I was in London last week, and the Brits were mad for the Paralympics. Virtually every event was sold out. More than 11 million people watched the opening ceremonies on television, which were followed by 150 hours of live coverage over 12 days. Newspapers ran special daily sections. Crowds gathered around screens in pubs and markets.
A corps of disabled sports reporters kept the commentary straightforward and well informed. One discussion considered whether double-leg amputees have better balance than — and therefore an advantage over — runners with one leg. Another reviewed the finer points of wheelchair basketball fouling. An after-games comedy show even ran an ongoing Twitter feed, #isitokay, in which the commentators fielded such potentially incorrect questions as whether it’s OK to ask how an armless swimmer climbs out of the pool, or wipes his arse. The host, Adam Hills, a sexy Australian comedian born with one foot, loosened things up from the start by telling the press he prefers the term “mutant” to “disabled.” “It sounds so much cooler,” he said.
Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s “Blade Runner” of both the Paralympics and its able-bodied counterpart, exhorted spectators to focus on the athletes’ achievements, not what they had to overcome to achieve them: “You are not disabled by your disabilities, but able by your abilities.”
But while a few extraordinary people with cerebral palsy or visual impairment or amputated limbs were executing superhuman feats in the snazzy new arenas, the lives of ordinary disabled Britons were deteriorating under the Tories’ austerity regime. Honoring Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2010 promise to recover billions allegedly lost to welfare fraud, the government has been instituting draconian new tests and requirements for benefits to people who cannot work.
A new Work Capability Assessment — a computer program backed up by testers with little knowledge or understanding of disability — is bungling the job badly, according to critics. Among those the WCA has deemed fit to work are people with terminal cancer, paralysis from the chest down and complex psychological disorders.
To add hypocrisy to injury, the assessments are being run by the private French firm Atos, which also happens to be one of the main sponsors of the Paralympics. During the first week of the games, hundreds of disability-rights activists and the anti-austerity group UK Uncut staged protests at the company’s London headquarters.
During the second week, the Guardian revealed the government’s plan to dock the benefits of sick workers by 71 pounds a week if they failed to get back to paid jobs quickly enough. The current maximum weekly benefit is 99 pounds.
Panic and distress among recipients were already high. A leaked internal memo from three directors at the Department for Work and Pensions warned staff in April to use “the utmost care and sensitivity” in communicating the changes — which generally mean reductions in support — to clients. The week before, the communiqué said, a “customer” had attempted suicide upon learning that his payments were going to end.
In a Romney-Ryan administration, Americans could expect the same. Under the Ryan plan to replace Medicaid with block grants to the states while shaving billions from the program and other public supports, low-income disabled people would be among the biggest losers. “Right now, the 8 million Americans with disabilities who rely on Medicaid are entitled to certain crucial services. Under block grants, they would be entitled to nothing,” wrote Mike Ervin, an organizer for American Disabled for Accesible Public Transit, in an editorial that ran in several newspapers. “State governments would be free to spend Medicaid money as they saw fit.”
Already, states are doing just that. Washington’s Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, recently signed a budget that so severely reduced the hours of home care for disabled people that many worried they’d be forced to move into institutions. Twelve people sued, claiming that the cuts violate federal law requiring governments to guarantee people with disabilities the highest degree of social integration. A federal court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, and now Gregoire is considering appealing to the Supreme Court. Activists are desperately trying to dissuade her, fearing that the conservative court might end up eviscerating the Americans With Disabilities Act itself.
Asking the Supremes to rule on M.R. v. Dreyfus “could place at risk one of the most fundamental civil rights of individuals with disabilities: the right to avoid needless institutionalization,” says a letter to Gregoire signed by nearly three dozen civil-liberties and disability-rights organizations and charities. “Without that right, people with disabilities cannot be full participants in their communities and have the same kinds of lives as people without disabilities.”
There’s a paradox here: In denying people with disabilities the means to live like people without disabilities, governments are denying the disability of people with disabilities. We are enabled by our abilities, but when we are disabled — as most of us will be someday — we need help.
This denial is part of a broader, meaner politics undergirding both the Tories’ dismantlement of the welfare state and the Republicans’ proposed cuts to the measly welfare the U.S. provides: that is, the belief that people who ask for help are fakers and malingerers. These are Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens. They’re the shiftless [read: African American] thieves suggested by the Romney campaign’s persistent — and multiply disproved — claim that the Obama administration has stripped the work requirement out of public assistance. In Britain they’re referred to as “scroungers.”
And beneath that belief is the ever more widely held principle that each of us, like Olympian athletes, must strive to walk on our own two — or one, or no — legs. We must all be winners, and if we come in second, or last, we are not striving hard enough.
New official language reflects this attitude. In the UK, the “disability living allowance” has been replaced with “personal independence payments.” In the U.S., welfare reform supplanted Aid to Families With Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). On the assumption that poverty is a fleeting and always surmountable problem, TANF imposes a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. But the name of the 1996 reform law says it all: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
The dozen or so fact-checking outfits that refuted Romney’s claim about Obama’s public-assistance policy pointed out that the tweaks in the rules simply allow states to implement plans that get people more efficiently into the workplace — and they have to prove the programs work or lose the waiver of federal regs. The Obama administration tolerates no shirking, either.
What the fact hounds fail to say is that parents at home with their kids are taking personal responsibility. They are working. Other countries give them subsidies.
Increasingly, autonomy is required not just of disabled people and single parents, but also of the aging, of teenagers, of the homeless — indeed, of everyone with frailties. Which is to say, everyone. After all, we are all dependent from our first breath to our last.
Since taxpayers can no longer “afford” to take care of each other, however, we must purchase our own self-help. Thankfully, the market’s offerings are endless: exercise programs, diets, cosmetic surgery, vitamins, hormone replacements, beta blockers, yoga — and, if there’s no current cure for your ailments, cryogenic preservation until there is.
If you tread the Stairmaster and eat kale and still have a heart attack, you must be nursing a bad attitude. Why haven’t you taken up meditation? Are you getting in your RDA of laughter? Self-improvement is not a choice. If you can strive for perfection, then you must — or pay the consequences.
After London, my partner and I flew to Berlin, where I am now writing. We visited the Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the since-demolished headquarters of the Reich Security Main Office, the Gestapo and the SS, and some of their torture chambers. The exhibition recounts the methodical construction of the machinery to rid the body politic of parasites and breed a race of winners. The magnificent Olympic Stadium, at the west end of the city, is a monument to that race.
Interestingly, years before the National Socialists got interested in exterminating Jews, they were concentrating on other “asocial” elements of society, and among the first they needed to unload were the “work-shy.” The party had come to power largely because Germany’s economy was in shambles. After the Wall Street crash of 1929, the U.S. withdrew loans; joblessness soared, wages fell. By 1932, 30 percent of Germans were unemployed.
Incarceration of the “work-shy” in workhouses, where death was often a side effect of labor and starvation, would “relieve public welfare of any kind of benefit hunters and protect the people’s community from subversive influences and punishable offenses,” the Nazis promised.
Among society’s other “useless eaters” were the physically and mentally disabled. The government’s Charitable Society for the Transportation of Sick Persons bussed these drags on the economy to “clinics.” There, the Charitable Society for Sanatorium Care administered lethal “medication.”
But the Nazis were nothing if not meticulous bean counters. The families of the exterminated were sent the bill for the murders.
“Poli Psy” is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.