It’s no real secret to anyone who’s met me that I’m not normal.
First and most obviously, I have a mohawk. This is not a normal hairstyle in this time and culture. I’m also a published novelist: not exactly normal. I play guitar and sing in a punk band: not normal. I’m an occasional DJ: not normal. What’s more, I’m a punk guitarist/singer/DJ who also enjoys walking in the countryside: not a normal combination, I doubt (I’ll admit, empirical evidence is lacking). We can go further: I don’t drink alcohol, and have never been drunk. I only have nine toenails, due to one being surgically removed after it was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick.
I am also very normal, in any amount of other ways. I like chocolate. I like watching football. I have life insurance and a mortgage. You know, pretty standard stuff. It all depends what piece of my identity you’re focusing on.
However, none of this is why I am writing this blog/rant. I am writing it because on Monday 7th September I was declared, along with many other people in this country, to be ‘abnormal’, by this man:
That’s Iain Duncan Smith (both of them), the current government’s Work and Pensions Secretary. Known for briefly being The One That Wasn’t William Hague, What Was His Name Again?, he presided over some of the Conservative party’s least successful times in opposition and then resigned as leader when it became clear that he was completely unelectable: at least, as a figurehead. As someone capable of doing immense damage to the welfare state it seems he’s entirely electable, more’s the pity. However, I’m going to steer clear of his policy history (as otherwise I’ll be here all day), and instead narrow my focus to the one quote that has made me very, very angry. The exact quote from IDS is as follows, was delivered in the House of Commons on Monday, and is in regard to the number of disabled benefit claimants who have got back into work:
“I think the figure is now over 220,000, which I believe is the highest figure since records began, in proportionate terms, but the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work. Those with disabilities have every right and every reason to expect exactly the same support into work that everybody else gets.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Normal, non-disabled people. According to Iain Duncan Smith, the man whose job it is to coordinate support to many, many disabled people across this country, being disabled means you are not ‘normal’. Whatever the hell that is.
Now, I’m lucky enough to have never needed to claim benefits. I left university, walked into a job and have stayed in employment ever since. In part that’s because I’m reasonably bright and have good grades. In part that’s because when I left university in 2003 jobs were easily available to most, thanks to the strong economy. But it’s also partly because my disability (partial hearing loss) isn’t severe enough to limit my daily activities that much. I need to wear hearing aids at work, and when watching TV where there’s lots of dialogue, and these days sometimes to the cinema as well. However, in general I’m good.
That’s not really the point, though. Even if I had total hearing loss and was only able to communicate by sign language, Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t get to decide whether I’m ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. He doesn’t get to decide that about anyone, regardless of what office he holds in government. Now, I’ve heard it suggested that perhaps he was simply talking in terms of numbers, that in terms of statistics it it ‘normal’ to be non-disabled. And in some respects, that’s an accurate statement. But just imagine if, instead of talking about disabled people, IDS was (for whatever reason) talking about people from minority ethnic backgrounds:
“…normal, white people who are back in work.”
Yeah. Doesn’t really work, does it? Makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, reading that? And yet white people are the ‘normal’ in this country in terms of numbers. White people are the majority. People have no more choice over their disability status than they do over their ethnic origin and both groups have precisely the same protections under the Equality Act 2010, so that sentence has just as much legitimacy as the one about non-disabled people. Now let’s take it a step further:
“…normal, female people who are back in work.”
Women outnumber men in this country (not by much, but they do), so in terms of statistics, they are the ‘normal’. Can you imagine that sentence being delivered in the Commons?
Am I taking that one word, “normal”, out of context? After all, the rest of the statement is about ensuring disabled people have “exactly the same support” as non-disabled people. That’s all fine, right?
First of all, “exactly the same support” is a pretty pointless promise to make with regard to disabled people. The entire point of a disability, the very definition of it, is that it makes it harder for you to do something. It means you need more support, or it means you need different support. It means you need something tailored to your needs. Exactly the same support as everyone else is at best a lazy turn of phrase. At worst, it implies a lack of regard for the importance of focus on individuals that is surely necessary to assist in any return to employment.
Secondly, and possibly even more importantly, it’s indicative of the man’s mindset. Someone whose job it is to provide support for the disabled should not consider us ‘abnormal’. It’s far, far from useful to have that sort of language coming out of the mouth of the man who, theoretically at least, should be our strongest champion. Every day on this planet, disabled people are faced with reminders that we do not quite fit in with the rest of society. It’s a struggle that is, perhaps, being overcome, but painfully slowly in most places and not at all in others. As previously stated, my disability is minor, but it still impacts on me: the places where there’s a sign for a hearing loop, for example, but it doesn’t work and when you point that out the staff just shrug and say “Yeah, it never has done.” Not. Helpful. I can’t comfortably lie down in bed and hear the TV with any clarity, no matter how loud I turn it up. These examples are minor things, but they’re reminders of how I don’t fit in with what society views most people need. Other people have it much, much worse.
What we need is someone who is prepared to champion the disabled. Not victimise or label us, or patronisingly promise us inadequate support, or continue to utter problematic language.