A week ago, before the Paralympics had started, I warned that David Cameron’s Tories were going to use even the Paralympics as a weapon to turn the screw in their assault on disabled people. Cameron’s pronouncements about how inspiring he finds Paralympians were more than just the predictable attempt to improve his own public standing by indulging in some ‘reflected glory’ bathing.
They were a signal – a primer for his adapted tactics to cope with, and then to exploit, the incredible achievements we’re seeing during the Paralympics and their effect on public perception and feeling.
I’d love to have been wrong, but sure enough the campaign has already begun - and true to form, the Tories are enlisting their friends in the right-wing media to start planting the poisonous seed-thoughts they hope will grow and contaminate public opinion so that the government can continue to push through its attack on the disabled, whom the right-wingers perceive as a mere drain on resources if they’re unable to provide for themselves and need help to get by.
Yesterday the Daily Telegraph opened the campaign with an article that was clever, insidious and devious – still perfectly transparent if you know what to look for, but malignantly well-constructed enough to sway the opinion of anyone either inclined to that kind of thinking or else ignorant enough of reality to be open to persuasion.
The construction of the article draws you in so that you find yourself agreeing with its points – they seem harmless enough at first, naive reading – before then slipping in the poison, so that if you don’t have your wits about you, you might find yourself nodding at those to. So I’m going to lay out a few extracts from the item (not all, or you’ll be unlikely to read to the end!) and deconstruct them so that the poison is shown for exactly what it is.
Dogged & decent?
Under the disingenuous title ‘Dogged and decent, Chris Grayling shows how to get reform right’, the Matthew D’Ancona places a subtitle: ‘The Paralympics should inspire politicians to continue the fight for a fairer benefits system‘. Paralympians are inspiring, and who could argue with fairness, right?
Disabled people are just as capable as anyone
‘The Paralympics are spurring us better to understand humanity itself. Already, in the Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Velodrome and elsewhere, we have witnessed feats of skill, endurance and competitive zeal that encapsulate international sport at its most ferociously brilliant‘.
Absolutely true and completely disingenuous. This passage invites us to think ‘they’re just like us’. Which is absolutely correct, and what we should think. Except that it’s ignoring a key point. The Paralympics showcases the amazing achievements and triumphs of a tiny percentage of disabled people - just as the Olympics demonstrates what a tiny percentage of ‘able-bodied’ people are able to achieve.
I’d be classed as able-bodied, and I’m reasonably fit, but I could no more do what Usain Bolt or Chris Hoy do than I could flap my arms and fly to the moon. If I tried, the very best I could hope for would be to look an idiot – and quite possibly I’d do myself a serious injury or worse.
One of the frequent comments I’ve heard during Channel 4′s excellent coverage of the event has been that the London Paralympics mark a perception-change: Paralympians are now regarded as elite athletes rather than disabled people who have a certain ability to do something. And that’s absolutely correct.
The Telegraph article invites us to start thinking ‘Well, if these Paralympians can overcome their disabilities in order to run, swim, cycle so fast, jump so far etc, then surely most disabled people can overcome their problems at least far enough to get a job and not need benefits – if they really wanted to‘. But there’s no correlation between the capabilities of the tiny Paralympic elite and what most disabled people can do. And in fact, most even of this elite could not have achieved what they have without state support in the form of DLA and in the form of allowances from Team GB.
No wimps or victims
‘As Boris Johnson observed last week, wheelchair basketball is “far more violent, far more exuberant, far more enjoyable to watch” than the able-bodied version. There are no wimps or victims in these fierce gladiatorial contests. In this sense, London 2012 has the potential to be remembered as a transformative moment in our collective perception of the disabled.’
Again, do you see how deceptive and insidious this is? It takes what’s true and turns it into a stiletto to slide between the ribs of those disabled people who have to rely on state support. Put more nakedly, it would say, “These athletes overcome and play even harder than able-bodied people – so surely other disabled people should stop being ‘wimps’, stop regarding themselves as ‘victims’ and just come out fighting!“
What it misses is that for many people with a physical disability or a long-term physical or mental illness, just getting out of bed and facing a new day is a demonstration that they are no wimps. Needing help and support doesn’t mean you’ve fallen for some spurious ‘victim‘ paradigm. It just means you need help and support – and if you need it, there’s no shame in asking for it or receiving it. D’Ancona’s statement claims to herald a new and more positive perception of disabled people - but in fact it subtly invites an entrenchment of the ‘skiver’ paradigm.
‘Some of my friends are disabled’
‘Some of my friends are black’ is a caricature response by racists defending themselves. D’Ancona is more subtle – and I don’t doubt that he (perfectly rightly) abhors the mentality that leads to hate-crimes against disabled people. But by decrying those attitudes in an article that is setting up a justification of a financial and social attack on the disabled, he is positioning his opinions and the government’s measures as modern and benign, in effect saying: ‘We despise hate-crimes and bigotry, so our decisions can’t possibly be hateful or bigoted no matter how much harm some might claim they’re doing!‘
Blame Atos, not the government!
This is where the article verges on the laughable. D’Ancona claims that Cameron and others at the top of the government feel ‘deep irritation‘ at the fact that Atos has sponsored the Paralympics. This is, of course, the purest hogwash. The government appointed Atos to run the despicable ‘Work Capability Assessments’ and set both the agenda for the assessments and Atos’ targets for getting people off benefits. Atos has gone about the task with gusto and a horrifying lack of humanity - but it’s merely a tail being wagged by the government’s dog. It didn’t come across the channel and invade our welfare system – it was told to do what it’s doing by our ‘deeply irritated’ government.
‘Mistakes were made but the aims are correct’
D’Ancona praises DWP Minister Chris Grayling’s motivations and supposedly subtle grasp of the complexity of ‘shifting from one benefit culture to another and the natural anxieties that such reform provokes in claimants‘. In one stroke, D’Ancona tells us that the government’s intentions are good and dismisses the vehement reaction of disability campaigners as mere’y anxiety about change – understandable but misplaced.
The government’s actions are aimed at ‘encouraging and enabling‘ disabled people to work so that they are ‘not locked in welfare dependency‘. So if you’re disabled and find yourself suddenly cut off from financial and practical help, don’t worry - the government is only doing it for your own good, throwing you in at the deep end so that you realise that you could always swim after all!
And this statement deserves special attention for its mindblowing condescension – and because it’s where D’Ancona’s mask slips to reveal his real attitude to disabled people: ‘It is hard pounding – not least for those who must make the often frightening journey across the border from Benefit Land into the employment market‘. I’m really struggling to find words to describe what I think about it that I’d be willing to put into print, but basically, it’s a pat on the head to say ‘Never mind, you’ll understand once you’re grown up like the rest of us‘! And with ‘Benefit Land’, D’Ancona inadvertently reveals his true colours: he despises not just disabled people but anyone who has to rely on benefits to cope with life.
The article concedes that ‘mistakes have certainly been made‘, but even that is framed as a justification of the aims of the measures. Maybe the government was a bit heavy-handed. Maybe it based its decisions on ‘anecdotal evidence of abuse and benefit scroungers‘ (which is inexcusable in a government whose own Office of National Statistics knew perfectly well that false claims amount to 0.5% of disability claims and less than 1% overall, but what the hey!?). But it meant and means well. Yeah, right.
It’s a shame, but there really is no choice!
D’Ancona concludes by reciting some ‘bons mots’ about the worth of human beings being more than financial to make us feel good, but only to soften us up for the coup de gräce. He writes of ‘the many ways of winning‘ and ‘the range of needs‘, that the Paralympics demonstrate to us – but then in his final paragraph hits us with the message he most wants us to take away from reading:
“We live in an age in which the state is living well beyond its means, an age in which the only question is where cuts should fall and on what basis. Our public services require radical reform; so too does our welfare system. But change of this sort – often involving the most vulnerable – is inherently complicated and emotive… It is between adolescents and grown-ups.“
In other words, ‘Disabled people are great, but we just can’t afford to keep supporting them as we have – there’s no other choice and everyone knows that. But it’s complicated – and if you get ‘emotive’ about it, well, that’s understandable but immature – and it can’t be allowed to shape actual policy. That’s for grown-ups – like Chris Grayling.‘
The only tiny problem with this statement is that it’s untrue. The big advantage of being a state rather than a household is that if you can’t afford to do what you need to do, you do not only have the option of ‘where to cut and on what basis‘. You have the choice of a wide selection of ways to increase revenue so that you’re not ’living beyond your means’. Not many that D’Ancona, Grayling or anyone else in the Telegraph or the Tory party would like, granted – but perfectly realistic and feasible measures.
That’s why they want to steer you away from even thinking about them - and to get you to be so caught up in feeling inspired by Paralympians that you fall for the rhetoric and the misdirections so that they can continue their theft on a massive scale from those who need help in our society.
Including the disabled, no matter how many Paralympics medals Team GB wins.