When UN observers issued a report in 2017 saying that the UK was “failing to uphold disabled people’s human rights”, people were shocked. There was a ripple of outrage throughout the media and society, before dying down again.
But Frances Ryan wasn’t surprised. As a journalist who had been speaking to people with disabilities in the UK for years, she says that the UN report was a confirmation of what she had witnessed.
“People perhaps don’t see how dramatically policy changes have rolled back the rights that were so hard won in the first place,” she tells Global Citizen.
Ryan, who is disabled herself, has been a prominent voice for people with disabilities in the media. Her new book, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, details the mix of inequality and damaging cultural attitudes still found in Britain today and exposes the hardship people can face as a result of having a long-term physical or mental health condition, or life-long disability.
It’s not just the UN that has called out the UK’s negligence of the rights and welfare of people with disabilities, but others too, including the UK’s Equality and Human Right Commission, which reported in 2018 that disabled people had been “pushed to breaking point”, after being disproportionately affected by cuts to public services.
Author and activist Frances Ryan
The Treasury at the time issued a statement countering this view, saying that the government spends "over £50 billion every year to support people with disabilities and health conditions. This is an increase of £10 billion compared to 2010."
But Ryan is adamant that the multi-faceted nature of the cuts to public spending needs to be considered.
“I started working in journalism in 2012 which was an optimistic time for disabled people in the UK because of the success of the 2012 Paralympics," she says. "But what followed was six or seven years of cuts to public spending… And there was a real blindness about the impact on people with a disability when each one came through.”
For her book Ryan speaks, for example, to a woman called Susan, 58, who needs a wheelchair due to a severe spinal condition and also has a bowel condition and multiple sclerosis. Susan has a spare bedroom in her council flat where she keeps oxygen cylinders and a bed for when a carer stays overnight.
But Susan lost £12 a week from her housing benefit for having a spare room after 2013 because of a policy known colloquially as the “bedroom tax”, which was supposed to encourage people in social housing to down-size if they had extra space.
She also has to pay an additional £12 a week in council tax that she was previously exempt from, plus her care bill (£57 per week) previously covered by the council, and other costs related to her condition now have to be paid for by her. All adding up to a big hit on Susan's low income.
Ryan visited Susan in 2017 and found that she was living off boxes of cereal, meaning she had lost 4 kgs in weight. Susan is also experiencing fuel poverty, like many people Ryan interviewed for the book, and so stays wrapped up in duvets with hot water bottles all day to stay warm and doesn’t venture out.
“Disabled people by definition are likely to rely on several strands of state support,” says Ryan. “When things come at once: when social care is cut, when the NHS is cut, when local authorities are cut, and education is cut, then if you’re relying on all those things to have a decent life because you’re disabled, it can have a really devastating effect.”
Ryan explains that this unwillingness or inability to see how people with disabilities are affected is partly the result of damaging attitudes stretching back decades.
“Like many countries, Britain has struggled, even in the 21st century, with cultural prejudices towards disabled people and around disability,” she says.
“That’s anything from the idea that disabled people are child-like and need to be cared for paternalistically, to viewing us as people who don’t have the same interests or life goals as other people," she adds. "We’re seen as people who don’t have sex, don’t have jobs, don’t want to go to the pub, and so on.”
That means that it’s easier for people with disabilities to be shut out, she says.
“If you don’t understand disabled people and don’t see them as equal people to begin with, then isolation, hardship, and lack of opportunity isn’t a diversion, it’s the status quo,” says Ryan.
Another part of Ryan’s research explores how many children with disabilities are facing inequality in education. She met a 9-year-old boy with autism and sensory sensitivity who had been out of school for an entire year and only provided with English and maths work at home.
His parents have found it difficult for him to get a suitable school placement as schools are struggling to fund the extra staff and adjustments needed to help him learn.
“He told his mum he wants to be a doctor and loves science, but he’s not receiving science lessons,” says Ryan.
“Again that goes back to our expectations about what disabled people can achieve," she continues. "If you have low expectations about what disabled kids can do, then it’s easier to put them on the dumping ground.”
Now her book is out, Ryan hopes it will be “a bit of a rallying cry” as well a record of what is happening.
“I’m really hoping that the book does some justice to people who have told me what is happening to them, the people in the book, and the hundreds of people who write to me online about it because they aren’t listened to," she says.
As for policy change, Ryan says the government has to acknowledge what has been going on as first step.
“We get nowhere by trying to spin it and save face, we must admit that hardship has been caused," she says. "I think that’s what most people are waiting for. That acknowledgement.”