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The Comedy of Errors

Live Event Review: Dr Frances Ryan on Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People

18 June 19 words: Benedict Cooper

Noted Guardian journalist and Nottinghamian, Dr Frances Ryan, headed to Waterstones for the launch of her first full-length literary work...

Hundreds of millions of people tuned in to the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, a glittering live-action human drama set around the themes of discovery, empowerment and Enlightenment – the ceremony’s official artistic title.

It was meant to inspire so much hope. To showcase the immense progress made in Britain since the passing in 1995 of the Disability Discrimination Act, and the many rights, freedoms, economic safety nets and social breakthroughs that legislation had achieved. And, to send to the world a message for the future in glaring neon lights: that for disabled people anything was possible in a country which, speaking at the ceremony, swollen with pride, Prime Minister David Cameron described as a “trailblazer for disability rights”.

Not everyone was taken in. The Chancellor of the day George Osborne was famously booed when he made an appearance at the games. Campaign group Disabled People Against the Cuts [DPAC] staged a series of demonstrations in protest at the fact that one of the sponsors of the games was corporate outsourcing giant Atos, architect and executer of a regime of work capability assessments which had instilled “fear and loathing” in disability benefits claimants.

Beneath the beguiling lights and colours of the ceremony a darker reality was taking shape. As Nottingham journalist and disability rights campaigner Dr Frances Ryan outlines in her first full-length literary work, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, by the time the ceremony was taking place, Britain had already begun the slippery slide back from its status as a trailblazer of rights and protections for disabled people, and into a state where people with disabilities would be increasingly demonised, impoverished, and rescinded of all dignity, in the name of national austerity.

“In reality,” Dr Ryan writes in Crippled, “only a few months earlier, Cameron and colleagues had been setting in motion a political agenda that ushered in the unprecedented demolition of Britain’s safety net for disabled people and, in doing so, rolled back hard-won disability rights by decades”.

It was around this time that Wollaton-based Dr Ryan began thinking about writing a book exposing the malevolent nature of austerity. In 2016 she began what has been a prolific career writing for The Guardian, covering the human impact, and policy failures, of a brutal meat-grinder system of so-called protections for people with disabilities.

Speaking at a book launch event at Waterstones in Nottingham on Saturday 15 June, hosted by The Guardian’s social policy editor Patrick Butler, Dr Ryan told the story of her own long journey as a disabled person living through austerity Britain. Through the pressures and strains of writing a book despite her own ill-health, driven by the dismay of watching vulnerable people being systematically “demonised and abused” by sections of the media, and how normalised this abuse was becoming.

In Crippled Dr Ryan demonstrates with unassailable logic and painstaking statistics the folly of Conservative ‘reforms’ to the welfare system; the injustices, the false economies, the intersections between disability, poverty, special educational needs, gender and class, and the hypocrisies contrasted with the spin.

Of all the people in Britain living beneath the poverty line, four million – a third – are people with disabilities. Disabled people, Dr Ryan shows, have been disproportionately hit by the “pernicious sanctioning culture” that austerity instilled, with disabled unemployed people up to 53% more likely to be docked by the DWP than by claimants who are not disabled.

As a result of cuts from central funding, local authorities have been forced to scrap or pare down numerous support systems, from Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) to Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) services. So that, to take one figure from the many in the book, the number of SEND children being home-schooled increased by 57% by 2012 and 2017.

Not that Crippled simply reels of statistics. The book is rich with first-hand accounts from the people who are going through all this right now, and have been since 2010.

“You’ve got to just train him, like a dog”, the parent of a severely disabled boy in Surrey was told, by the head teacher of a cash-strapped school which refused to recognise his disability, and later excluded him. That was the start of a long and tortuous battle for the boy’s mother, to get her son the specialist care he desperately needs.

The “sort of battle”, Dr Ryan writes, “being replicated up and down the country, with parents anywhere from Bristol or North Yorkshire to the London Borough of Hackney initiating legal action against multimillion-pound cuts to special-needs funding”.

If Crippled stands to show one thing, it is that society has internalised the rhetoric of austerity, and in doing hardened its heart to the suffering of disabled people. It comprehensively and competently dissects the spin behind austerity, and its most unpardonable effects.

And it warns: this is not over. If anything, as Dr Ryan said on Saturday, “now we are seeing the full impact” of a pernicious policy that was already in full swing by the time David Cameron stood up in the Olympic Park back in 2012, on the shoulders of an enlightened deception now well and truly belied by the sad reality Crippled has to tell.

Dr Frances Ryan came to Waterstones on Sunday 15 June.

Dr Frances Ryan twitter

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