Whether it’s in, out, leave or remain, Ruth Patrick says that disabled people’s voices and our issues have been largely missing from the arguments either way.
Nestled between a pile of takeaway menus and a reminder about an overdue library book, today’s postal offerings included a missive from Jeremy Corbyn asking me to vote remain in this month’s EU referendum. Corbyn’s message to the voters declares “I believe a vote to remain is in our best interest.”
Throughout the seemingly endless referendum campaign, politicians have angrily and heatedly disagreed about whether a vote to leave or remain is in individual citizen’s best interests. Various figures, estimates and predictions have been thrown about: from the amount we could save if we were to leave the EU, to the decline in house prices which this might cause, and the scale of a recession that some say would be the inevitable consequence of our leaving.
There is something more than a little dissatisfying about a campaign that is so dominated by efforts from both camps to persuade voters to take their side simply because it will be in their own self-interest. Such arguments seem to assume a selfish, self-interested, even asocial voter who is only motivated by securing their own future and bettering their own financial position, with little thought or concern for questions of what is in the wider interests of society and their fellow citizen both within and beyond their own national borders.
What has also been dissatisfying about the campaign is the ways in which it has assumed a homogeneous voting population, with messages targeted (yet again) at the hard working family, with almost no coverage of how particular groups, notably disabled people, might be affected whichever way the vote goes. Further, the debates surrounding the campaign have been dominated by white, male, able-bodied voices, failing, once again, to reflect the diversity of our electorate. Trying to get people to send off their postal vote before they head off to Glastonbury is all very well, but it feels a bit tokenistic when our television screens and radio waves are so dominated by a few, solitary, white male voices debating the same issues on repeat but with escalating displays of animosity and frustrated testosterone.
Although it has not received much media or political attention, the question of how disability issues and disabled people might fare whatever the outcome is an important one, especially given the ways in which successive waves of disability rights and accessibility legislation have so often originated and been driven at the EU level. The EU was a key force behind the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and it remains the only UN human rights treaty which the EU has actually ratified. In a must-read summary of the history of the EU and disabled people’s rights and legislation, a report by the Papworth Trust notes that 300 pieces of legislation aimed at improving the lives of disabled people exist at the EU level. What, it asks, might happen to such laws if the UK were to leave the EU? On the other hand, says the report, many see the UK as one of the most advanced of the 28 member states in its approach and treatment of disabled people. So, perhaps, being a member of the EU is simply holding the UK back from being more progressive and egalitarian?
Perhaps there are no easy answers here, and views among disabled people themselves are inevitably divided. Jane Young, a disability adviser, told Disability Now, why she will be voting in:
“Britain’s membership of the EU is very important for disabled people, especially when our Government’s policies are characterised by a toxic mix of the punitive and the incompetent. Without supranational bodies, notably the EU and the United Nations, leading the way, we would not enjoy many of the rights and protections that are vital if we’re to lead full and independent lives.”
It seems that a key part of the question concerns whether one is more inclined to place one’s trust in supranational bodies or the Westminster Government in delivering improved rights for disabled people. For Phil Doneghan, a disabled man in the support group of ESA, the arguments to remain are weakened by the fact that he simply doesn’t trust the campaign’s leading spokesmen – George Osborne and David Cameron. He explains:
“I want to leave the EU because I cannot believe a word that David Cameron and George Osborne say, given their track record on honesty. They lied their way into office with false promises on tax credits and disability benefits, and so why should I believe their arguments about why we should stay in the EU?”
Whatever the nation decides on 23 June, it is bound to have significant and serious ramifications for disabled people. It’s just a shame these ramifications are not being more discussed in the political and media debates. For me, at least, the words of Nigel Farage about what a post-leave UK might look like on disability issues suggest a fairly compelling case to vote in, especially given the current leaders of our UK government:
“It’ll be up to us to discuss disability legislation and workers’ rights in a civilised manner in a British General Election. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?”