Disabled activists have spoken of their anger and distress after the BBC broadcast a drama – starring one of the country’s best-known disabled actors – that they say mirrors years of deeply damaging government rhetoric about benefit cheats.
The BBC Four drama, starring disabled actor and campaigner Liz Carr, is part of a month-long season of BBC programmes marking the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.
Her monologue – one of the six-part CripTales series – was written by a disabled playwright, Tom Wentworth, and had a disabled director, Ewan Marshall.
Another leading disabled actor, Mat Fraser, was “curator” of the CripTales series.
Both Carr and Fraser have previously spoken publicly about the government’s welfare reforms and its treatment of disabled benefit claimants.
Carr’s monologue, The Real Deal (pictured), was the second episode in the CripTales series.
It features her character spying on a disabled neighbour who she believes is committing personal independence payment (PIP) fraud, and ends with her informing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Nearly 10 years ago, in February 2011, Carr told fellow activists at a rally that disabled people “are not scroungers or frauds. We are not vulnerable or work shy.
“Our history is littered with disabled people being scapegoated, demonised, discriminated against and oppressed. It is also a history of disabled people fighting back against this.”
But in The Real Deal, Carr’s character is seen spying on her neighbour who she suspects of exaggerating his impairment in order to qualify for PIP, before being persuaded by the neighbour to exaggerate her own impairment for a PIP assessment.
Disabled activists who have spent years highlighting and fighting against the efforts of Tory ministers to paint disabled people as benefit frauds, fakers and scroungers, were horrified by the film.
Their concern and anger contrasted with widespread support and approval for the drama from the disability arts world.
Carr, Fraser and Debbie Christie, executive producer for CripTales, have all defended the episode, although Wentworth had not commented by noon today (Thursday).
They suggested to Disability News Service (DNS) that the episode intended to explore “moral ambiguity”, offers a critique of DWP policy and the “impenetrable” PIP assessment system, and provides a “rare comedic take on the hypocrisy that can be embedded in that PIP interview system”.
But disabled activist and advocate Rick Burgess said it had been “very distressing” to watch the drama.
He said: “As someone who has helped with numerous PIP claims at all stages, Real Deal will not help people and it may harm them.
“Scroungers are not the problem with PIP, they are a government and media created propaganda tool.
“This play appeared to have fallen for that lie.”
Disabled activist Andy Mitchell also said he felt “really uncomfortable” watching the CripTales episode.
He said: “The problem with PIP is PIP, not scroungers. It feeds into Tory ‘genuine disabled’ rhetoric that has caused untold harm for disabled people.
“It was a missed opportunity to tell a really important story that too many people go through on their own.”
Another activist, Paula Peters, said she felt “deeply saddened” and “angry” watching the drama, which she said sent a “very dangerous message”.
She pointed to the “horrendous distress” caused by being wrongly accused of benefit fraud, and she said that disabled people had died because of government “scrounger” rhetoric.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said it had a huge amount of respect for Carr as a politicised disabled person and “as someone who has never lost her commitment to activism wherever stardom has taken her”.
A DPAC spokesperson also said the drama had highlighted key problems with the assessment system, including “how the whole process forces us to reduce ourselves down to the most difficult parts of our lives while dismissing our strengths”.
But she said that Carr’s monologue “not only replicated government rhetoric on scroungers, it reinforced the idea of the deserving (‘real deal’) and undeserving poor and also fed into the demonisation of the white working class with a two dimensional portrayal that Channel Five would have been proud of”.
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Disability Labour, said the drama was “incredibly disturbing”.
She said: “I really can’t work out what they were trying to convey, but whatever it was it sent a very dangerous message.
“This was very disturbing to watch. Not only did it buy into the false government rhetoric of fraudsters, but it missed an opportunity to show the real impact of PIP and the tragedies the DWP and the government constantly seek to diminish.”
Fraser told DNS that those who criticised the film had “somewhat missed the point” and that The Real Deal was “a satire exposing the not fit for purpose benefit and assessment system”.
He said: “An able bodied fraudster can scam the system easily, but a woman with genuine impairments is only able to get the support she needs, by being forced to play up to an ignorant and clumsy view of what a disabled person should be.
“Rather than playing like a recruitment [tool] for the DWP… to me it’s a savage indictment of them.”
But many other disabled people yesterday added their voices to the criticism.
One disabled activist, Mary*, told DNS that she felt “physically sick watching Liz Carr act out every single Tory scrounger rhetoric in the book”, and that the play was an “open invitation to make fraud reports”.
She added: “Its damaging, irresponsible and offensive. It’s not ‘dark’, funny or informative. Daily Mail readers will love it.”
She said the film was “an absolute gift to DWP”, and she added: “It hurts so much more when it’s one of our own who should know better. It’s such a betrayal.”
She added: “What upset me the most was a very dear friend in all honesty asking me, ‘Oh god, am I a fraud?’
“I had to reassure her that no, she is not. That broke my heart.”
Mary also passed on to DNS comments from a string of other disabled people, many of them with invisible impairments, in response to the drama.
One, a mental health activist and service-user, said it was “a real betrayal of all of us” and that those involved should be “ashamed”.
They added: “Assume all the people involved think they’ll never find themselves in a situation where they’ll be reported like this, otherwise why demonstrate how to report people and give the impression everyone on PIP is somehow not genuine because the DWP force people to humiliate themselves.”
Another, an electric wheelchair-user, was another to say that the film made them “feel physically sick”.
A long-term mental health service-user, activist and former chief executive of a charity, said the film was “undoing years and years of work by disability campaigners and activists to fight against the stereotypes of fakers in the Daily Mail and right wing press”, and described it as “grim grim grim”.
Another long-term mental health service-user said the film made them feel like they should take their own life, “like I wasn’t worthy of receiving PIP and a fraud.
“I felt really uncomfortable and freaked out about it. I know that I have some members of my own family and friends, that judge me for claiming benefits.
“I just wish I was invisible right now.”
A former mental health service-user said: “It uses this visibly disabled actor as a model for [a] deserving claimant.
“The fact this is produced by disabled people makes it worse. It shows the system means you have to act a certain way but then shows everyone is either playing to that or fraudulently acting that part.”
Another former mental health service-user said: “My concern is about the snitching on your neighbour angle which may be more socially acceptable in the time of coronavirus social compliance.”
And a former service-user said that promoting anonymous reporting of strangers and neighbours for “fraud” could impact people with invisible impairments.
They said: “We are living through terrible times with COVID-19 and are directed to report to the police those who are breaking the rules.
“Disabled people may also be vulnerable to the virus and the isolation of the restrictions.
“I can see how social compliance may extend to more benefits related reporting of people who may not appear physically disabled but suffer serious mental distress or hidden disabilities. The last thing we need right now is more division and persecution.”
Christie said the CripTales writers had been given a “totally open brief to write what they wished” about “issues that engaged them” and that the intention of The Real Deal was to “explore moral ambiguity”.
Fraser said the drama was about a “genuine claimant” who was unable to “get through the questioning hoops that a PIP assessment can bring, with all the stress, self doubt and shame, that can be involved in such an unfair setting”.
He said it showed how the actions of Carr’s character, who herself “agrees to act more disabled” than she is, further highlight the systemic flaws.
He said: “Rather than an advert for the DWP, it offers a criticism of it, and rather than play into the very worst of the scrounger rhetoric, it was a rare comedic take on the hypocrisy that can be embedded in that PIP interview system, with a serious twist at the end.”
Carr said the piece had intended to highlight the flaws in the system “dramatically and playfully – showing how impenetrable the benefit system is and the reality of how we have to perform and jump through hoops to gain our rightful entitlements”.
She said: “I knew the piece was controversial in having a disabled person report another disabled person – rather than suggest this as acceptable, my hope was that this would illustrate how deeply entrenched the ideology of individualism and competition are in all of us – even disabled people.
“It was of course not my intention to cause harm or hurt – I consider the roles I accept very carefully and thoughtfully and feel those of us with a profile have a responsibility to challenge.”
*Not her real name
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…