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Written by Liz Crow
Journal of Visual Culture, 22 Mar 2013
Through the summer of 2012, two opposing sets of images, bound for collision, dominated the British press. Welfare benefits reform met the Paralympic Games, each with consequences for the public’s perception of disability and the lives of disabled people. This article explores their influence, their real-world impact, and the deeper values that underpin them.
Contrasting sets of images
The two image sets could scarcely contrast more. Widespread images of disabled people as welfare benefits claimants, reveal two interwoven themes: the fraudster, claiming benefits for non-existent impairment, and the “workshy” scrounger, “languishing” in preference to work. Against a context of comprehensive benefits reform and a massive 30% cut from the national disability benefits budget (Edwards, 2012), they drive a hardening of public attitudes towards claimants.
The second set, in the run up to the Paralympic Games, is a torrent of images portraying disabled athletes as superhuman, celebrating their endurance and athleticism. Paralympics reporting is the light to the dark of benefits. The Games closing ceremony, trumpets that they have ‘lifted the cloud of limitation’ (Coe, 2012 in Collins, 2012: para 1), the press pondering how extraordinary it is what, with determination, disabled people can do (Phillips, 2012).
Pictures in the Mind
The two image sets – heroic Paralympian and immoral claimant – could hardly be more different, yet have much in common. Replicating ancient binaries of disability: overcoming and inspiring versus flawed, burdensome and tragic, their coexistence takes them to new levels of influence.
Despite their polarisation, both sets remove disabled people from their social context: whether Paralympian or claimant, the individual soars or plummets solely through intrinsic will, with discrimination and poverty to elite training and sustained investment made invisible.
In its absence, the images provide each other’s context, the claimants’ reflected shame raising the athletes’ pedestal still higher. Against pervasive tensions of austerity, the scrounger rhetoric meets approval from a population that fears benefits fraud as a danger to national interests but for those at risk of false accusation it presents a threat. For many, the Paralympics is a positive new viewing of disability, yet it undermines disabled people who cannot fulfil its exacting standards.
The images do not merely reflect the world, but shape the ways in which we see and understand it (McQuire, 1998). Unambiguity and over-simplification convert readily to a symbolic shorthand of what it is to be disabled (Ross, 2003), entering the public imagination as a collective “picture in the mind” of what a disabled person might be (Mitchell, 2005), and against which flesh-and-blood disabled people are measured.
Real-life Impact: a system flawed
As welfare reform pushes forward, this collective picture, with its most serious flaws, is incorporated into the new system of benefits, impacting in the most literal terms on how disabled people are perceived and measured.
The benefits classification system that assesses entitlement to assistance regards disabled people apart from their social context. Employability is judged on the basis of impairment, without reference to discrimination, support or job availability. Whereas classification has always been integral to the welfare state, this new shift isolates claimants fully from their social context.
Paralympics classification, whilst administratively separate, overlaps in philosophy. Both systems are built upon an image that accords with Paralympic representation. Quantifiable biomechanical descriptors, such as strength, flexibility and balance, are measured to allocate athletes fairly to competition, and to determine claimants’ eligibility for financial assistance (Tweedy & Burke, 2009; Department for Work and Pensions, 2012b).
For Paralympians, these measures broadly fit, with their impairments (amputations, visual impairment, restricted growth, etc) and athletic activity (power, endurance, etc) both quantifiable. Claimants, with typically more complex, hard-to-quantify impairments (chronic, fluctuating and life-limiting conditions) (Department for Work and Pensions, 2012a), struggle to fit these mechanistic criteria, which also fail to accommodate the broad range of employment activity. Built upon an erroneous image of disability, benefits classification is made unfit for purpose.
If those who are assessed fail to match the auditor’s “picture in the mind” of what it is to be disabled, then they fall through the net. Classification influences athletes’ medal chances; for the claimant, it determines their chances in life. Not only do they risk being found inappropriately “fit for work”, as is happening in large numbers, but in turn become subjected to the press charge of scrounger.
It is a cruel conundrum that in misrepresenting ordinary disability benefits claimants as scroungers, the same images also very often render them ineligible for the benefits that they are entitled to claim. The narrative of fraudster/scrounger, through representation and real-world application, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The deeper values that underpin
The fraudster/scrounger imagery has been nourished and reinforced by a ‘long campaign of misinformation’, uncorrected and indeed, fed, by government briefings (Quarmby, 2012: para 7). In playing upon widespread public fears in a time of austerity (Chong & Druckman, 2007), these briefings and their consequent images have fuelled a rise in hostility towards disabled people, with figures for hate crime against disabled people soaring over four years of financial crisis (Riley-Smith, 2012). The fraudster/scrounger rhetoric is a key player (Briant et al, 2011).
Hate crime researcher, Katharine Quarmby, writes: ‘If you have a group that is blamed for economic downturn, terrible things can happen to them’ (2012, in Riley-Smith, 2012: para 5). For immersed within the name-calling of superhuman/fraudster/scrounger/ victim, lies an unease of greater magnitude, a deeper message of the social value placed upon disabled people and the function that disability can serve within a society. The images are symbols not only of mythic disability but of what we as a society value and abhor. Against a backdrop of austerity, they combine in a metaphor for hope and warning: the Paralympian’s “triumph of the will” over harsh times, the claimant as scapegoat and a rung on the ladder lower yet than our own. The converse of the Paralympic superhuman is the disabled person as subhuman.
In a new benefits system that has been charged with contributing to the deaths of 32 people each week (Sommerlad, 2012), these values underpin public support for reform. They are the same values that underpin the rise in hate crime, and lie behind a raft of other justifications: segregated education and threats to independent living, selective foetal screening for impairment and the rush to legal rights for assisted suicide. They are values rooted in history, yet experienced by contemporary disabled people as a daily threat.
The summer of 2012 provided a collision of images. A small glimmer for those who can match the abiding images of the Games, they carry a heavy backlash for the majority of disabled people who cannot comply.
A more sustained engagement with this material will be appearing in the August 2014 issue of Journal of Visual Culture.
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Collins N (2012) Made in Britain – stamped with pride on 2012. The Telegraph, 9 September,12.
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Edwards C (2012) The austerity war and the impoverishment of disabled people. Norwich: University of East Anglia/Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People
Mitchell WJT (2005) What Do Pictures Want? The lives and loves of images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Phillips, M (2012) Incredible Ellie and a triumph over the culture of victimhood. Mail Online, 2 September, 12.
Quarmby K (2012) Leveson is showing wilful blindness towards disabled people. The Guardian, 8 May,12.
Riley-Smith, B (2012) Hate crimes against disabled people soar to a record level. The Guardian, 19 June, 12.
Ross SD (2003) Unconscious, Ubiquitous Frames. In: Lester PM & Ross SD (eds) Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. (2nd ed.) Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, pp. 29-34.
Sommerlad N (2012) 32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit. In: Penman and Sommerlad Investigate (blog). (accessed 18th November 2012).
Tweedy SM & Bourke J (2009) IPC Athletics Classification Project for Physical Impairments: Final Report – Stage 1. Bonn, Germany: IPC Athletics.
To cite this page: Crow, Liz (2013) Austerity Bites: Disability and the Summer of 2012, Roaring Girl Productions [online] [Available at: http://www.roaring-girl.com/work/austerity-bites/] [Accessed 17/06/2019]