20 AUGUST 2019

It feels like we are living in divisive times, where areas of previously held consensus have broken down.  One of them is the concept of our welfare state as a social security system, a safety net for all of us, there to catch us when life goes wrong.

Frances Ryan’s Crippled powerfully brings into sharp focus the lived experiences of disabled people. She evidences how the past 10 years of austerity and welfare ‘reforms’ have dehumanised people with disabilities and left so many literally on the edge of survival.  Some have died as a result.  But the harsh reality is when this happens there is a ripple of news coverage but nothing fundamentally changes.  In 2017, the United Nations concluded that the conditions for disabled people in Britain were tantamount to a ‘human catastrophe’.  But the uncomfortable truth is that our Government’s response to this criticism is to deny it rather than change the system.

Another ‘victory’ which I thought disability campaigners had won for keeps is the concept of the right to live with dignity. Independent living, inclusive education, a system which enables disabled people to be active citizens in society.  But Ryan builds a compelling case to show how this has been systematically undermined by a series of welfare changes which make that impossible, combined with a hardening of public opinion against the ‘undeserving’ and the perception of disabled people as a burden on others. 

Poverty often has a female face. But evidence is clear that disadvantage intersects and is multiplied.  For example, Women’s Budget Group research has found black and Asian households on the lowest incomes also experienced the biggest losses in income and services over the past ten years.  9 in 10 single parents are women and children living in single parent households are more likely to be living in poverty. Single parents are more likely to have a disability than other people in the UK. Single parents are also more likely to have disabled children.  If you have a disabled child it is almost impossible to find suitable childcare, so your chances of finding work are significantly reduced.

Women are also more likely than men (6.4million vs 5.5 million) to be disabled and they are also more likely to be caring for others. For disabled women the risks are multiplied. For example, they are more likely than non-disabled women to experience domestic violence. 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.  For disabled women this figure more than doubles. Imagine how impossible it is to leave a violent partner if they are also your main carer?  Or what if, as Ryan illustrates with Bethany’s case, you need a sign language interpreter and none of the refuges available to you can provide that because all the specialist services have disappeared?  Bethany found she had no choice but to return to the abusive relationship she was trying to escape.

Some disabled women are turning to prostitution to earn enough money to get by.  This is not a free choice but the product of a system that leaves them with what they perceive to be no other choice.  Ryan quotes charity Changing Lives who say “We noticed a big increase in women selling sex after the introduction of benefit sanctions.”

I urge you to read this book because it challenges us to confront our othering of disabled people (which if we are honest is a way of making ourselves feel good about it not happening to us).  Just as our society now regards the welfare system as a system for scroungers, set to be abused, not for us when we need it. This disconnect is dangerous for two reasons.  Firstly, because for most of us this perception is simply mistaken – it will be us.  Secondly because it fragments our society in a way which diminishes all of us.  An estimated 13.9 million people in Britain have some kind of disability. A further 6.5 million people are carers.  Most of us will be affected by disability at some point in our lives.  So when reading this book, assume it is about you or your partner, your parents, your son or daughter. Because at some point it almost certainly will be.


Sam Smethers, CE of Fawcett

Sam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society.