Lord Freud 

Ever since Lord Freud’s ill judged words about employing disabled people broke in the news, I have wanted to blog about it. The trouble is, the incident stirs up so many different emotions in me and touches on so many disability and social issues, I just don’t know where to start. Do I start with his language and why it is so deeply disturbing to disabled people? Not just his language in the secret recording but both his apology and Cameron’s response are worth analysing. Or do I tackle why employers are reluctant to take on disabled people from all backgrounds, with all kinds of qualifications and skills? Do I explore how employers can benefit from employing disabled people? Or do I tackle the media’s coverage of the issue? There are still ripples within the media two weeks on; I’m sure if Lord Freud’s gaff hadn’t been exposed it wouldn’t have been quite so timely for the Telegraph to include this question on disability in their business agony uncle section yesterday!

So I have decided that the best thing to do is to write a series of separate blog entries each one tackling a different angle. So I am going to start with language.

What was said?

So this is what Lord Freud was recorded saying after he was asked a question on what to do about “mentally damaged individuals” who employers are unwilling to employ at the minimum wage, at a fringe event at the Tory Party Conference:

"You make a really good point about the disabled... There is a group - and I know exactly who you mean - where actually, as you say, they're not worth the full wage and actually I'm going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it's working can we actually…”

What’s the problem?

So why did so many disabled people and others find Lord Freud’s comments so offensive and or disturbing? Baring in mind that I heard some, like the Adam Smith Institute. argue that Lord Freud was talking about a person’s economic worth, something they say everyone has, something quite straightforward and a fact of our society. I think the first thing to say is that I don’t think many people like to think of them selves in terms of their “worth” to an employer or the economy, even if that is how our society is structured. We each have an economic  worth which organisations are prepared to pay us for: that’s how capitalism works. I’m not going to argue whether that is right or not, but what I will say is that I think we certainly have a problem where we grossly under value the worth of many people who carry out work in our country. Important work like cleaning our streets and workplaces, caring for our children or for older people for example,  are desperately under valued. 

I feel like a second class citizen

There’s a deeper reason for why many disabled people like me find the idea of measuring our worth really disturbing. So many disabled people are reminded every day that society considers them worthless. That might seem like a very strong statement,  so here are some examples of how this message of worthlessness is reinforced to disabled people every day.

When I was still working at RNIB I carried out some research into blind people’s experience of voting. 69% of those surveyed were unable to vote in secret and without assistance. This meant they had to tell someone else who they wanted to vote for and trust that person to cast their vote for them. Visually impaired people are being denied a fundamental democratic and human right. 90% also told us they couldn’t read most or any of the information sent to them by political parties. How does this make visually impaired people feel? The types of phrases they used were:

I feel like a second class citizen, like I’m not worth the same as other folk."

"None of the political parties cared enough to provide accessible information to me."

"I feel left out. Political parties are not trying to reach out to me like they do for others.” 

Of course it’s not just voting. Every time a wheelchair user or someone with a mobility impairment can’t get into a train station, they are being told their needs are not worth the same as other people’s. Every time a person with a learning difficulty is told that there isn’t enough time to explain something to them or give them information in easy read, they are being told that their needs aren’t worth the same as other people’s. Every time that induction loop doesn’t work, someone who uses a hearing aid is being told it doesn’t matter if you can hear us or not, you’re not really worth the effort. Every time a person with a mental health problem is told that they just need to “ cheer up and get on with it” they are being told their health is not as important as what ever else is going on. Every time a disabled person is turned away, turned down, denied a basic right everyone else takes for granted, they are being told that they are not worth the same as others. The other message that goes hand in hand with this is that in fact you’re a burden. It costs too much, will take too long, it’s not important enough to make stations, voting, information, society in general accessible for you. This is why measuring a disabled person’s “worth” is such an emotive thing to talk about carelessly like Lord Freud did.

I think it is important to say here that in the last 15 years there have been some big improvements for disabled people in terms of shops and services becoming more accessible (not all of them but more than in the 1990s.) There is now comprehensive disability and equality legislation in place. But the problems I list above are all common and still exist and haven’t improved enough over the last decade. Sadly this is true of employment figures for disabled people - but I’ll consider this in the next blog piece.

Creepy caring

But it wasn’t just Freud’s language in his original gaff which caught my attention, it was also the words he used in his apology and what David Cameron said in the House of Commons when confronted with the gaff.

Lord Freud said in his apology that he “cared deeply about disabled people” whilst Cameron said he wasn’t to be lectured to about “Looking after disabled people” (invoking not for the first time his first hand experience of disability through his son Ivan who sadly died.) 

If Lord Freud had made a gaff about equal pay for women or job opportunities for young black men I don’t think he’d have said either ‘I care deeply about women” or “I care deeply about young black men.” Both phrases when not about disabled people sound creepy. But for some it’s still completely acceptable and appropriate to speak about “caring for disabled people” rather than talking about disabled people’s rights. Similarly Cameron’s first hand experience of disability was about being a farther to a disabled child who did need caring for and looking after. What neither politician and many of their colleagues seem to be able to do is to view disabled people as unique individuals with rights to independence. Even if some disabled people need “care”  or “support” this doesn’t mean we don't deserve freedom of choice and opportunity to live our lives like others do. Such as being able to work, travel, shop, communicate, take part and contribute in our communities and wider society. 

So the Lord Freud gaff didn’t just expose politicians who use clumsy language but  for me it exposed a government that just doesn’t understand disabled people or our rights. It exposed politicians stuck in the past expecting disabled people to be passive recipients of care and token job opportunities.

This leads to the question: How can job opportunities be developed for disabled people with all kinds of skills, qualifications and experience? I shall tackle this next time.  

© Natalie Doig 2021