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Book review: Rob Hoch reviews Second Class Citizens

This is a guest post by Robert Hoch (Yidokodiltona), who wrote a review of my book, Second Class Citizens: The Treatment of Disabled People in Austerity Britain, and gave me permission to re-post it here.

 

I had the pleasure of hearing Stef Benstead, author of Second Class Citizens: The Treatment of Disabled People in Austerity Britain, in Lancaster during a meeting of the North Western Synod of the United Reformed Church. She spoke on themes of agency, power, and dignity in the context of poverty in the UK. Her calm, measured analysis of how society (and the church) often treats people who live with poverty was impressive for its clarity and incisiveness. When I thanked her for speaking, I asked if she would sign my copy of her book, adding that more people should buy it. "I hope so," she said. "I want to stop being poor." There was a plaintiveness in her voice, as a person that society has "made" poor through its adoption of unfair policies to the disabled — and it also revealed an inescapable humanness in her dedication to exposing what has happened to disabled peoples' lives since the election of 2010 cemented the government's commitment to austerity and reducing the role of the government in public life (11). Part unmasking and part visioning, Second Class Citizens makes a case to change our conception of the human community so that people who live with disabilities are not arbitrarily and inhumanely impoverished, shamed, and marginalised by an ableist construction of society.

 

Benstead begins her work with the UN's indictment of austerity Britain: "In 2016 the United Nations made an extraordinary announcement: that the United Kingdom, a rich and developed country, was violating basic human rights" (9) —specifically that austerity measures aimed at people living with disabilities were "retrogressive", rolling back meaningful progress in welfare provision for disabled people and producing the very poverty it would, on its face, oppose. Predictably, the UK government "strongly disagreed" with the findings of the UN and other watchdog groups. Benstead calls the UK's assessment of its policies "exceptional" in comparison to that of other bodies, including the reports of user-led disabled people's organisations, charities, and monitoring groups, among others (11).

 

She cites Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as foundational to the legal obligation of government to provide for the social welfare of its citizens: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services" (12). "Generally speaking," she writes, "people achieve much of their economic, social and cultural rights through their right to decent work with just and favourable pay" — but that alone cannot be taken as foundational for basic human rights, as stated in Article 25: "[Everyone has . . .] the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control" (12) These statements supply the legal and moral framework for her work — and she expertly marshals the evidence to show that austerity is at best unfair and at worst a violation of basic human rights.

 

Chapter titles often tell the story of a book better than overarching arguments. Here are a few from this book: "Who are the disabled? (Chapter Two); "Disabled people in history" (Chapter Three); "The dawn of welfare" (Chapter 4); "The austerity programme" (Chapter 8), "Disability and Access" (Chapter 14). While some parts of Benstead's work make for difficult 9 reading (she is granular in her analysis of different welfare programs, the way they have been reshaped, misrepresented as growing, or just plain gutted), she never loses sight of the people who are at the heart of her work.

 

In this spirit, Benstead introduces her readers to Gemma, who is deaf, and Fiona, who is blind, representing two of the 774,000 people who live with a widely recognised form of disability (26-7). Later, in Chapter Five, "The campaign for inclusion" we meet Gemma and Fiona again. According to Benstead, in the prevailing medical model of disability, Gemma and Fiona are the problems to be "solved" — but in the social model of disability, the problem is with society: "It is because society tries to sell substandard goods alongside high quality ones that Fiona is unable to make an informed choice. It is because society doesn't provide braille writing on accurately stocked supermarket shelves that Fiona can't identify which box has the cereal she wants. It is because society doesn't teach British Sign Language as part of the curriculum that Gemma can't easily communicate with hearing people, and it is because society failed to give her a good education that she is having to catch up now, as an adult" (61).

 

Others are not traditionally recognised as disabled but are nevertheless part of the 12 million people who are legally defined as such in the UK. In this group, we meet Colin, formerly a nurse. He and his wife, a GP, had two children. Colin served on the Parish Church Council. Together they looked like Exhibit A of the "hard-working family" — that is, until Colin became ill. We learn that Colin was initially assessed under Incapacity Benefit and received benefits for six years. Then, in 2008 under Labour, a new sickness benefit was created that was "tougher" to access. In 2010, under austerity government, the Incapacity Benefit was transferred to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) — along with a heavy dose of shaming by the political and bureaucratic culture of disability benefits: "Scared of being labelled a fraud, Colin felt unable to give an accurate account of his illness and its impact on him. Even so, he had been ill and unable to work for six years. Colin's ESA assessor decided that he would experience a recovery that would see him able to return to work in three months' time. Some six years later, Colin has still not recovered" (124).

 

As Benstead brings her work to a close, she sets before her readers two scenarios: "One [scenario] is to continue as we are, as a country that values private profit over individual need. In this scenario, the welfare state continues to be grossly underfunded. People who are too sick to work are forced to try to work because the alternative is starvation. The support that disabled people need to access decent, sustainable work isn't there. The effort required to work takes everything else away from them. They won't be able to sustain a relationship, bring up children, care for elderly parents, attend religious observances, or take part in community activity because they will have put everything they have into paid work. . . . They won't have energy to greet their partner with a smile and a kiss; to hug the child who has failed her exam; to be there for the friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. . . . They won't be able to take pride in plaiting their daughter's hair each morning or in repairing her football kit" (283-4).

 

The other scenario envisions a society that values all people and their contributions, even outside of work. "In the other scenario, the state commits to giving sick and disabled people their right to a decent life. . . [As a result] they can love their partners and bring up their children without the arguments and stress caused by not having enough" (284-5).

 

Two scenarios. Two ways. Which will we choose? Second Class Citizens gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a will to act.

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