Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Wall of separation – disability…

For various reasons, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, recently – even more so than usual… – including the superb 818-page biography (about the size of an HSBC ‘brick’) of J Robert Oppenheimer, Inside the Centre, by the philosopher Ray Monk – as great a work of literature, I think, as I have ever read. But what inspired this post was something a lot shorter: the Church of England House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election’, Who is my neighbour? – which The Guardian welcomed as “a thoughtful and well-rooted Christian argument as well as a very different kind of political intervention”.

Although it has its faults (including the inconsistency of style you would expect of a committee-derived communication; and – to me – a strange mix of religiosity and plain-speaking commonsense), I found it rewarding and refreshing to read an ostensibly political message that:
  • was neither adversarial, arrogant, nor haranguing;
  • demonstrates a duty of care towards all fellow human beings;
  • makes “an overarching philosophical argument about the state of modern politics”; and
  • provides a coherent, sincere vision that no political party, to my mind, has come within a country mile of.
It is sad, though, that, immediately upon its publication, there was not only an instant – and ignorant – massed attack from many parts of the political continuum, accusing the church of being partisan; but also a parallel attempt by cynical – some may say disingenuous – politicians to render it, somehow, more pertinent to their ideology than their adversaries’.

Over the next couple of weeks or so (and possibly continuing up to the election itself), I will therefore try to delve deeper into this letter (all under the Wall of separation heading): examining (and meditating on?) some of its statements and manifold themes; and the way these contribute – subjectively, of course – to my feelings about, perspectives on, and connections to, current politics – in the same way, I suppose, as exegesis and hermeneutics are used to critically examine, and learn from, the bible and other religious and philosophical writings and scriptures.

Tara Flood, a Paralympic gold medallist swimmer, speaks for the entire disabled population when she says: “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being.”

As it is a subject that is obviously close to my heart, as well as moulding the way I live, I have decided to begin with the emotive issue of disability – which is referenced in three paragraphs (quoted in full, below) in the bishops’ letter, all contained in the subsection entitled ‘The Person in Community’. (There are no such concerns, by the way, in the much shorter, less politically controversial, Catholic equivalent: released at around the same time. All its authors “suggest” is that, before voting, you ask “Where do your candidates stand on directly helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK and also helping them to transform their lives?”)

[61] Most people, when asked, subscribe to some version of the idea that all people are created equal. Yet this is contradicted in the way that some categories of people are spoken about – people who are sick, disabled, terminally ill or otherwise unable to live the life that a consumer society celebrates; people who are unable to work, materially poor or mentally ill in ways which challenge “acceptable” ways of being unwell.

[62] There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed. It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.

[64] Restoring the balance between the individual and the community around them is a necessity if every person is to be truly valued for who they are and not just on a crude calculus of utility. It is vital to move beyond the superficial equality of free consumers in a market place of relationships and to see the virtues in the relationships of family and community which are given, not chosen.


That perspicacious and challenging phrase “a crude calculus of utility” hit me right between the eyes; and made me ruminate not only on who the “disabled” actually are – a clumsy but useful label, I suppose, for collecting together the diverse people who are impacted by restrictions (social or medical) “in the ability to perform a normal activity of daily living” – but what rôles we, as a general group, are ‘allowed’ to play in society; and, chiefly, if we have any marketable ‘value’ in a world ruled by capitalism. (And, yes, a battered copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists lies proudly near the top of my Matterhorn-like reading pile!)

Many people – especially those “hard-working” folk so beloved of our current main party leaders – are defined (and would define themselves) by their jobs (which may, also, of course, provide a shorthand method of categorizing their class, or societal ‘level’): but not many disabled people are, by definition (as well as by the constraints of the workplace), able to work (especially those claiming benefits).

If, as a genuinely separate grouping, the disabled are only seen as contributing to currently accepted definitions of society by also working – otherwise we are simplistically labelled “scroungers”, or decried as “a drain on the economy” – does that really make us ‘in-valid’ members of it if we are not employed (even if we had already contributed large amounts of tax and National Insurance over, say, a quarter of a century…)? Perhaps if welfare amounts were more attuned to the real-world (additional) cost of actually being impaired, then they would not keep us trapped in a position of meagre subsistence. And ‘higher-level’ benefits – such as PIP (Personal Independence Payment) – would not only truly contribute to that “independence”, but would also enable more active entry into ‘the market’: with payees using it, for example, to purchase care, lease Motability vehicles, and pay for adaptations to their homes.

The loss of employment after the fact, though – although (maybe) not as bad as the loss of a sense or other facility – has a devastating, explosive impact on that earned and earning identity (splintering it both inwardly and outwardly): especially if there is no chance (because of age, as well as impairment – although, in some people’s eyes, the two are not that different: a premature agglomeration of the sixth and seventh ages of man…) of returning to any form of work (although being disabled can be more than a full-time job in itself, for many…).

For instance, I have attempted to rebuild my persona (principally for my own desperate satisfaction) – especially its public-facing aspects – by producing this blog. Writing was always one of my major competences in employment (as a subset of wider natural and learned communication skills): and although the physical aspects of production are immensely painful and tiring – which then lead to the mental aspects also rapidly diminishing… – I can, however limited my capacities now are, carry them out in my own time (days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours; at three o’clock in the morning, rather than nine-to-five), sans deadline, sans supervision, sans inspection, sans employment. However satisfying, though, in its slow-mo accomplishments, it is no substitute for the camaraderie of the workplace; or the almost accidental absorption of additional aptitudes (never mind the necessary collaboration and quality control…). And it certainly does not pay as well….

The point I am trying to make here is that – although it does not fit the ‘norms’ of current employment practice (who is going to pay me the living wage for a couple of hours of self-selected ‘work’ per week; but not most weeks…?) – even though I am disabled, I still have a marketable skill, however much depleted. (And, even though Labour talk enthusiastically about “predistribution” – I cannot see this coming to my rescue: especially as it appears both extremely left-wing and, currently, completely without substance.) My intellect – although only available in disjointed, irregular chunks – is still some form of asset (as is that of my eighty-odd-year-old parents). However, there is no way – unless you count this blog as a ‘good’ (rather than just, ahem, good…) in itself – that I am adding much economic worth to society; nor does society, from its own perspective, appreciate me for it in any way. And therefore, because I am disabled, and because I am not appreciated, I am also not a voracious consumer (except of books). I am outside the wall – as the bishops say: “unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed”.

Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
Th’ unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound (hear me, you good gods all)
Th’ Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!
– William Shakespeare: Timon of Athens

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