What is a Disabled Life Worth?

I wrote this opinion piece for a disability magazine. Intended to provoke discussion, disagreement and encourage readers to share their opinions, it didn’t make the final cut.

According to research for a recent Dispatches documentary on Channel 4, 35% of people think disabled people are a burden… Why?

Science and Religion can provide powerful arguments and the Media can paint disabled people in a very bad light. But when these aspects combine and a government passes laws to wield the power of life and death over us, we don’t do so well.

Eugenics (a set of beliefs and practices that seek to improve human population by excluding those who are perceived to be inferior) influenced much of the social policy of the Western world in the early 20th Century. It was popular because it conveniently blamed social problems such as poverty, crime and illness on minorities, rather than looking at society itself. Thirty American States forcibly sterilised their convicts from 1907. The Nazi regime went further, first passing laws based on American laws forbidding inter-race marriage and going on to sanction the medical killing of its disabled people. After the Second World War, many Governments rightly rejected eugenic practices as acts of genocide. However, parts of America, Canada and Sweden continued their programmes until the 1970’s. The ideas are still with us. Modern advances in genetics, while offering hope to many, are surrounded by fierce debates as to whether they should be called eugenics or not.

There are other signs we’re being led down a dark path. Huge swathes of our media have normalised the hatred and suspicion of disabled people, and other minorities, for years. Our government is not doing very well either. Some believe the UK has a benefits system which seeks to harm disabled claimants, erode their support and dehumanise them. Others point to how the government has abandoned disabled people and their families during the pandemic. Many are concerned that a post-Covid world will see disabled people as burdens once again.

We cannot trust a government that only this week, was found by the High Court not to have consulted with disabled people on its recent National Disability Strategy and has been condemned twice in recent years by the UN for its treatment of disabled people.

I think the debate around the Dying with Dignity Bill is an example of what happens when disabled people have no confidence in their government. The Bill recently passed its second reading in the House of Lords and is yet to be debated in the House of Commons. While some disabled people argue that safeguards in the Bill currently would limit the powers of the Act to very few in immense pain at the end of their lives, others argue that if it becomes law, these safeguards would be watered down by those in power, making assisted suicide an easy option for distressed disabled people and their families.

We have got to live (and die) in a society that sees disabled people as vital parts of it. Where we can thrive in places designed and built for us to be alongside everyone else. Then everyone would see that society’s real burden is ableism and recognise the immense value that disabled people bring. We need to make this happen ourselves; we need to be confident in our own opinions, we deserve be listened to. ‘Nothing about us without us’.

Richard Brown MBE

January 2022

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