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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

Releasing the Spellbound

The Disability Resilience Network wants to make a drama out of every crisis.

Mythology is near impossible to shift. The secret to defeating mythology is to have a more potent story from which to construct a new mythology. Over the last fifteen years I may have had more high level meetings with Government than most so I have seen and heard and read more mythology than have most of my peers. The UK is a sophisticated society but in truth it is based upon layers of belief some of which is useful, some useless and much simply outdated. I believe I have worked out many of the secrets and can now write the spells to release the spellbound. I will close this blog by offering some magic from my own experiences and memory banks.

When I first became an advocate for disabled people the focus was often on their productivity. The history of supported employment was based upon the assumption that disabled people were about 30% less productive and their employers required a wage subsidy to even consider recruiting them. The assumptions were outdated in that they were drawn from a time before digitalisation and when workers were in the main factory working hand crafted goods with tools such as lathes. This thinking can be traced forward in the then Chancellor Philip Hammond statement that more disabled people being in the labour market was actually a bad thing since it lowered the productivity per capita of the U.K. economy. He offered no evidence for the link he had made. His statement did illustrate the existence of a mythology.

When austerity policies were introduced the then Chancellor George Osborne needed public support to cut welfare and thus needed to demonise the disabled poor as being responsible for their own predicament. I remember listening to the then Secretary of State for DWP lamenting the alleged chaotic lifestyles of the poor. The latter were apparently choosing to spend their money on the wrong things and getting into debt. This personal debt was holding disabled people back and what was required was to make workers pay by cutting social security or reducing the numbers eligible for social protection through tightening the assessment tests. The focus on the individual squeezed out discussion of institutional reasons such as Government cuts in public spending lowering demand and businesses responding by making workers redundant. In a tight labour market employers were unlikely to choose disabled workers when there were more experienced non-disabled people to choose from. Another mythology is that disabled people exclude themselves.

In 2016 Disability Confident was developed as a voluntary employer engagement scheme. The word voluntary was what fatally damages the scheme. You see there was no requirement to actually recruit a disabled person. Instead there was a voluntary menu of options such as mock interviews or apprenticeships that employers could choose from. Can it really be that all we ever need is more training when the best incentive to train is knowing you will then be hired. Surely isn’t that just more mythology? Like a bad dose of fake news you’ve spotted it. Disability confidence is poor not because of what it is but because of what it isn’t.

When the country came out of austerity there was no immediate gain for disabled people. The first draft of the Industrial Strategy launched by Theresa May in January 2017 didn’t mention disabled people indeed it was largely silent on who would actually deliver it. It took a lot of lobbying before the ten strands became five principles and there was actually a “People” section. Where equality was actually the focus such as in the strategy for civic society other equality groups were offered whatever they need to achieve parity whilst disabled people were again ignored. Are we really only visible when we compete in the Paralympics every four years?

For too many and for too long the supposedly: insufficiently productive, chaotic lifestyle, fraudulent disabled, who are told they are job ready if only they had more training, casts a spell that has prevented adequate policy interventions for years and seen little innovation since about 1996 when personal budgets became possible. Its time to start disassembling the mythology.

Now in the Covid-19 era there is a new category of somewhere in the region of 700,000 to a million people with long-term Covid-19 and they too will have an invisible fluctuating, disabling health condition. Will they be believed or will they too have to fight for their right to be recognised, understood and supported especially to stay in work? It is possible that the Prime Minister himself is one member of this new group. He may now have his own interests to safeguard in the forthcoming national disability strategy. The Prime Minister will I hope write the foreword to the new national strategy when it is published. Let him say, “I believe…..”

I offered release for the spellbound and as I said in the beginning of this blog this requires something spellbindingly good. I was once fortunate enough to participate in a workshop with the Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal the originator of legislative theatre. He also created new techniques of participation in his book, “Gamercises for Actors and non-actors.” There is one gamercise I use again and again for its ability to uncover the issue of invisibility.

It works like this. From those present in a gathering I ask for five volunteers, one to stand in the middle and the others about three metres away from them, each at a compass point and at 90 degrees to the next person. I then rotate around the four and ask each in turn to describe in general terms what they can see of the person in the middle. Naturally each person describes something else. I then ask both those taking part and those observing a series of questions.

Why does each person describe something different?

Who is telling the truth?

Where is the truth in the room?

How do you know I am telling the truth?

Each answer illustrates irrefutable wisdom. It is irrefutable because each person has personally experienced each answer.

Each person’s perspective adds to the truth as if they are solving not simply the problem of what the person in the middle looks like but actually any other problem. Of course I add the observation that disabled people can bring a further perspective but their perspective is so often missing because they are not in the room. It is conceivable that the most important perspective may well be theirs and we cannot solve the problem we are all facing without it.

I have practised Boal’s technique’s at the start of many meetings and the reaction is always the same. A spell has been broken. We need to keep the magic going and replace the spellbound with the spellbinding.

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