Gregor Wolbring’s latest article presents a new perspective on the concept of ableism, identifying how “ability expectations” shape social hierarchies. He argues that preferences for certain abilities enable discriminatory behaviour towards societal groups who are perceived to be “ability deficient”. Powerful groups construct ability norms to portray others as physically, cognitively, or morally inferior. We see such discrimination at work in the framing of women as irrational, people of colour as less cognitively able, and disabled people as unable (for whatever reason) to participate in non-disabled society. These negative stereotypes provide justification for exclusion and violence, on both an individual and collective level.
Wolbring’s article brings to mind the rationalisation of welfare cuts over the past decade. Following the 2008 crash, the major parties in the UK agreed on the need to reduce public sector spending. This was informed by economic orthodoxy, as well as a long-term ideological goal, present across all parties, to reduce the state’s welfare commitment. The public presentation of this policy, however, took on a different face. Cuts to disability benefits were warranted because “frauds” and “scroungers”, who were able to work but chose not to, were undermining the system. This was an illusion. In 2012, fraud accounted for 0.7% of total welfare expenditure. This starkly contrasted with stigmatisation of recipients of disability benefit by government ministers and the tabloid press. Their campaign was highly effective. Respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey in 2012 estimated 34% of those receiving disability benefit were claiming fraudulently.
A decade on, welfare expenditure has shrunk by nearly a quarter. There has been a 10% cut to disability benefits, including personal independence payments (PIP). The criteria for receiving disability benefit have also toughened. Many with long-term health problems have been declared “fit to work” and cut off from support. Generally speaking, these former claimants have not entered employment. In fact, people with mental health problems are more likely to have been “shifted” from disability benefits to unemployment as a result of work capability assessments. Here we see ability expectations placing disability claimants in a double bind. After being declared “fit to work”, they enter a job market where discrimination towards disabled people remains rife, and employment opportunities are scarce (the unemployment rate for disabled people remains nearly double that of non-disabled people). As others have argued, negative perceptions of disabled people in the media, including the “benefit scrounger” narrative, contribute to this situation.
As Wolbring notes, ability expectations sort society into “haves” and “have-nots”. Those who possess desired abilities (whether actual or perceived) enjoy privileges unavailable to those without. More than this, the “haves” disdain the “have-nots”. Lack of conformity to ability norms is coded as social problem, used to justify existing social hierarchies. What is striking is how often these ability expectations are unmoored from reality, and resistant to evidence. We need only look to recent debates around disability and welfare to see how ability myths can be used to enact punitive, discriminatory policies.