‘Fraudulent’ Disability in Historical Perspective

At a time when six of the UK’s leading disability charities warn that media focus on the fraudulent or over-claiming of disability and other benefits is fuelling the abuse of disabled people, research by a Swansea University academic has shown that suspicion of benefit claimants is not a new phenomenon.

Dr David Turner of Swansea University’s Department of History and Classics in a paper published by the journal History and Policy argues that from the beginnings of state welfare policy in 1601 claimants with disabilities and illnesses have faced popular suspicion and accusations that their medical conditions have been faked or exaggerated.

Dr Turner said “Defining incapacity has always been difficult, fuelling suspicions, while attempts to distinguish the genuinely needy have intensified, especially since the Victorian era. Historically, this has worked not just to protect the entitlement of sick and disabled people to support, but also to impose divisions and foster distrust, raising suspicions about the deserving status of many disabled claimants.”

These divisions have been integral to welfare policy and perpetuated by the news media over hundreds of years. The media also developed images of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ disabled types, establishing that to be deserving of assistance required conformity to certain cultural values about what a disabled person should look like or how they should behave, rather than a simple demonstration of need. These stereotypes weigh heavily on people with disabilities today.

Dr Turner said: ‘Benefit fraud is a problem that has always existed, but it needs to be put in context. There has never been evidence that large numbers of people prefer to live on low benefits if they are capable of earning more. No government, including the present one, has found a way to enable disabled people to be socially useful (by employment or otherwise) that does not simultaneously reinforce stereotypes of fraud and blame. The divisive social attitudes towards disability caused by an unhelpful fixation with ‘scroungers’ impedes progress towards genuinely enabling policy that focuses on the barriers that many sick and disabled people face in accessing employment’.

Dr Turner has recently finished writing a book, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England, which is due to be published by Routledge later this year. He is currently co-director, with Professor Anne Borsay (College of Human and Health Science), of a major research project ‘Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780-1948’.

For more information: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-130.html

This news item has been posted on behalf of the College of Arts and Humanities by Delyth Purchase of the Public Relations Office 01792 295050 or d.purchase@msn.com