It was recently revealed that figures showed that the number of disabled people living in Britain had increased by 1 million to 12.9 million. Peter White considers the implications of playing the numbers game.
There was a time when the number people you could claim as part of your Disability Tribe, was worn as a badge of pride: almost a virility symbol. No charity’s press release was complete without the big figure near the top; in thousands, sometimes millions, showing how many people really suffered from whatever it happened to be: visual impairment, hearing loss, autism, often other unspecified psychiatric disorders.
The figures were thought to serve various purposes. First of all, it showed what a big organisation you were, and how many people you spoke for. How could central and local government dare to ignore you, when you represented so many people? Secondly it was intended to shock the public out of its woeful ignorance of how many people were suffering, while they continued to discriminate, patronise, ignore, insult them.
And then there were the more subtle approaches. It was that brief moment in history when promoting disability rights had become fashionable. Commercial companies were routinely mocked for passing up putting the Disabled Pound through its cash registers, by making their products and services inaccessible; government departments and local authorities lambasted for failing to provide services or benefits for this substantial section of their community.
But times have been changing for some time now, although not everyone seems to have noticed. The big numbers still crop up on the press releases, but the reaction to them is becoming very different. So how are we to react and what will be the implications of the latest set of figures which claim that there are somewhere around a million more disabled people in the UK than we had thought? Perhaps we’d better take a look at what’s actually changed, and why people are reacting so differently. Like most things, it all comes back to money.
Perhaps surprisingly, the eighties and nineties (especially the nineties) saw the introduction of Disability Living Allowance, and a large rise in the numbers claiming what was then known as Invalidity Benefit. And we heard the first murmurings of what’s become an increasingly stentorian cry coming especially from politicians of all parties: where have all these disabled people come from? Tony Blair asked exactly that question in the Commons as he sought to bring down his rocketing benefits bill, and he wasn’t alone. His complaint that he didn’t see all these disabled people around of course fell in the well-known trap of equating disability with visual manifestations, such as wheelchairs and waving white canes.
Disability does indeed take many forms, but there were many genuine factors increasing the numbers. Demographics is only the most obvious: more people living long enough to acquire impairments almost certainly the biggest, but there are others. More medical knowledge and better diagnosis. Isn’t it also possible that less stigma is another? Surely it’s not so fanciful to say that as more people are told they have a right to benefits, they are likely to claim them.
And then there’s that very topical factor: the Paralympics. Back in 2012 it suddenly became cool to be disabled. The fact that only a very tiny proportion of disabled people could hurtle down a track on blades, or propel a wheelchair at high speed in pursuit of a basketball made no difference: as usual, image was all.
The problem is that simultaneously, many other things have changed: most notably the economy. The argument that surely the fourth largest economy in the world ought to be able to offer a reasonable standard of living to disabled people is suddenly (well, not so suddenly, actually) not cutting much ice any more, and the disappearance from the stage of Messrs. Osborne and Cameron is not likely to change that.
So what should we do? Have we, for instance, widened the definition of disability too far? Will some people argue that having gone as far as we have, we might as well include all the other elements that have a costly effect on daily living: not being able to handle money very well; being bad at relationships; being unable to carry out the simplest DIY tasks: et cetera, et cetera. You get my drift.
This may be reducing the argument to absurdity, but it seems to me it cannot be long before we have to have a major rethink about the way we measure disability, if we are going to continue to compensate people adequately for its costs.