion for sick and disabled people, they would be laudable. But the dominant influence of Unum, and others whose primary motivation is cost-cutting and profit, means that they can only add to the fear and anxiety felt by the sick and disabled people whose lives they are debating.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

Keywords:Unum | disability
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