This report serves to outline the way in which precarity affects disabled people and what important changes could be made to lessen the fragile and turbulent state of this group. Disabled people can certainly be considered a precarious group due to the notable percentage experiencing poverty, deprived of basic necessities such as energy and adequate housing, and social opportunities and inclusion. A report on the precarity of this group is therefore very important, as not only will it outline the changes that must be made in order to improve the quality of the lives of disabled people in the UK, but would also address the reasons why, despite often considering the UK as a country that has made significant progress in terms of disability equality, people with disabilities remain one of the most precarious and disadvantaged groups in society, both socially and economically.
The term precarity, in context of this report, refers to a political, social, economic and even psychological process of insecurity, change and uncertainty often concerning weak access to employment, income, housing, and social stability (McEwan, 2015). Commonly defined as a condition of modern-day capitalism and an extension of neoliberalist ideas such as individualism and responsibility, it renders certain groups more precarious than others, such as homeless people, older people and those with disabilities, whilst also placing blame and responsibility on these groups for their own insecure state of living (Shaw and Byler, 2016). Precarity amongst people with disabilities is intersectional, therefore this report shall address both social and economic precarity for disabled people, and how these intersections serve to feed into each other and increase the precarity of disabled people.
One of the biggest obstacles for disabled people is inclusion, and social attitudes (Barnes, 1997) which we know can cause isolation and feed into ideas behind policy and legislation. Historical perceptions of disability have left disabled people pitied for being abnormal and unable to experience society in the same way others do, so they are simply pushed out like other minority groups due to their difference (Barnes, 1997). Whilst these negative social attitudes might seem like a thing of the past, evidence suggests that disabled people are still likely to experience negative attitudes which act as a barrier to their social involvement in education and leisure for example (Scope, 2014). Such attitudes are prevalent within research findings by Opinium, suggesting that four in ten people think disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people and with 76 percent of people perceiving them as dependent, with only a third of people saying they would feel comfortable speaking to a disabled person (Scope, 2014). Furthermore, despite the fact many people perceive disabled people as weak and in need of care, evidence also suggests a great presence of benefit stigma surrounding disabled people, showing that 35 percent of incapacity benefit claimants receive moderate social stigma concerning their entitlement (Turn 2 Us, 2012). These figures certainly demonstrate for the purpose of this report an obvious social barrier that exists to leave disabled people in a precarious and unstable social position, not only seen as weak but also as less approachable and undeserving of help.
In terms of its cross over with economic precarity, there is much to say about the disadvantage faced by disabled people in both work and welfare, as 27 percent of families where somebody is disabled are in poverty, including those who receive disability benefits such as PIP, DLA and Attendance Allowance (JRF, 2015). Furthermore, the ONS (2018) found that 43.5 percent of disabled people are ‘economically inactive’ with another 9.3 percent of those who are ‘economically active’ being unemployed. This evidence suggests that precarity doesn’t just mean that disabled people are socially implicated by inequality, but also financially implicated and at greater risk of un-employment, under-employment, fuel poverty and other deprivations, rendering them economically precarious too. As this report largely addresses issues of precarity in modern day society, it is important to note how the social attitudes embedded within politics are great determinants of the economic precarity experienced by disabled people as a result of benefits, housing, education, employment and other such policies and legislations affecting economic status and welfare. For example, as noted by the United Nations, disabled people are often greatly implicated by government ideology concerning health and social care benefits, availability of resources and services, conditionality of support and living arrangements such as independent living and stringent criteria for assessing eligibility to services and support (UN, 2016). Economic precarity is more likely than social disadvantages to have direct detrimental effects on the lives and welfare of disabled people due to their implications on necessities such as fuel poverty and homelessness.
Austerity, benefit cuts and local authority cuts have directly affected the precarity of disabled people. This arose in the mid 1990’s, when the 1.6 percent of national income that was being spent on disability benefits became a great concern of both the public and government (Banks, Blundell and Emmerson, 2015) presumably as a result of rising benefit stigma from media coverage, leading to 1 in 5 people believing the majority of claims are false (Turn 2 Us, 2012). Benefits have become increasingly scrupulous over the years, for example the transition of the incapacity benefit into the ‘pathways to work’ initiative and eventually a time limited Employment Support Allowance (ESA) meant that disabled people are more strictly assessed on whether they could do a little work or no work at all (Banks, Blundell and Emmerson, 2015). Even more worryingly, the DLA benefit which covers additional costs of living with a disability is to be replaced with PIP to save the government around £2bn will likely leave half a million people without sufficient funds for specialist equipment, support, therapies and other essential personal costs of living with a disability (Hardest Hit, 2012). Not only have these cuts hit disabled people hard financially and left them struggling and worried about the future, with an estimated £9bn worth of cuts to be expected, it has also led to thousands of people being wrongly labelled (Hardest Hit, 2012) further encouraging a negative social stigma surrounding disabled people. This report might therefore suggest better and fairer assessment structures for benefits rather than a means tested approach, especially considering that the need for and receipt of disability benefits varies across sub groups individuals (Banks, Blundell and Emmerson, 2015) and therefore ‘capacity to work’ is just one small obstacle out of many experienced by disabled people in the labour market. Not only this, but it might be beneficial to reinforce the governments responsibility to publish accurate statistics about disability benefit fraud and categorization in order to avoid stigma, false accusations and negative attitudes.
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Not only have cuts to individual disability benefits proved problematic and causal to disability precarity, but cuts to local authority funding for services such as voluntary organisations and supported housing despite growth estimations for demand of social services (Hardest Hit, 2012) will likely leave many disabled people isolated, and those most in need of care with insufficient support. Arguably, doing this could cost the government more in the long run, as these services help people with learning difficulties to live more independently, and without them they will become more dependent on other service areas and could even result in other health issues from not eating properly, not adequately caring for themselves and even getting into debt (Learning Disability Today, 2015). This therefore highlights the importance of local authority services, especially as the level of support from the voluntary sector is invaluable, and most likely provides greater support than some other, more costly services for both high level care needs and assisting more independent living.
Another policy area that this report would suggest needs improvement is equality in the labour market for those who are deemed capable of working. As mentioned above, assessments for disability benefits are designed to identify those disabled people who could manage participation in the labour market however this assessment process fails to recognize the higher rates of job precarity and work instability that disabled people experience within the labour market due to its embedded inequalities. Finding a job with a disability can prove difficult, with 81 percent of disabled people saying that their condition limits their job opportunities and 72 percent of those not in work saying their disability makes it hard to find a job at all (Hardest Hit, 2012). These figures suggest that not only is the assessment criteria for disability benefits insufficient and enabling precarity amongst disabled people to thrive but that also the policies for equality within the work place, such as the Equality Act (2010) which seeks to eliminate any discrimination, direct or indirect, and employment support programmes, are insufficient in promoting equal opportunities as the disability pay gap continues to widen (EHRC, 2017). The UK government has been heavily criticised in its failure to tackle disability inequality, particularly in the work place in many reports (EHRC, 2017) including that of the UN (2016). The need for a disability employment strategy to enhance in work support and encourage employers to be more open with opportunities for disabled people is clear and essential in ensuring that disabled people move forward at the same pace as other individuals within the labour market (EHRC, 2017).
Similar gaps can be found in the education system which can leave young disabled people in a precarious position, with lower educational attainment leading to insecurity and uncertainty about the future. Whilst a transformation has been made in the framework for qualifying children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), little adequate change has been made to allow for children with disabilities to thrive within the education system since the children and families act in 2014 (EHRC, 2017). Even despite this, less children now qualify for SEN or EHCP statements, suggesting that the new framework is inadequate in providing support at lower levels of need and those who do have statements are still found to have significantly lower rates of A*-C GCSE grades when leaving the secondary school stage (EHRC, 2017). Furthermore, the percentage of disabled school leavers age 16-18 who do not go onto further education or training is higher than amongst non-disabled school leavers (EHRC, 2017) demonstrating a lack of adequate support surrounding further education, training and employability for disabled young people.
Overall the accumulation of evidence in this report certainly suggests that social and economic disadvantages go hand in hand in the process of precarisation of disabled people. Not only has austerity led to poverty and lack of resources, but also social exclusion has implicated any means of working or training in order to get out of poverty as well as its further implications on mental well-being due to isolation. It appears that cuts to spending have become a greater priority over the years than the welfare of disabled people. Despite legislative advances towards equality, policy initiatives are still ignorant to the negative attitudes ingrained within societal attitudes and politics. If the relationship between poverty and social isolation amongst disabled people remains strong, then disabled people will remain a precarious group, more so as poverty is a key contributor to precarious living and employment, education, benefits all have key parts to play in keeping disabled people living on the breadline. Therefore, we must act. Precarity amongst disabled people continues to thrive, and other groups with protected characteristics are also affected by the intersections amongst disabled people living precariously such as class division, race, gender and age. The most important thing considered in this report is how attitudes feed politics and vice versa, therefore, big changes must be made in both areas to adequately reflect the agenda- which should be to eradicate inequalities and stop the precarisation process upon disabled people in its tracks. The quality of financial support, education, employment and work, and societal and political involvement must be improved to stand disabled people in good stead to thrive equally in a turbulent economic state that even non-disabled people who do not face the same obstacles find challenging.
As this report has clearly demonstrated links between precarity and disability, we have identified several policy allowing us to make to following recommendations for policy initiatives, legislations and social improvement programmes:
- Make better provisions for LA services which involve disabled people in their community to reduce feelings of isolation.
- Continue and improve support of the voluntary sector so that those capable can live more independently, and those with more complex needs can receive additional support so not to be as affected by our austere past.
- Better categorise disability benefits and make assessments more personalised towards individual cases, particularly where specialist care or equipment is needed and therefore extra costs are incurred.
- Increase public awareness of the way that the benefit system works and have the government take more responsibility in ensuring that the right facts and statistics are made public to avoid false accusations and benefit stigma towards disabled people.
- Use every possible platform to promote equality of disabled people and achieve a better understanding of disabled people. Run programmes and initiatives across schools, colleges and workplaces which make evident that whilst disabled people may face different obstacles than non-disabled people, they are a part of society.
- Similarly, ensure that equality practice within education and employment is properly utilized and that extra support is granted to SEND children and disabled employees at all levels.
A greater awareness of what makes people living with a disability a precarious group is important for change. Both social and political influence must be considered simultaneously in order to reduce precarity amongst disabled people, but it is the above small changes that could pave the way for a bigger, better, brighter and more certain future for disabled people, and consequently, for everybody.
- Banks, J., Blundell, R. and Emmerson, C. (2015). Disability Benefit Receipt and Reform: Reconciling Trends in the United Kingdom. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(2), pp.173-190.
- Barnes, C. (1997). A legacy of Oppression: A history of disability studies in Western Culture. In: L. Barton and M. Oliver, ed., Disability Studies: Past, Present and Future.. Leeds: The Disability Press.
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- The Equality Act.
- Turn 2 Us (2012). Benefits stigma in Britain. [online] Available at: https://wwwturn2us-2938.cdn.hybridcloudspan.com/T2UWebsite/media/Documents/Benefits-Stigma-in-Britain.pdf [Accessed 7 Jan. 2019].
- UN (2016). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland carried out by the Committee under article 6 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention.