Posts Tagged ‘disability’

What I don’t want to talk about, more than I have to, is the incredibly condescending tone of an article I read recently, and the way it dismisses any criticisms of its message as the irrational ravings of hateful monsters.

There’s an attempt at logic and argument in there, buried under a mountain of disingenuous rhetoric. And while the latter is what originally made me grumpy, I don’t want to respond emotionally in the way that first occurred to me.

Instead, I want to talk directly about the item being defended with such sneering derision for those who took umbrage to it. This item:

If you’re anything like me, and haven’t seen this before (apparently I missed the Twitterstorm when it first made the rounds), you’re probably feeling some things quite strongly after taking all that in. Notice what you’re feeling and how your hindbrain wants to react. Mull that instinctive response over. It’s important, but you need to not stop there.

Maria Kang actually seems to be a decent person. She’s overcome adversities in her life and succeeded despite them, and she seems to genuinely want to encourage other people to do the same. There’s a significant understanding gap evident in the above picture, and the caption is massively misjudged, but I think there was very little malice to her intentions.

However, there is an implication to the words she chose to use. In her blog entries discussing it later, she acknowledges the way her message was interpreted by many, but never really takes ownership of it. And the unsympathetic, compassionless, impatient, victim-blaming overtones – even if they’re not at all what she intended – represent a tragically common worldview. A worldview in which there are no “reasons” when it comes to absolutely any level of shortcoming or failure, only “excuses”.

Let’s pretend that I’m somebody being asked the question, by somebody who takes this “no excuses” attitude (which I acknowledge is not that of Maria Kang herself). Here’s how I might answer:

What’s my excuse?

My excuse is that different people’s bodies react to stimuli in different ways. Different people get saddled with different genetic backgrounds, as well as upbringings which teach them different life lessons, so they end up with massively different mental and physical responses to certain situations.

Some people find some things difficult or painful which are a positive delight to others. Some people are passionately devoted to interests and hobbies which bore the pants off 99% of their fellows. Some people have an arrangement of chemicals in their brain which behaves in an entirely different way from the arrangement of chemicals in yours.

I am a different person from you. I have different goals, different loves, different struggles, different expectations, different capabilities, different talents. The ways in which you and I might vary are numerous.

Maybe you were already keen on fitness before having kids, and had become familiar with the routine of it, surrounding yourself by other people and immersing yourself in a culture which also focused on exercise and healthy living, familiarising yourself with the lifestyle, all of which made it easier for you to slide back into it after your pregnancy. Maybe I was in decent shape before having children and had other interests beyond putting in the effort to do much better than that, and have been struggling to get started since then, unfamiliar as I am with the complexities of the fitness industry, and never having previously learned to identify and make efficient use of the most healthy foods.

Maybe you have family who live nearby who’ve been able to help out with childcare now and then, which let you find some spare time to do the things that matter to you, like keeping in shape. Maybe I don’t have anyone around like that, and have had less free time for such things outside of work and raising my children.

Maybe your innate physiology was such that your body handled several pregnancies well, and allowed you to recover quickly with few ill effects each time. Maybe I had a different body structure from yours, received different medical treatment, and experienced more complications during the process, so that after giving birth I’d lost a lot of blood, was scarred and depressed, and needed a longer period of recovery before I could reasonably be expected to start living a normal life at a reasonable pace again.

Maybe when I attempted to implement exactly the same workout regime as you, I was reaching beyond the options nature made available to me, and spent a half-hour throwing up from the over-exertion after five minutes, thereafter being quite reasonably put off from making any more serious attempts to get back in shape for a while.

Maybe you’re a shit-ton richer than me and so have a lot more options open to you, in the way that money tends to do, as well as avoiding a lot of the negative health effects of the stress that I face from my day-to-day worries of whether I’m going to be able to cover the rent next month after paying for my kids’ food and healthcare bills.

Maybe there’s quite a lot of evidence that a person’s physical fitness and the kind of body they can attain are largely determined by genetics, which are completely beyond anyone’s control.

Maybe there are resources available in the area where you live which aren’t accessible to me.

Maybe something else. Maybe none of these. I don’t know you or what your deal is, after all.

But maybe, in short, your disingenuously posited question actually has quite a lot of perfectly valid answers, and to imply otherwise is petty and mean-spirited and cruel.

(And we haven’t even touched on the idea that maybe everyone else excusing themselves for not being more like you isn’t even necessary. Maybe we neither want nor need to aspire to your alleged optimal state. Maybe my excuse is that I’m fine just the way I am and don’t want to meet your standards for how a person should apparently look if they oughtn’t to feel bad about themselves.)

So that’s enough maybes.

Obviously not all of them will apply. But some of them could, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the sound of yet another game of “find someone who’s already achieved something impressive despite ostensibly having things at least as tough as you”.

That game can be a malevolent force when it starts being used to promote the “everyone can do anything if they just try” ideology at the expense of actually existing human beings. After all, what does it say about people who fail? People who encounter setbacks from which they never recover? People who don’t “win the fight” against illness or circumstances, who never reach what you insist on calling their full potential?

They could’ve thrived if they’d just put in the effort – look at all these other people with the same condition who did – but they failed. So they must not have been trying hard enough. So, really, they didn’t deserve any better than they got.

This is an unkind and damaging way of thinking.

And in response to another obvious objection: None of the above diminishes your achievement of attaining the body you presumably want while successfully raising three happy, healthy children. If you’re proud of having worked hard to accomplish what you consider worthwhile, then that’s great. I have no desire to take any of that away, and if we hadn’t got off on kinda the wrong foot I’d be totally happy for you. None of this is about hating anyone for their success.

Suggesting that maybe some people had less free time than you doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker. Wondering whether some folk might have suffered greater financial hardships than you doesn’t imply that you haven’t worked hard to use your own limited funds efficiently. It may well be that you accomplished something which required a great deal of bravery and strength and hard work; but you completely undermine your own merits if you refuse to accept that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone else to be capable of the same results.

It’s not that the attitudes you find fault with don’t exist. There is such a thing as making excuses, and refusing to take responsibility, and stubbornly blaming all your own failings on the world fucking you over. But there is also such a thing as being fucked over by the world. And you’re massively over-simplifying the way the universe operates, in quite an offensive and patronising way, to endorse the line of reasoning: “I worked hard and got what I wanted; therefore the only reason most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t work hard.”

It’s a very right-libertarian thing, but that’s a tirade for another time. This has gone on far too ramblingly long already, so here’s where I’ll draw the bottom line:

Telling someone “You can achieve anything” can be encouraging and empowering.

Following it up with “So why haven’t you?” just makes you a dick.

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Marvellous. It is Learning Difficulties week. Is there an Academic Excellence week. This country is a liberal left leaning minefield of pc.

Katie Hopkins there, earlier today, not understanding.

The thing that really doesn’t need doing is explaining what’s wrong with this. We’re all sensible people here, I’m sure. We all understand the potential value in setting aside a week for such a thing. We can see why it might be a good thing to highlight some of the problems that people with learning disabilities face in their lives, or the prejudice they encounter, or the organisations and efforts which already exist to help them out and which could use your support, and the people whose worlds they brighten.

We can easily see how such a thing can be worthwhile, how the disingenuous question about “academic excellence” misses the point (when are white people going to get their own history month, eh?), and how campaigns to raise awareness for disabled people can be motivated by much nobler motivations than the exercise in obsequious box-ticking that Katie Hopkins imagines “political correctness” to be.

We understand that #LDWeek13 is a positive effort by decent people to do good things for people who deserve it.

Katie Hopkins doesn’t understand that.

That’s the thing to remember when you react to her deliberate efforts to be unkind and insensitive. She does not understand.

And that’s a particularly human trait, that not understanding. We all get that about all kinds of things, all the time. It shouldn’t make someone seem weirdly different to not understand something. It’s just like me with the popularity of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, or my wife with the Banach-Tarski paradox. When it comes to the value of Learning Disabilities Week, there’s an incomplete series of concepts in Katie Hopkins’s brain, failing to lead her to the conclusion the rest of us have reached. She doesn’t get it.

Now, I wish she did understand it. There’s something there to be understood, something meaningful. But it’s only worth getting frustrated at her lack of understanding, if it’s going to lead you toward some action that might actually increase that understanding.

Understanding things is good. When someone doesn’t currently understand something, then an action which increases their understanding is an action that makes things better.

I can’t seem to make that paragraph less clunky. If it seems tautological, then that’s probably a good sign. All I’m saying is, it would be lovely if some people who don’t understand some things, could come to understand those things, by way of being talked to.

And I’m increasingly finding that a more interesting challenge than just reiterating the things that we enlightened folk understand already.

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The headline’s meaning is pretty unequivocal. Of all the people taking our hard-earned money in some sort of disability benefits, fully three-quarters of them are a bunch of spongeing fakers who don’t deserve a penny, and are just lazily avoiding doing a proper day’s work.

There’s not really any other way it could be interpreted. And it was a front page story on one of the country’s biggest newspapers.

And it’s entirely untrue.

The Department of Work and Pensions seem to have been complicit in allowing their data to be so maliciously misinterpreted, though, and there’s been much less fanfare around a new report, which confirms that most people voluntarily ended their own Employment Support Allowance claim because their health had improved.

The data that gave rise to the scary 75% headline actually indicates that, when it came to ESA being withdrawn, 41% of cases where when someone had found permanent work, and 30% involved people still looking for work but no longer claiming sickness benefits. 12% claimed that they were unable to work, permanently or temporarily, but still had their ESA closed for whatever reason.

As far as I can tell, the 75% figure is a complete fabrication. But look at that front page and its headline again. Picture the world it describes. Imagine living in a country full of these scroungers, where anyone claiming it to be unfit to work is more likely than not to be faking it. Then contrast that with knowledge of the struggles that disabled people actually have to face, particularly by people who seem to have bought into the tabloid narrative.

Are you holding these ideas in your mind?

Holy fuck how corrosive is the attitude being perpetuated by the media here.


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– Here’s another way the state milks prisoners for their own benefit. This is transparently doing the opposite of helping people.

– I see rich people… They don’t know they’re rich. John Scalzi on characteristically fine form.

– Nick Cohen’s worth reading on militant secularists.

– Many attitudes to disabled and poor people are shocking, and being exacerbated by a lot of media coverage and government policies.

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– Obama’s got some good plans for the country, and I’m sure it’ll work out well. This time.

Rod Liddle wants to become disabled. A less kind observer might offer to help him out with that.

– If you’re only as vaguely aware of the caste system in place in India as I generally am, this article will be fascinating to you.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the government’s ongoing crusade against the outrageous sums of money being offered to benefits claimants.

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A Conservative MP in the UK recently suggested that the minimum wage might be a “hindrance” to some people who want to find work, and that the “vulnerable” – such as those with disabilities – should be able to work for less than this legally mandated lower limit.

The internet heard about this, and exploded.

People were angry at Philip Davies’s insensitivity, and it’s not hard to see why. After the outrage bounced around Twitter for a while, an official response was posted by mental health charity Mind, as well as a damning riposte in the Guardian (not forgetting the admirably quick-off-the-mark NewsThump).

The people vehemently disagreeing with Davies are clearly concerned about people with disabilities, learning difficulties, or mental illness being discriminated against unfairly, and would be against any legislation implying that such people are less worthy of the basic human rights that we tend to think all members of society deserve equally. And while this is admirable, I think that Davies is getting unfairly swept up with a slew of other bad ideas that are worth criticising.

Partially, anyway.

Simon Perry has highlighted some of the over-zealous criticism better than most, and has tried to clarify what Davies was and was not saying, and why it may not have been as abhorrent as all that.

I think he’s only sort of right as well, though.

Davies was highlighting one of the effects of having a minimum wage: sometimes people won’t get hired for a job they wanted, which they could have got if they’d been able to agree to work for below the legal minimum. This limitation has no doubt closed off some opportunities for people willing to work at very low rates.

So, he argues, some of the “most vulnerable people in society” should have the option of working for below minimum wage, if they find this helpful in getting them onto the job ladder.

It’s not that clear from the articles I’ve read, but it seems that the following ideas are the only ones that can really be read from what Davies seems to be saying:

  1. People with disabilities or mental illness should accept that they’re often not worth as much in the job market, they oughtn’t expect to be paid as much as the rest of society can expect, and they’re just going to be poorer because of it.
  2. Everyone should earn at least the minimum wage, unless they want to accept less.
  3. There should be no minimum wage.

The first option is discriminatory and callous.

The second is either meaningless (there’s no point to a law you have to follow unless you don’t want to) or it’s effectively equivalent to the third.

The third would at least be a coherent idea, but I suspect that if that was what he meant, he’d have said so far more straight-forwardly.

So, in a way, it’s hard to be particularly angry with Philip Davies, as it’s not entirely clear to me what he’s getting at.

But I’m still a long way from being on his side.

Davies would argue, no doubt, that he’s concerned for the rights of the disabled, and the otherwise “vulnerable”, and is seeking ways which might make it easier for them to find a position in the workforce. But his apparent compassion and desire to genuinely help people doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny.

Whatever he meant to say, it’s clear that mental health charities, sufferers of mental illness and disability, and basically everyone else have all criticised him for being insensitive. If he had a valid and compassionate point in there somewhere, nobody got it. People felt he was being unfair and unkind, and at the very least he had expressed himself poorly.

And his response has been to get snippy and passive-aggressive with his critics, dismissing their concerns as “Left wing hysteria”. He’s made no apparent effort to explain why his suggestions are not the unfair and prejudiced ones he made them sound like, but is painting the whole liberal wing as some kind of monolith that’s resistant to new ideas and is just out to get him.

This is not how you behave if your primary concern is caring for people and making positive changes. This is how you behave if you’re responding to any slight on your character with stubbornness and petulance.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t even think it’s a good idea.

Most countries have a minimum wage law, and it’s worth considering why it’s there in the first place. The reading up I’ve done on the actual answers to this complex question has been minimal, because I know what you’ve come to expect from me by now and I hate to disappoint. But I think this is a fair characterisation: it’s a restriction on the free market that society tends to find necessary, in order to save the working class from the natural result of unrestrained capitalism.

A part of me wonders what I’ve become, that I can type a sentence like that with a straight face. Let me try that again without sounding like quite such an unbearable wanker.

If minimum wage laws weren’t there, many people would be working for less than the current limits. (Otherwise the laws would be doing absolutely nothing.) This implies that, if the market were free of this particular restraint, people would end up working for rates of pay currently considered unacceptably paltry. The way a free market would actually value many people’s labour would be so appallingly low, we’ve put laws in place to make sure things don’t get quite that bad for anyone.

The idea of a truly free market may have a certain libertarian appeal, but the vast inequalities between sub-minimum wage workers and their corporate employers should be of grave concern to anyone who thinks a freer market is always better.

While increasing the pay gap even more might open a few doors in the short-term for some individuals, surely what’s more worth addressing are broader problems in the way things are structured. There are keen 20-year-old men and women in the workforce, young and energetic and eager to work, who are having to decide between selling their labour for £4.92 an hour, or not working at all.

There’s a bigger issue in play when so many people are that desperate to keep their heads above water, and Philip Davies is not alone in failing to address this with his proposal.

If the only solution you have is that some people ought to accept even less than the current limits, then you’re tacitly accepting a seriously fucked-up economy with grossly unjust class divides as being either basically fair or sadly inevitable.

Which, unfortunately, seems to be what Davies is doing. This particular gem from the BBC report especially infuriated me:

Mr Davies replied that, irrespective of whether it was “right or wrong”, that was “just the real world that we operate in”.



You’re an elected member of parliament, entrusted with the responsibility to represent the people and enact national legislation to try to make society run in a functional manner.

If you’re resigned to the way things already are, think that whether something’s “right or wrong” is “irrespective”, and aren’t trying to change the world we operate in, then what the fuck are you good for?


Is it just me, or am I sounding more and more social libertarian every time I try and write about serious things?

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On Wednesday, thousands of Londoners marched in the streets against the government’s budget cuts to benefits for disabled people.

More than £9,000,000,000 of welfare cuts are planned over the next five years. Many people with serious health problems are going to be at risk of losing the support that makes life liveable, and even that which would help some of them get back to work.

The government are making the usual assurances, that those most in need will still be cared for. I’m not sure how this is going to be plausible, given how much is being cut – over 10% of the treasury’s entire deficit reduction plan is coming from these benefits alone.

And there are the usual objections being raised from the more cynical corners, about if all these people really need all that free money, and whether plenty of them wouldn’t be fine going back to work if the government weren’t letting them getting so complacent.

It’s not like there should be no oversight at all against those who are claiming what they don’t deserve, but it’s upsetting how much emphasis some people want to put on not letting benefit cheats get away with it, how quickly they’re inclined to rush to indignation, and how little of the conversation tends to focus on the thousands whose lives are dominated by debilitating conditions.

Especially when the amount of revenue lost to benefit fraud is dwarfed by the cost of tax avoidance and evasion.

We don’t seem to get snide about faceless corporations amassing billions in personal profit in quite the way we do about the thought that a working class family might not be working as hard as we are.

More on this from Christina Martin, Disability Awareness in Action, and the Guardian.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

At the start of December, Christina Martin wrote a blog post in which she got uppity and moaned about some so-called offensive comedy on Channel 4, and decided to be all over-sensitive about Frankie Boyle and someone called Morgana. This whole big fuss kicked off, just because these comedians made a few jokes about how shit the mentally handicapped are, and invited millions of viewers to join them in laughing at disabled people’s comical inability to conform to more familiar patterns of behaviour.

Honestly, the political correctness these days is out of control. It’s getting so you can’t even pull someone out of their wheelchair and punch them in the face before stoning a few gay people to death and raping your wife any more without offending somebody. People are so touchy.

I forgot what my point was.

Oh, yes. The point of the above entirely unfair characterisation was that, whenever there are complaints of offense being caused in the name of humour, there’ll always be a crowd who refuse to accept any kind of compromise. They’re adamantly decided ahead of time that any decision not to make a particular joke at the expense of someone who can’t defend themselves is nothing more than pandering and over-sensitivity by woolly liberals, not to mention that utmost of horrors, censorship of their free speech.

The point was that some people fail to differentiate between “over-sensitivity” and, y’know, “sensitivity”.

And if someone from a minority demographic who have it pretty tough at the best of times (or someone not unreasonably speaking for them) says that these jokes are hurtful, and damaging, and perpetuate an unjust social disparity amounting to discrimination and bullying, then the least you can do is shut up and listen long enough to honestly consider whether they might be right.

I know a lot of people whine about being offended just because they’re thin-skinned and don’t know how to change the channel. But that’s not the only reason people complain that something’s offensive. Sometimes things really are unkind and unnecessary.

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So there’s this campaign which seeks to fight against the discrimination and prejudice often faced by those with learning disabilities.

And… I’m not really a fan.

Yeah, I think I’m just going to give up on trying to find a way to summarise my main point without sounding like a dick. In context, though, and after a lengthy explanation, I hope it’ll be clear why I don’t feel that I can really get behind this campaign.

It’s not just a free speech thing, for a start. Just because I have some libertarian (or maybe just very liberal) leanings when it comes to free expression, doesn’t mean I think people should go around calling each other retards without a second thought. Almost universally I wish they wouldn’t.

Ofcom recently reversed its ruling on a Channel 4 broadcast from some time ago. They’ve now decided that an episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth did in fact breach the Broadcasting Code.

I didn’t see the show, and haven’t been able to find a relevant clip, but this seems like the right decision. The way I’ve heard it described, Vinnie Jones used the word “retard”, and performed what sounds like a grotesque and obnoxious imitation of what that word means to him, while the usually lovely Davina was carelessly blasé about it. I’m not keen on censorship merely on grounds of offence, by any means, but there’s a limit to how far people can go in demeaning a minority before you earn some form of public admonishment.

But the punishment – assuming that punishment of some sort will get handed down at some point – isn’t simply because a particular word was used. The whole sequence of events that was broadcast was unacceptably offensive. It’s this careless intolerance that’s the problem, not simply the word “retard” itself.

I think that’s a better idea on which to base a campaign for tolerance – and while I’m sure the people behind r-word.org are doing plenty of good work, I think it’s a mistake to make the word the driving force of the campaign. The result of this is that the impression they give – the thing the people they’re trying to reach are likely to feel – is itself a message of forceful oppression. If someone happens upon the organisation for the first time, the message they take on board might be: “You’re not allowed to say this thing any more, because we’ve decided it’s bad.”

Which is just going to put anyone who cares about free speech on the defensive right away.

The important, fundamental idea – that the way you speak and act affects people, and that if you’re careless with your words and actions you might make things harder for some people who are already having a rough time of it – is in there somewhere. But it’s buried under the surface, which only addresses one of many symptoms, and is less persuasive than the encouraging idea that you can help make the world fairer and better for people who struggle for equality.

I sympathise with the intent behind the r-word campaign a lot, and other attempts at outreach and speaking out are the reason I’m more aware of the impact of my words than I used to be. But this approach lacks nuance. The root problem is people’s attitudes, not this one word, and the attitudes are what we should be trying to change.

Obviously, part of a healthy and compassionate attitude will include being aware of the words you use and how they affect those around you. But if you don’t get people to think about why they suddenly can’t say this word any more, plenty of them are going to find other ways to be intolerant bastards. And people have a track record of finding this an extremely easy challenge to which to rise.

So, I suppose that’s what I think. What do you reckon? Am I being too harsh?

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