Comment: Iain Duncan Smith is undoing years of struggle for disabled rights

For IDS disability is an aberration that needs to be, and can be, fixed


Iain Duncan Smith’s latest gaffe shows clearly the direction he is taking the country in. It is a return to an age of prejudice.

Speaking in the House of Commons, yesterday, the work and pensions secretary talked about getting disabled people in work up to the levels of ‘normal, non-disabled people’.

A slip of the tongue? Maybe, but one that reveals the dangerous ideology which lies behind IDS’s welfare reforms, which is reversing decades of struggle for disabled rights.

For IDS it is now clear that disability is not something to be embraced, let alone celebrated as part of the diversity which makes us all stronger. Disability is an aberration. It is a problem which needs to be fixed.

And if those who are different get the right therapy, or where necessary they are sanctioned, they can be pushed into the workplace to become like ‘normal’ people.

This is one-size-fits-all welfare. It is how over four thousand people can die after being certified ‘fit for work’. It is why he is moving therapists into job centres, and why and the Conservative manifesto suggested sanctioning those who refuse medical treatment. It may well be why some people on benefits are taking their own lives.

When my own disabled son started in a mainstream primary school, he lined up to take part in the 100 metres with the rest of his classmates. What the teachers didn’t know was that his small powered wheelchair would only travel around half the speed that a child of his age could run.

The starting gun was fired. The children set off, and as the penultimate child crossed the finish line there was my son half way down the track, pushing the joystick on his chair as far as it would go. Suddenly, someone in the crowd started to chant his name: “Samuel, Samuel…”.  Soon everyone else joined in, and cheered him across the finish line.

As a parent of three children, I know that we always tell our kids ‘it’s not the winning that matters, but the taking part’. Deep down we all love it when our children win. But at that point, in that school, I can honestly say that every child, every teacher, and every parent really knew that it was the taking part that was important.

Over the next few years, that school changed because it had included a disabled child. And it changed for the better. The monochrome culture of testing, competition and league tables was challenged. There was first hand exposure to the reality of a world of diversity and difference. Prejudices were overcome. Everyone’s experience was richer as a result.

‘Nothing about us without us’ was a slogan at the heart of the campaign for civil rights and the anti-discrimination movement. It led to important victories for equal opportunities, empowerment, the removal of social barriers and changes in attitudes.

The position of disabled people in the UK improved with more accessible transport, access to work, independent living, employment and housing, culminating in the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Campaigners also recognised that equality required real social inclusion, not forced integration. Integration is about coercing the disabled to fit into a non-disabled world. But inclusion acknowledges the barriers that a non-disabled world creates. It then seeks to address them by changing the way it works, and empowering everyone to play a full part so they can help bring about further change. And when it does, everyone benefits together.

This was what lay behind the establishment of the Independent Living Fund and Disability Living Allowance. The former has now been abolished. The latter is in the process of being phased out.  And along with them progressive social attitudes are going too. A huge rise in disability hate crime should come as no surprise, when the disabled are told they must take on non-disabled notions of ‘normality’.

Iain Duncan Smith is returning us to dark times of inequality, social exclusion and discrimination.

Jonathan Bartley is the Green Party’s Work and Pensions spokesperson. Follow him on Twitter 
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