Illustration by Emer Sukonik
In December 2019, a Conservative parliamentary candidate, Sally-Ann Hart, shared a video on Facebook saying that employers should be able to pay people with learning disabilities less than the minimum wage, and then defended this publicly, claiming that some people with learning disabilities “don’t understand money”. Just recently, it emerged that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said last Autumn that he would rather “let bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose another national lockdown, in the full knowledge that disabled people are far more likely to die from COVID-19. And another Tory MP, Charles Walker, publicized his view on national television that it is perfectly acceptable for some disabled people to die so that we can end lockdown sooner than is safe for everyone.
If you wanted to be charitable, you might look at these examples and assume that these were anomalies, embarrassing moments where individuals exposed their personal ableist views, or, in the case of Boris Johnson, a cruel outburst made in frustration but ultimately different from the policies and views he commits himself to publicly. And yet when we look at the reality for disabled people in the UK, these aren’t abnormal views in the slightest. The outrage at Boris’ remark is, perhaps, misguided given that it accurately encapsulates the very approach to the pandemic which the Tories chose to take. Getting angry at words is unproductive when the real issue is that these words translate directly into actions and policy.
Interestingly, before the 2010s, the situation looked very different; the UK was one of the first countries to adopt anti-discrimination laws for disabled people in 1995. Far more generous support systems were in place for disabled people in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance available for disabled people in need of financial help and/or those who could not work because of a disability, and the more general Income Support for those who were struggling financially, but could not otherwise find a job. The U-turn the government made in the 2010s, triggered by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition coming into power, is therefore even more staggering to consider – slowly, disability benefits were stripped away, replaced with the far less generous Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment, sometimes referred to as PIP.
The Conservative mindset that welfare is ultimately harmful for society, brought in by Thatcher in the 1980s, has done endless damage to all of those who struggle financially, especially disabled people in the UK. Life for disabled people and those who live with and/or care for them often comes with extra costs, such as for equipment or mobility aids, carers, or treatments, and higher heating bills. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘disabled tax’. These higher costs have an even greater impact if your disability means you cannot work, or cannot work full-time, or if you find it more difficult getting a job due to ableist hiring practices which often place those who need additional accommodations at a disadvantage. People whose disability impacts their ability to work do not fit into the Conservative, capitalist mindset that money should only be earned by hard work, and that the state should only consider helping somebody when all other options have been exhausted. In this Thatcherite mindset, there is a focus on ‘independence’ for disabled people, which at first glance might seem empowering but is fundamentally an excuse to cut the amount of support that the state offers them. There are ways to be independent outside of our normative sense of the word – disabled people can both be fully independent and receive government support, use mobility aids, and/or have a carer. In fact, most of these additional modifications usually improve a disabled person’s sense of independence, as having their financial and medical needs met is conducive to living a fuller life; yet this definition of independence is disadvantageous to a government which prefers to cut costs.
So disabled people were already being hit hard by austerity policies years before the pandemic began – but COVID exposed this disparity like never before. 60% of those who died from coronavirus in England were disabled, and yet the government has barely recognised this. Even very early on, scientists knew that disabled people were more likely to contract serious illness from the virus, and yet the UK government carried on with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy until it became clear that the NHS would not have been able to cope. Throughout the pandemic, those with ‘underlying conditions’ have frequently been brushed under the carpet, so much so that in the early days of the Spring 2020 lockdown, when daily deaths were announced, they used to tell us how many of those who died had pre-existing conditions, as if this somehow meant that we should regard their deaths differently, or to reassure non-disabled people that they were less likely to get seriously ill. And in the second wave of the pandemic, do-not-resuscitate orders were unethically given to those with learning disabilities, violating their human rights, despite the fact that DNRs are usually given very specifically to patients whose bodies could not cope with CPR, or who have deliberately asked for them. From the start of the pandemic up until the end of the second wave, disabled people have been treated as an afterthought, left behind in the Tories’ pursuit to get the country back to normal as quickly as possible no matter the costs.
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that the first sign of civilization is the discovery of a human femur with healed fractures, which serves as evidence that another person has come to their aid and ensured their safety and nourishment for weeks on end until the bone healed. Often, in the animal kingdom, a broken leg or another such ailment would mean death from hunger or from an opportunistic predator, but according to Mead, this act of service in order to protect another member of the species was what marked out a culture as civilization. Comparing her theory with Tory disability policies paints an unfortunate picture. Thatcherite ‘individualism’, and the approach to disability policy and COVID which stems from it, seems completely in opposition with this portrait of civilized society ultimately centering around care and compassion for one another. Conservative individualism and disability rights are incompatible, and until we realise this, we still are a long way off a kinder society.