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Criminalising Disability in the Media Has Disastrous Consequences for Vulnerable People

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Recent research from the University of Glasgow has shown a 43% increase in newspaper articles relating to disability in 2010 and 2011 as compared to the 2004-5 period. As part of a small charity which supports women with mental health issues (which are among some of the most invisible impairments) you'd think we would be celebrating such an increase in public dialogue. Alas, the research findings confirm an increasingly narrow and pejorative representation of disabled people in tabloids like the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Express.

The recent media analysis, conducted by Briant, Watson and Philo, revealed a 118% increase in tabloid articles that associate benefit claimants with fraudulent and criminal activity. It was found that those with mental health issues are systematically labelled as 'benefit frauds' and lumped into the falsely constructed category of 'undeserving' disabled people. Depressingly, it was shown that the media is shifting blame from health service professionals, government policies, economic and labour market problems, towards the claimants themselves. This echoes the changing agenda of the coalition government peddling the notion that 'scroungers' are responsible for bringing the 'strivers' down; that is, to re-define what it means to be disabled in order to reduce welfare costs and somehow rescue the economy... stupid.

So what happens to the mass of people with mental health issues who are now told they are 'non-disabled people pretending to be disabled'? They are simply re-classified as 'fit to work', and subsequently vilified by Conservative party-supporting tabloids like the Daily Mail who claim that 75% of incapacity benefit claimants are 'trying it on'.

The real human impact of these dangerous discourses, government cuts and criminalisation of vulnerable people is what the Creative and Supportive Trust (CAST) is faced with every day from our base in Islington, North London. One service user, Mandy*, who attends free classes at CAST, described to me her struggles with accessing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to support her in her struggle with bi-polar, personality disorder, mild schizophrenia and a physical condition. Despite her recent diagnosis and history of episodes she has been repeatedly interrogated and made to feel like she's lying about her condition. It's not surprising that her assessor, a physiotherapist, had difficulty understanding her specific needs as lack of appropriate training is a common complaint against Atos lodged by disabled claimants. The fact she was able to attend her assessment and wore makeup on that day was actually used to undermine her claim. This is a catch 22 faced by many claimants, resulting from widespread stereotypes about what it means to be 'disabled'. This echoes what Sarah Wooleston has recently called 'the tick box process' which ignores the variable and destabilising nature of mental illness, whereby different symptoms present themselves on different days and one's capacities are always vulnerable to change.

Six months earlier Mandy was verbally harassed, humiliated and denied entry on a London bus by passengers and the driver because she had presented a freedom pass and did not appear to be visibly disabled. This abuse, which echoes the draconian chorus of the coalition's cuts, had a severe and long-term impact on Mandy's wellbeing, causing her to self-harm and self-destruct over a number of months. Only recently has she been able to return to classes at CAST. Mandy describes the continual lack of respect shown to her by the police, paramedics and hospital staff when they discover that she has mental health problems. Mandy now carries a criminal record for a crime she did not commit but admitted to in order to avoid disclosing her mental health issues to the police, whom she believed would not understand.

Not only does the state seem to be criminalising people through Atos assessments and their changing criteria, but the level of discrimination and marginalisation perpetuated by certain media outlets also forces people to criminalise themselves in response to the deterioration of public attitudes and the institutional erasure of mental health as a very real and disabling issue. The destruction of our benefit system represents a structural violence which will paradoxically disable people further. As Wooleston says, it is wrong to equate mental health issues with criminality as is a common theme in capability assessment hearings. However for those with mental health issues who have already been crow-barred into the category of offenders, CAST provides holistic support. In a moment of frustration Mandy exclaimed "I wish the government knew what this illness was" - we too think that more should be done to educate policy makers and assessors about the lived experience of all kinds of disability.

*names have been changed

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