Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People by Frances Ryan

Published in SICK issue 2, 2020

Scott Jordan Harris is a journalist who has written for the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. He’s @ScottFilmCritic on Twitter.

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“The lousier the world [is],” wrote renowned war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, “the harder a writer should work.” Frances Ryan is working as hard as she can. The Guardian columnist specialises in documenting the lives — and, too often, the deaths — of disabled Britons in the age of austerity, when many of us live in conditions that the United Nations has designated “a human catastrophe.”
Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, emotively read as a new audiobook by Georgie Morrell, is the culmination of Ryan’s work. The book is unapologetically polemical, announcing in its introduction that it “is a rallying cry against the shrinking of the welfare state.” After the coalition government came to power in 2010, Ryan writes, “a global recession caused by bankers and stoked by right-wing politicians was set to punish paraplegics and cancer patients. This did not come about by accident but rather was a deliberate attack on disabled people in Britain.”
The book is neatly structured, with chapters on poverty, work, independence, housing, women, and children presented between an angry introduction and an even angrier conclusion. What connects chapters — which last around an hour in the audiobook — are the real-life stories of disabled people suffering under austerity. Women with learning difficulties driven into dangerous sex work. People with incurable diseases being made to live on the streets after their Disability Living Allowance was withdrawn. People who cannot walk being permanently denied wheelchairs. People with diabetes who died because they couldn’t afford to refrigerate their insulin. People with mental illnesses who, no longer needing to choose between heating and eating because they couldn’t afford either, felt forced into suicide.
The examples seem endless, and their overabundance is part of the point. Hear of one disabled person made destitute by inexplicable cuts to their benefits and it sounds like a single bad assessor or a single bad assessment. Hear a whole book full of such cases and the savagery of the system is unmistakable. Those opposed to Ryan’s politics would point out that, in writing Crippled, she is ideologically motivated. And she is. But where Ryan excels is in backing up her assertions with hard data. Frequently, she is able to use the government’s own figures to illustrate the “economic incompetence” that underpins austerity.
Beyond the government’s numbers, Ryan fills her book with finding and figures from BBC and UN investigations; from the National Audit Office and the NHS and the children’s commissioner; from charities and academic studies and ombudsmen and parliamentary subcommittees and high court judgments. These streams of statistics are often overwhelming and, again, that is the point. The purpose of Crippled is not to make the argument that austerity is fatally unfair to Britain’s disabled citizens: it is to prove it so emphatically that it can no longer be disputed. The difference between Ryan and those who deny the savage effects of austerity on disabled people is that her sums add up.

Ryan’s book is at its best when the case studies and statistics combine to demonstrate not only the cruelties but also the self-defeating absurdities of austerity’s attack on the disabled population. There is the story of a Motability vehicle purchased, at public cost, and specifically adapted, at public cost, for a severely disabled amputee who is terminally ill. Under austerity, and in the name of public cost-cutting, the car was removed from the woman for indefensible reasons. The case went to court, at public cost, and the government immediately lost. That meant that another Motability vehicle had to be purchased, at public cost, and adapted, at public cost, to restore to the woman the mobility she should never have been denied. When we understand how common these cases are — and Ryan makes sure we do — we come to understand not just how often austerity damages disabled people’s lives, but how often it actually costs the government money.

The stories in Crippled are distressing to hear. Anyone with any empathy will be upset by them, while anyone who has been through the process of applying for disability benefits in Britain may find them uncomfortably, and perhaps even unbearably, close to their own experiences. “Many of you reading this book will not be disabled,” Ryan writes. I hope she is right but fear she is wrong. One of the tragedies of a book such as Crippled is that those who most need to read it probably won’t, while those of us who experience daily the injustices it exposes will likely read it in large numbers. Crippled is always an important book and often a brilliant one. It should become a classic of disability literature, at least in the UK. But it isn’t just a book for disabled people. Every voter in Britain should read it. Every MP should be required to by law.

The audiobook of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People read by Georgie Morrell is published by W.F. Howes, available now through Audible and other audiobook retailers.