Colin reports on 'Bad News for Disabled People' research, which reveals the extent of misrepresentation of disabled people in the media / 6 December 2011
At last Saturday's MeCCSa Disability Studies Network event titled 'The Representation of Disabled People in an Age of Austerity', Nick Watson from Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research at Glasgow University , presented findings from research into a shift in the way that the media is reporting on disability.
The Centre analysed 2,276 print articles, focusing on the Express, Mail, Sun and Mirror plus the Guardian newspaper as a counterpoint. They chose to look at all articles published between October 2004 and January 2005, [when Blair was making significant changes to DLA], comparing them with articles published between October 2010 and January 2011.
Talking about why Inclusion London had commissioned the research, Nick Watson said that there was a general consensus that attitudes in reporting had changed, but no firm evidence outside an anecdotal awareness of continual assaults on disabled people in the media. The research set out to develop an overview of how the change was impacting on public attitudes and how disabled people feel about the change. To this end the research instituted two focus groups of non-disabled people and six with disabled people.
The Centre found a significant increase in the number of articles published, which referenced disability, accompanied by a shift in the content of the reports. Typically state benefits are a major theme in the tabloids. During the 04/05 period, headlines like "Labour's failure to tackle the spiralling sicknote culture" [Daily Mail December 2004] typified attacks on the government in the handing of disability benefits. Although a portion of these articles claimed that a large percentage of disabled people on benefits could work if they wanted to, many couched these accusations in terms of ‘the benefit trap’.
This compares significantly with the 2010-11 period in which the tabloid articles’ repeated arguments defending government policies in relation to disability. There was a huge increase in stories presenting the incapacity benefit claimant as 'undeserving' and using far more pejorative language. The use of the words ‘workshy’, ‘scroungers’ or ‘cheats’ or talking about ‘handouts’ and the ‘sicknote culture’ doubled in this period. Interestingly, the word ‘cripple’ has disappeared completely. This supports the implication from the findings that it is not so much ‘disabled people’ who are being attacked, as the idea that claimants are ‘non-disabled’ people who are pretending to be disabled.
Some articles even claimed that incapacity benefits were not only a drain on the economy, but were actually to blame for the current financial crisis [taking the onus away from the bankers]. At the same time the stories that imply disabled claimants are deserving of support, has greatly reduced. Nick Watson went on to say that although the disability studies movement has been very critical of ‘sympathetic biographies, the question we have to ask ourselves is ‘what are they replacing that representation of us with?’
A high proportion of impairment-focused stories or those that gave sympathetic accounts, introduced the reader to particular conditions, even if those accounts were often written in terms of triumph over tragedy. Many will welcome this drop in triumph stories - but as benefit and service cuts bite deeper, so the attitudes which could have served as a counterpoint, are disappearing.
What we are seeing now is a backlash to the Thatcher era when the numbers of claimants for incapacity benefit grew massively so the government could hide the disastrous unemployment figures of the time. And with that is an implication that the state is once again rewriting who is and who isn't disabled. Nearly 50 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants are registered for claims under mental health grounds. Mental health is attacked persistently and is rarely mentioned in articles as a ‘deserving’ impairment issue.
There has also been a rise in the number of invisible impairments that have been recognised by health services in the last ten years or so. With many of these impairments there is a fluctuation in the individuals’ capacity to function, which the tabloids do not acknowledge.
The tabloids never talk about the realities of benefit fraud. The headlines simply repeat that as much as 75 per cent of incapacity benefit claims are bogus, despite the fact that the DWP estimate for total overpayment is put at 2.5 per cent and actual DLA fraud at 0.5 per cent.
Worryingly, the focus groups of non-disabled people engaged in the research regurgitated what they had read in the tabloids, putting fraud at between 40 - 70 per cent of claims. Nick Watson said he was shocked at the level of belief that came across. Although all of those who took part talked about friends who've been denied benefit who are ‘deserving’; they continued to repeat the idea that it is the ‘undeserving’ who actually get benefits.
On the positive side of things no one from the focus groups questioned the idea that disability is an equality issue. Many people talked about access as an essential consideration. No one believes it to be a product of political correctness when Cameron talks about the importance of disabled people having ‘equal rights’. It is just that no-one challenges how what the government are doing is undermining those rights.
Overall the research gives some hard evidence for a marked shift in the way that disability is being reported. Discrimination as an equality issue is barely being mentioned, even in the Guardian.
So what can we do? There is more of a need than ever, to write to the newspapers and the press complaints commission to challenge the attacks being made on disabled people.