Foreword by Katherine Runswick Cole:
In a time of austerity and cuts public funding cuts, the over arching question for the project was how are people with learning disabilities faring in a time of austerity?
The project focused on three key areas in people’s lives: self-advocacy, employment and community inclusion, working alongside our partners in each phase of the research.
Detailed findings can be found on our blog. However, in summary, we found that people with learning disabilities are differentially precarious in times of austerity as cuts typically hit them hard. Self-advocacy remains of key importance to people with learning disabilities and yet its continued existence is under threat in a climate of funding cuts; many people with learning disabilities can and want to work and yet the effective supports that move people into work are not universally available and a postcode lottery persists; people with learning disabilities are experiencing increased isolation in their communities, and access to networks of support, which are effective in promoting community inclusion, is also very variable.
Our project leads us to:
- support the call for a cumulative impact assessment of the cuts in the lives of disabled people;
- ask for renewed commitment to and investment in self-advocacy for people with learning disabilities;
- ask for investment in evidence-based practice in employment for people with learning disabilities and the development of a national register for job coaches.
- ask for prioritisation of planning for employment within Education, Health and Care Plans for children and young people, including allowing those people in employment but not in education to continue to have a plan.
- ask for investment in the development of circles of support for people with learning disabilities to support their community inclusion.
Blog post from Silvana Mengoni
Big Society is an initiative introduced by David Cameron and the UK’s coalition government (2010-2015) at the same time as a drive towards austerity. The general principles of Big Society are stated to be:
- Giving communities more power in their local neighbourhoods
- Encouraging people to take a more active role in their community, for example through volunteering
- Transferring power from central to local government
- Supporting neighbourhood groups, charities and social enterprises to be involved in the running of local services
- Publishing government data
(Cabinet Office, 2010)
Runswick-Cole and Goodley are part of a project which is examining the effect of the political initiative “Big Society” on the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities. This article particularly focuses on the effect of austerity and the cruel optimism produced by the Big Society narrative.
The authors report findings from:
- stakeholder interviews, including disabled people with learning disabilities, members of the third sector, policy makers and lawyers
- an analysis of relevant academic and policy literature
- ethnographic case studies where one author spent time with three partner organisations
The analysis identified a cluster of promises produced by the Big Society narrative:
i. Active citizenship
Numerous UK policy documents have put forward a vision that disabled people should have full opportunities and choices in their lives and be equal and valued members of society. Although, the interviews and the ethnographic experiences highlighted some positive experiences such as the role of Care Quality Commission experts by experience but the everyday experiences of many people with learning disabilities suggested that their desire to speak up, make decisions for themselves and be fully involved in society was not yet reality.
ii. A vibrant civil society
As part of Big Society, the private and voluntary sector is intended to deliver more public services. To be awarded these contracts, community and voluntary organisations compete to offer the best value for money. The authors suggest that this creates a bias towards larger organisations and has the potential to force some organisations to compromise their local agendas, for example by not criticising commissioners. This also has the consequence of excluding people with learning disabilities from involvement in delivering public services for disabled people.
iii. Social action, community participation and volunteering.
Several interviewees discussed the lack of support and opportunity for people with learning disabilities to participate in volunteering, local community activities and paid work, despite the importance given to such opportunities in the context of Big Society.
iv. Work as a route out of isolation and poverty
In Big Society, employment is key to help people move out of poverty, contribute to society and be independent. The majority of people with learning disabilities are not in employment, despite many desiring to work. Interviewees expressed a fear that the providers of services aiming to help people into work cherry-pick those people most likely to do so, in order to meet their targets and receive payment.
The authors argue that Big Society puts forward a number of promises as described above but due to factors such as austerity, these promises remain out of reach to people with learning disabilities, therefore resulting in cruel optimism. Importantly, it is not the people with learning disabilities who are unrealistic or deluded to desire the promises of employment, social inclusion and independence. The authors introduce the term “disability commons”, to refer to people coming together to resist and act against injustices and find ways to overcome barriers and achieve their goals.
Strengths, limitations and discussion
It is often difficult to consider the effects of political and economic environment on people’s lives whilst the results would still be relevant, due to the time-consuming demands of conducting research. This project must be commended for its timely dissemination of findings, which are still highly relevant to the UK context, and have implications for other countries.
The method section clearly describes the different stages of the overall research project and states were relevant to this article. When discussing the cluster of promises, it was sometimes unclear how interviews, literature review and ethnography contributed to a particular finding. However, this thorough integration of the three approaches could be argued to provide a holistic and comprehensive picture of the experiences of people with learning disabilities in the current political and economic context.
Full information was not provided about the interviewees, for example how many people were interviewed and what their role was. This may be useful to help the reader understand and evaluate the findings. However, the approach to the interview analysis is described thoroughly. The approach was detailed and comprehensive, and the authors discuss how this helped them draw connections between people’s lived experiences and the broader literature, thereby validating and deepening their analysis and discussion.
The focus of the interviews was on people with learning disabilities and stakeholders in this area, but public perceptions of people with learning disabilities are also important. Central and local government politicians, decision-makers and community members are, after all, also members of the public and may not have particular experience of interacting with people with learning disabilities. There is evidence to suggest that people with learning disabilities typically experience more prejudice and stigma from members of the public than people with other types of disabilities, e.g. physical disabilities (Staniland, 2011; Werner, 2015). This could be partially due to a lack of familiarity with people with learning disabilities. Initiatives such Scope’s End the Awkward campaign supported by Channel 4 and the e-learning platform Disability Matters aim to challenge people’s attitudes towards disability, and may contribute to improving social inclusion.
As the authors mention, there is a worrying amount of negative representations of disabled people in the media. However on some occasions when negative comments are made, this is followed up by discussion on social media, TV, radio and newspapers which challenges the initial comments in a public sphere, for example when Richard Dawkins tweeted that it would be immoral to continue with a pregnancy if the mother knew that the foetus had Down syndrome. This discussion of issues related to learning disabilities and the challenges made against negative comments are also important for public understanding and attitudes of learning disabilities.
Big Society initially promised much for people with learning disabilities but in the context of austerity, without adequate funding and support, these promises remain largely unfulfilled. This injustice is twofold; firstly in the lack of rights, opportunities and inclusion for people with learning disabilities and secondly in the disappointment of having something promised but never fulfilled. Runswick-Cole and Goodley highlight important examples of people with learning disabilities and those around them have worked together achieve positive outcomes, and it is this “disability commons” which suggest that injustices may be overcome.
Runswick-Cole, K., & Goodley, D. (2015). Disability, Austerity and Cruel Optimism in Big Society: Resistance and “The Disability Commons”. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 4(2), 162-186. [abstract]
Cabinet Office (2010). Building The Big Society. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/building-the-big-society
Staniland, L. (2011). Public perceptions of disabled people: Evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-perceptions-of-disabled-people-evidence-from-the-british-social-attitudes-survey-2009
Werner, S. (2015). Public stigma and the perception of rights: Differences between intellectual and physical disabilities. Research in developmental disabilities, 38, 262-271
Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society; www.bigsocietydis.wordpress.com