Crippled by Frances Ryan – a review

I bought a book earlier this year, not long after it was released. I knew I had to read this book, yet I put it off. I’ve read more books this year than in perhaps the last ten years put together and I’ll probably write more about my (largely non-fiction) reading explorations more as the year closes out. Since I started my epic reading journey last Christmas and developed a goal to read 40 books this year, when I found out about Crippled: Austerity and the demonization of disabled people, I knew it was a book that would contribute to my list of 40. Somehow, for me, there was no getting away from it. As a practicing social worker of 10 years, my politics have generally been left-leaning. Now, as an individual who is unable to work and receives disability benefits due to moderate (sometimes edging towards severe) ME I’ve both been involved in the commissioning of public services to families with disabled children, and experienced the tortuous and demoralising process of applying for disability benefits myself.

Having often read Frances’ Guardian articles, I knew this book would be well written and well researched, and I knew that it would be tough. After reading the introduction and the first chapter on poverty, I tweeted that I’d put off reading the book as I knew it wouldn’t be easy and that I found so much of my righteous anger had somehow run away (perhaps along with my energy and social work career!) and instead I just felt sad. If you want escapism, this isn’t the book for you! Francis throws statistic after statistic and research and professional analysis at the reader in a damning onslaught towards the policy makers and by association, the voters who have been subject to a comprehensive propaganda campaign by ministers, MPs and the media in order to scapegoat the most vulnerable people in society.

What makes this book so powerful is that it is written by an insider. Frances doesn’t discuss her own disability in the book in great detail, however she frequently refers to ‘we’ when writing about disabled people and occasionally mentions her own experiences. The dozens of individual stories gathered in the writing of the book and through the author’s journalistic career bring the statistics and qualitative research to life and I learned a great deal, such as the numbers of disabled women who resort to sex work just to pay the bills and feed themselves as benefit cuts mean that they have been unable to make ends meet. Other matters covered, such as the lack of accommodation and access to services were striking. One particular story of a professional man who developed ME brought me to the edge of tears. He became homeless after falling ill and went from sleeping in his car, to spending nights at Heathrow airport and on night buses to stay warm, having to store his wheelchair in a lock-up for when he needed it. Under the Tory government over the last decade if you found yourself with a chronic illness or became disabled and you didn’t have support around you, evidence shows that you would become vulnerable very quickly and the safety nets which may have existed just a few years ago were quickly disappearing.

While on holiday recently, just prior to reading Crippled, I read a book called Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. It has sold a million copies and is endorsed by Bill Gates (I think you could spend all your time reading only books that are endorsed by Mr Microsoft!) Sapiens was a fascinating journey through pre-history and evolution to the development of language, finance, infrastructure and biosciences. The book hinted at what the collective ‘we’ may become in the future. What about Artificial Intelligence, Cyborgs? These are no longer things of science fiction but rather very real morality matters to be wrestled with. Sapiens ends by asking some stark questions about humanity’s potential evolution:

“…since we might soon be able to engineer our desires…the real question facing us is not ‘what do we want to become?’ but ‘what do we want to want?’”

Harari (Sapiens, 2014)

With the potential to create a future race of perfectly performing human/machine hybrids with unlimited lifespans, where does eugenics come in, and how is disability viewed in the future? Will there be a greater push to inclusion and accessibility or will some areas of society continue to find ways to ‘other’ disabled people by limiting and curtailing disability and scapegoating neurodiverse individuals, for example?

Youval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens talks about ancient hunter gatherer tribes who would leave elderly and infirm family members behind to die if they could not keep up. It was a necessity but it was also brutal. I guess I’d be left behind immediately to fend off the sabre tooth tigers on my own! It was highlighted that some societies throughout history have been more dispassionate and others have been more caring. I wonder what would define the history of early 21st century human Britain? Somehow, Crippled felt like the British updated final chapter to Sapiens. Ryan concludes her book by considering how disabled people are perceived and how substantial change can only happen if perceptions are challenged. I was surprised to discover that research finds public perception of disabled people to be slowly changing for the better. More members of the public believe that disabled people should be receiving benefits to support them and fewer are seeing disabled people as scroungers. As Francis Ryan tweeted in reply to my note of sadness after reading and commenting on the first chapter “I hope the book brings more than sadness soon (Hope to come, I promise).” We have to hope that moving forward our society sees the important role disability plays in all our lives. I have to hope that the young disabled people I worked with until 18 months ago, who experience both physical and learning disabilities, have a future lined with more opportunity than the scorn the government of the last decade has shown towards them.

If you have any doubt about the disdain shown towards our most vulnerable by those in leadership of our nation (bedroom tax, withdrawal of services, benefit cuts) and the reality that things could and should have been much different (far more money was spent on trying to reduce benefit fraud than tax evasion, where reducing tax evasion would have improved short falls for social care), please read this book. Then make sure you vote.

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