Disabled people should resist the idea that life should return to “normal” once the pandemic crisis is over, and instead push to “radically overhaul” the way society is organised, according to a leading disabled activist and academic.
Dr Miro Griffiths (pictured) said the UK government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic – through its guidance and policies – had been to reinforce ideas of individualism and personal responsibility.
He said this had led to a “really worrying” relaxation and “easement” of central and local government duties to support disabled people, for example through measures introduced in the spring under the Coronavirus Act.
And he said he feared that this approach – removing duties and mandatory obligations – would prove to be the future of health and social care policy under the “neoconservative” agenda of the current and future Tory governments.
Griffiths, a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, a former government adviser and now a member of the equality watchdog’s disability advisory committee, was speaking during an online presentation on COVID-19 and disability hosted by the university.
He pointed out the “clear undertone of eugenicist ideals” underlying some of the state’s actions during the pandemic, including the misuse of “do not attempt resuscitation” forms that were placed on disabled people’s records without their consent.
He said: “On the one hand disabled people have been told, ‘do things for yourself on your own’… but at the same time there is a constant attempt to devalue or to question the worth of disabled people… and to judge their contributions as a way to determine whether they should or should not have access to support.”
He said the combination of a “punitive” social security regime, and other “violent and hostile” policies during the austerity years, the historical use of segregation, and the Coronavirus Act and other pandemic policies had provided a “really bleak picture” for disabled people.
There had also been a failure by the media to accept and analyse the social factors – such as how well-off they are, and their living and working conditions – that have helped cause the disproportionately high number of deaths of disabled people during the pandemic, he said.
But Griffiths said the pandemic had also shown how education, employment and other support could be provided more flexibly, for example through working or studying online, working from home, and taking advantage of new technology.
He said this showed the need to celebrate “the variance of human existence” and to provide more opportunities for people to engage with society that take account of this variation and their access requirements rather than forcing them to conform to a “preferred system”.
He added: “I don’t want to go back to normal.
“I want to go towards an idea of challenging those ableist notions of the ideal way of being self-sufficient… and recognising and celebrating the human variance.”
Such a “radical overhaul” of society would not just work for disabled people, he said, but for “a lot of different communities”.
And he said there was now an opportunity to “rethink the social contract between disabled people and the state” by pushing for a new human rights approach that recognised the intersecting types of oppression disabled people face.
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