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Economic Austerity or Justification for Denying Disabled Women’s Independence?

This report has been updated on 13th May 2012

Many thanks to Dr Armineh Soorenian for this report

Economic Austerity or Justification for Denying Disabled Women’s Independence?


Since May 2010, the Coalition Government has introduced ‘Reform of Welfare Provisions’ – a large-scale comprehensive spending review, proposing substantial cuts in public spending scheduled to take place over the next three years.  The current paper recognises that due to these cuts, disabled women are disproportionally affected (Willitts, 2010).  On this account, the Home Secretary, Theresa May warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer that cuts imposed in the June 2010 Emergency Budget may be in breach of the Equality Act (EA) 2010 (Dodd, 2010).  The adverse effects of the cuts on women, pensioners, minority ethnic groups and disabled people were considered by May to be illegal.  Moreover, the Labour Party’s Work and Pensions spokesperson, Yvette Cooper, highlighted that women will face more than 70 per cent of these cuts; making it more likely that they will lose their jobs.  They will also be hit hardest by cuts in services and welfare benefits (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  This paper identifies some of the key disability and gender discriminatory issues experienced by disabled women in Britain.  The current work has been supported by secondary evidence and data, both quantitative and qualitative, obtained through previous research, and demonstrates how disabled women are disproportionally disadvantaged by the austerity measures implemented by the current Government.

Prior to 1995, there was a clear lack of anti-discriminatory legislation to protect disabled people in the United Kingdom (UK).  Since this time, subsequent UK governments have developed policies aimed at addressing barriers to mainstream living for disabled people; with the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) marking a significant step in this direction.  In addition to the DDA, from 1976, gender equality legislation (including the first Sex Equality Act) has been on the statutes.  The 2006 EA (EA, 2006) introduced the public sector duty to promote gender equality and develop gender equality schemes.  Thereby, public organisations were required to identify gender equality objectives and document how these were achieved.  Subsequently, in the public sector, the EA, which came into force in October 2010 (EA, 2010), replaces, “harmonises and in some respects extends” (Government Equalities Office and Equality and Diversity Forum, 2010: 3) the existing anti-discrimination laws for race, disability and gender.  The EA allows “measures to be targeted at women, for example to enable them to gain employment or access health services” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 37).  The Equality Duty then requires public bodies to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment because of gender, as well as other conduct unlawful under the EA; to promote equality of opportunity and foster good relations between men and women (CEDAW report, 2011).

Irrespective of gender, disabled people on the whole, encounter countless barriers and discrimination in their daily lives.  Seventy-five per cent of disabled women and 70 per cent of disabled men are already at the bottom end of Britain’s income distribution scale, left to live in poverty (DPAC, 2010b).  Disabled women experience dual discrimination because of their statuses as ‘disabled’ and ‘women’.  The situation is even worse for disabled women from minority groups such as older women and those belonging to minority ethnic groups.  In reference to disabled people at large, as Goodley and Roets (2008: 240) argue, it may be politically productive to address disabled people “as a heterogeneous group, with many ‘impair-ments’ (and other) labels who face a number of overlapping experiences of exclusion”.  Yet, as demonstrated in this report, the statistics fail to recognise that disabled people are not a homogenous group and include disabled women as well as men.  This is partly due to a general lack of data disaggregated from a gender and disability perspective.  Additionally, disabled women often remain invisible in mainstream legislation/policy for women.  Disabled women’s issues are still under-researched, and their concerns are overlooked in the area of dominate policy.  Therefore, disabled women’s needs are often excluded in the mainstream Disability Movement as well as the Women’s Movement (Keogh, 2012), which explains the lack of both qualitative and quantitative data specifically about disabled women in all the areas discussed below.

There are over ten million disabled adults (age 16+) in the UK (including limiting long standing illnesses) – an equivalent to 24 per cent of the adult population on the whole (Papworth Trust, 2011).  Nearly eight million people, or 20 per cent of the working age population (between ages of 16-64) in the UK have a ‘disability’ – 54 per cent of people in this group are economically active (4.3 million); 46 per cent are economically inactive (3.7 million) (Papworth Trust, 2011).

Health and Social Care

Disabled people make up around 1/3 of the NHS users in Britain (Papworth trust, 2011).  Certain health problems particularly impact women.  For instance, women are two and a half times more likely than men to experience anxiety and depression (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  Although the UK Government has “made clear its intention to create a new approach to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 180); disabled women face a number of obstacles in the area of health and social care.  This includes inaccessible health centres and facilities, and lack of information related to their health (International Network of Women with Disabilities, 2012).  The NHS’s procedures and practices are considered to be designed for patients who are ill but not disabled (Bailey, 2012).  The medical professionals’ poor attitude, particularly towards disabled women’s sexual and reproductive health, can also pose another barrier to using the medical services (Sen et al., 2007).  This is often exaggerated by inadequate sex education, inhibiting ‘care’ systems and unhelpful healthcare practitioners and services (Liddiard, 2012).  Yet, the Government claims:

Pregnancy offers a unique opportunity to engage women from all sections of society, with the right support through pregnancy and at the start of life being vital for improving life chances and tackling cycles of disadvantage. There is a focus on improving both outcomes for women and babies and women’s experience of care, a priority in the NHS Outcomes Framework for 2011-12. (CEDAW report, 2012: Paragraph 176).

Most health-care providers in and out of institutions seem to have negative attitudes towards pregnant disabled women, providing little or no help for them either before or after becoming pregnant; and even suggest abortion or sterilisation, particularly if the disabled woman is said to have any degree of learning difficulties (Howard & Handy, 2004).  By turning a private, sensitive womanly issue public, the medical staff can absolve themselves of any responsibility in their dealings with pregnancy complications and its ‘intimidating’ consequences.  Like the mother of a young woman with learning difficulties (pregnant with her second child), who broke down in tears as she pleaded with a high court judge to allow her daughter to  be forcibly sterilised ‘for her protection’ (McVeigh, 2011), the families of disabled women may be of a similar attitude but perhaps with differing reasons.  “Many of the parents feel that because they have already exerted so much energy raising a disabled child, they don’t want the burden of raising their children’s children.” (Degener, 1992: 120).  The fundamental message seems to be that a large proportion of disabled women have no right to reproduction.  It is assumed that this is in the ‘best interest’ of both the woman and the unborn child, whereas the underlying reason is that the community remains intolerant of disabled people.  This political and scientific decision, whilst on superficial levels may benefit the state economy, is un-dignifying for disabled women and devalues the life of disabled people and their families: “In short they (disabled people) see prenatal testing and selective abortion as being rooted in and perpetuating the oppression of disabled people.” (Bailey, 1996: 144).  The effects of sexuality-based discrimination on the sexual and reproductive health of disabled Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LBT) women is of equal significance.

In addition, Social Services budgets have been subject to extreme pressure; nearly all Social Services departments have been told to reduce their budgets by 25 per cent (DPAC Project, 2010), which has a knock-on effect to their provision of support services and the amount people need to contribute financially.  Similar to many councils, the Lancashire county council is raising the eligibility threshold for supporting disabled people from ‘moderate’ to ‘substantial’, saving £2.5 million a year for the next two years.  This council also plans to cut spending on personal budgets and ‘home care’ by £12 million over three years; and increase revenue from charging by more than £5.5 million over four years, as two older disabled women’s case in this county illustrated (Admin, 2011).  In short, local authorities all over the country are cutting the amount of ‘care’ funding available, tightening eligibility criteria, and increasing charges for those who are still eligible for ‘care’ to be able to live independently (DPAC, 2010b).

The Disabled People’s Movement has attempted to redefine the meaning of ‘independent’ living.  Rather than implying ‘doing things for yourself’ or being ‘self-sufficient’, disabled people have argued that independence, as autonomy and self-determination, can be achieved by having choice and control over any support needed to lead their daily lives.  This definition has long been at odds with the ways ‘care services’ have traditionally understood ‘independent’ living (Morris, 2011).


Make the medical and health facilities accessible, and train medical professionals to be aware of disability/gender related issues, so that they can be sensitive towards all disabled women’s concerns.  Improving access to mental health services for disabled women must be accomplished by services that respect the right of disabled women to make their own choices, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (International Network of Women with Disabilities, 2012).  Allocate more financial resources to Social Service departments, requiring them to use the interpretations of social model of disability, when assessing disabled people’s support needs for a ‘care package’.

Political and Public Life

Media Representation

Despite the Government’s claims to welcome “media challenge to stereotypes and portrayal of women in a positive manner” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 49); today, in literature, films, commercial and media imagery, specifically disabled women’s positive representations, which could set examples for other disabled women tend to be missing (Scarlet, 2012).  Disabled women have often been represented in a lonely, innocent and pitiful state, as having evil being done to them (Lonsdale, 1990).  She is depicted as unable to hold ‘normal’ friendships/relationships with others, particularly with the opposite sex (Kent, 1987).  Other women appear to be less threatened by her presence in competing for men’s attention, and take the roles of sympathisers (as mothers) towards the disabled woman rather than having healthy friendships with her (Kent, 1987).  To perpetuate these perceptions, very recently, on the 3 April 2012, the British TV company – Channel 4 has broadcast a sensational series called ‘The Undateables’.  “If ‘The Undateables’ seems an offensive title for a show, then that is probably the marketing aim for a TV channel in the quest for audience. Above a patronising voiceover, viewers are told from the opening that they’re about to see a group of ‘extraordinary singletons’ when in fact we see the opposite: six single people who happen to be disabled.” (UK Disabled People’s Council & European Disability Forum, 2012: unpaged).

The media has a significant role to play in the relationship between disabled and non-disabled people.  Despite major efforts by disabled people in favour of integration, or inclusion; reflecting the media portrayals, disabled people are often invisible from the society.  The limited representations of disabled people are mainly un-dignified and subjects of uncomfortable voyeurism as ‘The Undatables’ proved – depicting extraordinary singletons desperate to seduce.

To reinforce disabled people’s exclusion from public life and the prevailing prejudice against then, today in Brittan, disabled people in general are portrayed and falsely labeled in the media as at worst, outright benefit scroungers, and at best social burdens who are unable to contribute to society in any meaningful way (Boffey, 2011).  With such pejorative language, disabled people are accused of being “unsustainable, unproductive or immoral members of their communities” (Jolly, 2011: unpaged).  They are perceived to not be disabled at all, but “profiting from fraudulent benefit claims” (Jolly, 2011: unpaged).

On the contrary, disabled people are not chits or workshy (DPAC, 2010b), but excluded by physical and attitudinal barriers in the work place.  There are currently 1.3 million disabled people in the UK who are available for, and indeed want, to work (Office for National Statistics, 2009).  The societal limitation in creating an accessible work environment with suitable support and adaptations for disabled people – an economic, social and political solution – is overlooked; instead disabled people are blamed for their failure to be economically productive.  Yet, reflecting the media, societal attitudes appear to be of a kind that disabled people must be ‘lazy’ and get ‘something for nothing’ as a ‘Lifestyle Choice’.

The Government expects that the media ought to “abide by the law including laws on discrimination” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 50).  Yet, it was found that incidents of negative language about disabled people like “burden”, “scrounger” and “cheat” in print media had increased over the time; whilst sympathetic’ accounts of disability discrimination had almost disappeared in the tabloid press such as the ‘Mirror’, the ‘Sun’, the ‘Daily Mail’, the ‘Daily Express’, and for balance the ‘Guardian’ (Jolly, 2011: unpaged).  Variations were also found in the way different impairment groups were depicted; those with a physical or sensory impairment were more likely to receive sympathetic treatment from the media than other groups such as people with learning difficulties (Briant et al., 2011).  In short, much of the coverage in the tabloid press is “at best questionable and some of it is deeply offensive” (Briant et al., 2011: 12).  The increased concentration on benefit fraud with outlandish claims that over 70 per cent of people on disability benefits are frauds is an example of this kind of coverage.  These attitudes are fueled and reinforced by the Government’s misleading claims about ‘Disability Living Allowance’ (DLA) and ‘Employment Support Allowance’ (ESA) – by such claims as Iain Duncan Smith’s (MP welfare and pensions’ secretary).  In the ‘Sun’ newspaper in 2011, he implied that disabled people were responsible for the UK deficit (Jolly, 2011).  “… some articles even blaming the recession itself on incapacity benefit claimants …” (Briant et al., 2011: 40).

This stereotyped and victimised image of disabled people in general, and disabled women in particular, does little to help their integration and equal participation in the mainstream society, reducing their visibility as political actors in creating and maintaining human rights and equality.  It negates the gains in social acceptance won by the Disabled People’s Movement over the last few decades (Boffey, 2011).  In relation to PC Rathband’s suicide, Prof Barnes of Centre for Disability Studies at University of Leeds states that in the current climate, negative images and perceptions of disabled people on the whole are mostly informed by stereotypes, which come from wider society and which are perpetuated by the media (Disability Now, 2012).

It is to no surprise then that rise in disability hate crime (discussed in the following sections) has been on increase, which has contributed to a highly inflammatory atmosphere, and is associated with the ideological message of the media strategy on the demonising of disabled people (Jolly, 2011).  After all, it was words such as ‘spastic’, ‘cripple’, ‘scum’, ‘scrounger’ that made Peter Greener (a disabled man who was physically and verbally abused by his neighbours) feel suicidal and on antidepressants.  The climate of fear is certainly working; some disabled people are frightened to leave their homes because of physical threats and accusations of benefit frauds.  Glenelg (2012: unpaged) in an article in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper reports Willits’s (a disabled woman) experience of being verbally abused: “A few months ago, I was followed by a man I had never met before. For the length of the street where I live, he shouted ‘fucking DLA stick!’ at me every few seconds.”


Increase media images of disabled women with diverse backgrounds in positive roles.  Educate media about the discrimination disabled people experience, and encourage them to report the ‘real’ stories.

Economic and Social Benefits

Disabled people are said to have a vision of a welfare state, which through a progressive taxation system would create resources available to have a level playing field to experience the same life opportunities as non- disabled people (Morris, 2012).  The United Nations (UN) Convention – in particular Article 19 – recognises that without such provision, disabled people’s human rights are at risk.  In contrast, the current welfare system assumes that to rely on publicly-funded benefits and services is to be avoided, reserved only for a residual group of ‘deserving’ – the most ‘vulnerable’.  The system assumes that disability benefits/services have been too “generous”, reinforcing unnecessary “dependency” (Morris, 2012: unpaged).  Therefore, disability and income related benefits are being granted under more stringent conditions as well as imposing sanctions in order to incentivise people ‘off welfare and into work’.  Morris (2012: unpaged) refers to the benefit system as “at best paternalistic and at worst punitive”, unable to recognise that some disabled people will always be less able to work, or to work for the same length and earn as much as non-disabled people, regardless of the amount of ‘incentive’, which is provided by cutting benefits.  The recent closure of Remploy (supporting disabled people into mainstream employment), and the struggling economy has also proved to be unhelpful to many disabled people.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2004) reported that disabled people, who receive maximum benefit, experience a shortfall of £200 on a weekly basis compared to the amount required for them to lead a minimum standard of living, and an equal life to that of their non-disabled counter-parts.  Disabled people’s day-to-day living costs, including mobility aids, personal care and transport are 25 per cent higher than those of non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  Yet, a think tank has warned that disabled people will be hit with more than £9 billion (£140 per month) in welfare cuts over the next five years (DEMOS, 2010).

More than 2.5 million people receive ‘Incapacity Benefit’ (IB) (which was for people unable to work because of health or impairment) or ESA (DEMOS, 2010).  Disabled people are gradually being moved from IB to ESA and will have to be re-assessed.  Yet, this benefit is being rolled out on an ongoing basis.  Those deemed fit enough to work are moved on to ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ (JSA) instead.  Demos (2010) calculated the impact of moving 500,000 people from IB to JSA would amount to a loss of £4.87 billion, indicating less money for the individual (114,066 disabled people moved from IB and ESA to JSA will lose £994 million, and less one-on-one employment support).  Others are pushed to undertake employment without suitable support and adaptation.  The DEMOS report (2010) indicates that the move will result in more disabled people being trapped in long-term unemployment, costing the taxpayer far more than at present.

This is in addition to the 20 per cent cut to the DLA (this benefit was originally introduced to compensate for the additional costs of being disabled, such as higher heating bills or buying pre-prepared foods) (Marsh, 2011).  Reducing this allowance will restrict disabled people’s freedom to manage their own spending, which contradicts with the Government’s agenda of implementing personal budgets.  The survey by Essex Coalition of Disabled People (2010) found 57 per cent of DLA claimants fear their benefit may be taken away, and 2/3 felt their level of support would be at risk.

The Government’s Welfare Reform Bill will abolish DLA for working age adults (16-64 years of age).  They will need to be reassessed for the new benefit, the ‘Personal Independence Payment’ (PIP).  The planned new PIP will not cover some of the areas the DLA contributes towards, because through its introduction, the Government intends to cut the amount paid out by 20 per cent.  The PIP will have no equivalent low-rate ‘care’ payment, meaning that the 643,000 people receiving this support from DLA are now at risk of losing help (Disability Alliance, 2012).  Many claimants with visual impairment also may lose their higher rate mobility award, which was only recently won after years of campaigning (Dolphin, 2012).  Additionally, the new PIP consultation does not take in extra costs related to being female.  Disabled women have higher costs for ‘personal care’ issues, and thus can be further disadvantaged.  The most obvious corrupt interpretation of the social model of disability is considered to be in the Government’s proposals related to a new assessment framework for the PIP (Morris, 2011).  It does not take a holistic approach or account for ‘motivations’, social and practical as well as physical barriers disabled people face in returning to employment (Wood & Grant, 2010).  The assessments are not necessarily carried out by a medical doctor; 40 per cent of rejected claims go through an appeal with up to 70 per cent of those decisions being overturned (Marsh, 2011).  As the following case illustrates the emotional impact of such intrusive medical assessments are irreversible.  In an article in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, Butler (2011: unpaged) reports:“Elaine Christian, 57, of Hull, was worried, according to reports of an inquest in July, about a meeting to assess her disability benefits.  She was found drowned in a drain with evidence of ingested painkillers and ten self-inflicted cuts to her wrist.  Although she left a suicide note, an open verdict was recorded.  Her husband told the inquest: ‘She [Elaine] was worried about the assessment, but was never one to complain’.

”People over 65 receiving DLA appear to have avoided this round of cuts.  However, the Welfare Reform Bill does include provisions automatically to end PIP payments at the point when someone retires or turns 65.  This means that people receiving PIP would have to apply for ‘Attendance Allowance’ (AA).  The AA provides no mobility support and, this change could see thousands of older disabled people losing crucial support and the ability to continue living independently (Disability Alliance, 2012).

Moreover, older disabled women’s impairments may significantly affect the quality of their lives (Banks et al., 2006), yet they may not satisfy current DLA criteria for age related reasons (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).  Therefore, with the rising cost of living generally and extra costs of disability particularly, disabled people living on benefits will be further limited (Willitts, 2010).The Government’s aim in introducing the PIP is to cut 20 per cent of DLA costs by 2015-16, a saving of £2.1 billion.  To do so, the Government intends to pay £675 million for a new assessment process to ensure the PIP is not accessed by as many people as DLA.  Yet, the DLA fraud rate is reported to be less than 0.5% (Birch, 2011).  In nearly all of those cases, the ‘fraud’ is actually that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) considers that someone has had, and failed to report, a significant change in circumstances e.g. recovering from a physical injury.

Ministers also plan to stop paying out cash in the form of ‘Independent Living Fund’ (ILF) to help more than 21,000 ‘severely’ disabled people, who live in their own homes.  The fund, set up in 1988, pays (maximum £475 per week) for ‘carers’ and other help so ‘severely’ disabled people can live at home rather than moving into ‘care homes’.  It was announced in June 2011 that the fund was refusing all new claims.  Whether this funding will continue at all is still uncertain.  As the following ILF users demonstrate, the effects of losing ILF are devastating for many disabled people:

As half my care package is ILF I would first have no control over my toilet needs, this may result in me being catheterised. I am not unable to get out of bed or in bed myself, nor can I dress myself. I need support in all personal care needs, including keeping clean etc. I would not be able to attend any meetings when various government and NGOs ask me to be part of their various consultation plans. I would have no control over what time I got up or what time I went to bed therefore I would have no social life whatsoever. When ILF finishes in 2015 I will not have any social life. This will mean I will not be able to visit friends, attend the cinema or theatre, go to my bridge club or attend a primary school to assist children to read. I will no longer be able to use my car for shopping taking my dog to the woods etc. Having campaigned for the last 26 years this will end as I need support to do this. I regularly attend course on photography and employment issues – these will not be possible without ILF funding. (Admin2, 2012: unpaged).

I am a 44 year old digital artist/editor & film maker, a lot of time is spent travelling to locations for shoots, I can’t imagine how I would manage without ILF which funds a third of my care package, to lose such vital funding will probably change my life in a way presently I do not want to think about, however, as the government is pushing this legislation through regardless, I have to consider my position. Ultimately I fear that any real & significant control in my life and how I presently choose to live my life will be significantly curtailed. I know in this present political climate, any changes will be presented to the general public in a way that suggests no ‘significant” change, “the disabled” are worrying needlessly etc, but the reality has to be heard. I will have to make my PA’s redundant, relying on goodwill of friends or volunteers would not be feasible. I would lose control of my life. (Admin2, 2012: unpaged).
I am a 40 year old ex archaeologist, living in busy East London, and it would be impossible to manage if I lost my ILF. This funds 50% of my care package, so the loss of ILF would mean that I would lose my independence. At the moment I live independently and use my ILF to maximise my independence, to access the community, to do voluntary work in three different places. This government has pushed legislation through in a way which challenges human rights. Without ILF I would lose my home and my independence and would be forced to rely on my aged father and sleep on his floor as his house is inaccessible. (Admin2, 2012: unpaged).

In addition, almost 65,000 disabled people (including those with profound mental health issues) are at risk of losing their homes because of a cut in mortgage payment support for vulnerable people, according to the body representing housing associations (Ramesh, 2010).  Around 59,000 disabled people use the benefit to help them pay mortgages on homes they have bought.  A further 5,000 people with profound physical impairments and mental health issues have used the state payments to secure niche mortgages to pay for shared ownership homes – provided by housing associations – through which buyers purchase a fraction, usually more than a quarter, of the property and pay rent on the rest (Ramesh, 2010).  Since many of the claimants would not qualify for the best deals from high street banks, the scheme allows them to access rates which are comparable to those available to people who are not disabled.  Most of those who take up the benefit are first-time buyers with a total household income of less than £60,000.  A sizeable minority are home owners who can show that their houses are no longer suitable for their needs (Ramesh, 2010).  They may have long-term support needs, have a full-time ‘’carer’, or need to live close to a medical centre.  However, this benefit, which pays the interest on a mortgage, is to be reduced from its present value of 6.08% to what the Government says is the Bank of England average mortgage rate of 3.67% – a cut that means a loss of £1,300 annually for every £100,000 borrowed (Ramesh, 2010).

The National Housing Federation commented that at least 64,000 people will be at risk of falling behind on mortgage payments; with those affected struggling to keep up with their payments, falling into arrears and eventually losing their properties (Ramesh, 2010).  Changes to the amounts paid to mortgage interest for disabled claimants have been estimated to potentially lead to an additional 64,000 disabled people becoming homeless.

Furthermore, the Chartered Institute of Housing has calculated that the cumulative effects of the Coalition’s proposals mean that by 2020 every tenant’s (both in social housing and in the private sector) ‘Housing Benefit’ (HB) will be too low to cover their rent (Ramesh, 2012).  There are also plans to remove any security of tenure from social housing tenants and to increase rents to 80 per cent of market values.  Together with the caps on HB, this will make renting in the social housing sector unaffordable in many higher priced areas of the country.  Disabled people will only be able to afford to rent in the cheapest properties in an area, which are more than likely to be inaccessible.  This will exaggerate the difficulties disabled people face in finding suitable accommodation to live independently, increase homelessness amongst disabled people and push them further into poverty, especially if DLA recipients are cut by 1/5 as planned by DWP.

From 2013, HB for working age social rented sector customers will be restricted for those who are occupying a larger property than their household size would warrant (DPAC, 2010a).  The 670,000 households – 2/3 containing a disabled family member – will be hit by an average £670 penalty every year, because they are deemed to have a spare bedroom (Orr, 2011).  It means that if one is living in an adapted property (with an extra bedroom), which may have cost thousands of pounds to adapt, but she/he has no apparent need for the extra bedroom, she/he will only get HB paid at the one bedroom rate.  This is something that the Labour Government and DWP tried to introduce in Welfare Reform Bill 2007, but were forced to drop by pressure from Housing Associations (DPAC, 2010a).

Time limiting HB customers who are claiming JSA will only receive their full HB award for a period of 12 months (DPAC, 2010a).  After that their benefit will be reduced by ten per cent, and they will continue to be ineligible for the full out of work HB rate until after they have left the benefit system and been in work for a period.  This needs to be understood in conjunction with the work capability assessment for ESA, which is designed to get as many disabled people as possible off IB and into non-existent jobs, which should be completed by 2013 (DPAC, 2010a).  Therefore, this will affect a large number of disabled people.

Reforms to benefits and services risk leaving disabled people without the support they need to live independently restrictions in local authority eligibility criteria for social care support, the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and changes to housing benefit risk interacting in a particularly harmful way for disabled people. (JCHR, 2012: unpaged).

The DEMOS report (2010) concluded that by 2015, 98,170 single disabled people will lose £127 million.  This finding on its own can force many disabled women to stay in abusive relationships and endure hardship.  This is in addition to cuts to women’s services, cuts to legal aid and police, and cuts to transport and street lighting that offer safety and a lifeline to many women living in refuges and rebuilding their lives after escaping a violent relationship (Harris, 2012).  It can therefore be argued that disabled women are more at risk of domestic abuse if they lose their financial security and houses because of the benefit cuts.  Commenting on these drastic cuts, Richard Whitehurst of DPAC said:

These vicious cuts have already led to at least 31 disabled people committing suicide and many more are now talking about it as they feel they have no future. In the 21st century, in one of the richest nations in the world, disabled people should not be forced to live in fear every day of their lives. (Benefitsclaimantsfightback, 2012: unpaged).

On this account, Radnage (2011) reports a disabled couple, Mark and Helen Mullins, who are said to have killed themselves at their rundown home after being reduced to despair as they struggled to live off just £57.50.  Once a week, Mark told the interviewer for the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, they would undertake a 12-mileround trip on foot to the food kitchen.  The free vegetables they brought back with them to would be made into seven days worth of soup, cooked on a single gas ring set up in the one habitable room in the house in which they lived (Butler, 2011).


Create a fair system which assesses disabled women’s gender and disability specific needs and entitles them to benefits accordingly.  The system must assess disability, housing and income benefit entitlement on a case by case basis, rather than impose a one size fits all model on disabled women.  Simplify the application process to the benefit system.  Most importantly, the system should recognise that disabled people are experts on their needs and the difficulties they face.  The benefits should allow for them to remove the barriers they experience on a daily basis. 

Rural Women

In the area of health and social care, it is reported that the rural local authorities already receive lower funding allocations than urban areas, and therefore are less likely to provide social care at the lower FACS levels: “Through the Personalisation programme disabled women will have to purchase support and care but there are few economies of scale to attract providers in rural areas and higher costs, so the range of services available look set to diminish and cost of purchasing increase.” (Firman, 2012: unpaged).  The negative impact of these cuts on disabled rural women’s health and well-being as well as quality of life is therefore considerable.

In the rural areas, the lack of job centres forces disabled women to travel long distances to begin the search for jobs, which “poses a particularly significant barrier to work and training options for rural disabled women and increased risk exposure if travelling alone.” (Firman, 2012: unpaged).

Additionally, disabled people are more likely to consider public transport as a significant aspect of their mobility (Jolly et al., 2006), and therefore are heavy users of bus and train services, especially in the rural areas.  However, the current public spending cuts are impacting on the local authorities’ ability to support rural bus services (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).  With the closure of local post offices and other amenities, this has a greater impact on disabled rural women’s quality of life (Firman, 2012).

Whilst the UK Government claims to be “keen to promote a range of transport solutions in rural communities, not just rural buses”; in the same paragraph of the CEDAW report, it is suggested that the Government “gives local authorities the freedom to make the right decisions for their own communities and to assist local authorities to produce their Local Transport Plans.” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 216).

As the ‘Campaign for Better Transport’ research (2011) indicates overall 70 per cent of the local authorities in England plan major cuts in bus services (Disability Alliance, 2011).  This will restrict specifically disabled women’s participation in mainstream life including political and cultural activities as well as their access to health services and education.  The spending cuts of more than 40 per cent by the Department for Transport, will also lead to the loss of well-trained staff on the transport network who promote independent living by supporting disabled people in their travels (Peck, 2012), further isolating disabled people from mainstream life.

For disabled people, the alternative option to using public transport is to use private means of transportation.  Estimated number of valid Blue Badge holders on 31 March 2010 was 2.55 million (Papworth trust, 2011).  Yet, as Glenelg (2012) writes, when driving their private cars, disabled people are constantly scrutinised, needing to justify using their blue badge in public parking spaces.  Glenelg (2012: unpaged) reports the following disabled person’s account in an article in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper: “In the early days of my blue badge ownership, I was often glared at disapprovingly. I’d simply smile weakly and say I had multiple sclerosis. Most times that was enough, though once a burly aggressive gentleman spat out disparagingly ‘you’re a liar. You can’t have that because they’re all in wheelchairs’.”


Increase accessibility in public transport, and train bus/train staff to assist disabled travellers. 

Disability Hate Crime and Equality Before the Law

Disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people.  This gap is largest among 16-34 year-olds, where 38 per cent of disabled people reported they were a victim of crime compared to 30 per cent of non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  More than 20 per cent of disabled people have experienced harassment in public because of their impairment.  Harassment is the most common crime experienced by disabled people, followed by verbal abuse outside homes and repeat burglaries.  Sixty-six per cent of people with a learning disability have been bullied regularly with 32 per cent stating that bullying was taking place on a daily or weekly basis (Papworth trust, 2011).

Furthermore, as James Watts’s case (CPS, 2009) illustrated, disabled women’s abuse in the ‘safe environment’ of their ‘care homes’ is prevalent.  Watts, a driver for a ‘care home’ for ‘severely disabled adults’ was charged with “four counts of sexual activity with a person with a mental disorder … and two counts of sexual assault” (CPS, 2009: unpaged).  To facilitate communication in court, an intermediary – a skilled professional – was involved to take evidence from the disabled women victims, who had cognitive and speech impairments.

The financial dependency of disabled women, particularly, on their families may result in living arrangements that subject them to different forms of abuse, including mental, physical and sexual violence (Thiara et al., 2011).  The lack of accessible information and support for disabled women can prevent them from accessing social housing and shelter if a woman’s domestic living environment becomes unbearable.  In some cases, the police officers are said to be inadequately trained both in terms of professional and personal attitude and approach to know how to deal with disabled victims in general.  More specifically, “… the needs of disabled women who are victims of violence have been neglected at all levels.” (Levy, 2012: unpaged).Fiona Pilkington’s case in October 2007 (Sturcke, 2010) demonstrated the influence of negative media portrayals, and the wide spread incidences of hate crime in disabled people and their families’ lives.  Pilkington killed herself and her daughter Frankie, who had learning difficulties, following a hate campaign by local youths in the Leicestershire area.  The campaign targeted Frankie’s learning disability, leading to this tragedy.  Local police recorded Ms Pilkington’s complaints as evidence of anti-social behaviour, not as an on-going hate crime concern and ‘cry for help’.  Sturcke (2010: unpaged) notes that “the jury blamed poor sharing of information between the police and councils for contributing to the deaths, but also noted Pilkington had neither ‘sought nor accepted’ help on occasions”.

On this account, disabled people are less likely than their non-disabled peers to think the Criminal Justice System (CJS) is fair (54 per cent as opposed to 61 per cent of non-disabled people).  This gap is largest amongst 16-34 year-olds, where 49 per cent of disabled people think that the CJS is fair compared to 65 per cent of non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  Disabled people’s access to justice system is also reported to be restricted due to access and attitudinal barriers (Ortoleva, 2011).  Additionally, research (Ortoleva, 2011) has shown that a woman’s status as a witness, or her evidence, is accorded less respect/weight than that of a man.  When a disabled woman’s legal capacity is limited in this way, she is denied of her rights to be equal with men and also to report and address disability/gender-based violence.  Yet, the Government claims to have provided £127,424 to the Judicial Studies Board (JSB) in December 2010, so that it could deliver tailored training on the EA.  “The funding provided four one-day non-residential training seminars for 180 judges who are likely to hear discrimination cases brought under the Equality Act.” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 226).

Gemma Hayter’s case (Carter, 2011), a woman with learning disabilities who was viciously beaten by five so-called friends, led to a railway embankment and forced to drink urine before being stripped and left to die is another tragic story of similar disability/gender specific abuse.  Another such case is that of Christine Lakinski (Disability Now, 2008), who collapsed near her home in 2007 in Hartlepool.  Instead of helping her, her neighbour, Antony Anderson urinated over her as she lay dying, whilst he encouraged a friend to film the event.  Yet, this incident was not treated as crime, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated: “Defendant claimed that he thought that the victim was drunk or on drugs and there was no evidence to suggest that the defendant knew she was disabled”.  However, they were neighbours and she had a visible impairment.

In addition, the situation is worsened in some English counties, which have removed all funding to rape crisis and domestic abuse refuge services (UK Joint Committee on Women, 2011).  The police and CPS are facing budget cuts; the voluntary organisations fear that the support available to victims and survivors of violence may be reduced (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  Due to extremely limited resources, most disability organisations do not offer any specific services on domestic violence either (Thiara et al., 2011).  Yet, the UK Government is said to provide “grant funding of up to £3.5 million annually, for the next three years, to support rape crisis centres.” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 281).  Although the UK Government claims to have invested in support and protection for victims in the CJS with such measures as “the establishment of a network of Independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisors to provide support for victims of domestic violence and rape cases” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 269); the particular concerns of disabled women victims seen to have remained invisible.

Despite the new Strategic Vision of Department for International Development (DfID) to support “survivors of violence to seek legal redress” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 231); it is reported that in cities such as Coventry, the legal aid will be cut for welfare benefits, education and medical negligence advice, and severely reduced for debt, employment, family law, housing and immigration advice (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  These negative changes on women’s lives generally, and disabled women’s specifically, which can lead to breaches of their human rights include the following two pertinent points:

  • removal of advice on complex welfare benefits issues, housing issues and immigration issues
  • removal of legal aid for women in violent relationships
    (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).

Therefore, disability charities and Justice Select Committee MP’s have further argued that the Government’s plans to cut civil legal aid for welfare benefits, unemployment tribunals and debt advice will make it difficult for disabled people to appeal a decision about their benefits (Inclusion London, 2011; Commons Select Committee, 2011).


Make the information on help for disabled women who are victim to any form of abuse available in different formats and languages.  Increase the number of accessible domestic abuse refuge services.  Make the justice system accessible to people with a range of impairments and backgrounds.

Education and training
It is reported that 23 per cent of disabled people have no qualifications compared with nine per cent of non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  Adults with impairments are twice as likely to say their education opportunities are limited (17 per cent) compared with adults without impairments (nine per cent) (Office for National Statistics, 2011).In addition, disabled women’s life time earnings are on average lower than non-disabled men’s (Papworth trust, 2011), which may mean it is more difficult for women to meet the increased costs of studying.  Cuts to further and higher education may also prevent women obtaining educational qualifications, due to increased fees for higher education (HE) and reduced support for further education (FE), particularly for disabled women, who have additional support costs.  Consequently, women who are unable to obtain educational qualifications resulting from increased fees and reduced disability support may see their earning potential and job opportunities further decreased (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).Moreover, there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that in the British context, disabled students experience discrimination in HE, due to barriers such as inaccessible information and physical structures, as well as lack of funding and support (Collinson et al., 2011; Farrar, 2007; Soorenian, 2008).  Non-disabled people are twice as likely to have studied at HE than disabled people (Grewal et al., 2002).  Eleven per cent of working age disabled people hold a degree-level qualification compared to 22 per cent of working age non-disabled people (DWP, 2008b).  In 2009-10, of the 959,060 people, who entered into HE, only seven per cent were disabled learners (Papworth trust, 2011).  It is predicted that by 2020, 42 per cent of jobs will require a degree level qualification or above.  Hence, there is a strong correlation between low skills and unemployment (Papworth trust, 2011).

As a result, disabled people experience more discrimination in everyday life generally, and in the job market specifically.  As far back as 1991, Boylan argued that even though disabled women are deprived from the same standard of education as disabled men, when disabled women succeed in achieving high qualifications their prospects for finding desirable jobs remain limited.  Consequently, many disabled women are economically weak and dependent on others (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).  A limited, or indeed complete lack of education, can have a negative impact on disabled women in later life.  Older disabled women from ethnic minority communities, for example, often have limited access to training and employment options through online resources mostly due to the poor formal education received (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).


Create inclusive education practices, both at school and at university level. 

Education and training

It is reported that 23 per cent of disabled people have no qualifications compared with nine per cent of non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  Adults with impairments are twice as likely to say their education opportunities are limited (17 per cent) compared with adults without impairments (nine per cent) (Office for National Statistics, 2011).

In addition, disabled women’s life time earnings are on average lower than non-disabled men’s (Papworth trust, 2011), which may mean it is more difficult for women to meet the increased costs of studying.  Cuts to further and higher education may also prevent women obtaining educational qualifications, due to increased fees for higher education (HE) and reduced support for further education (FE), particularly for disabled women, who have additional support costs.  Consequently, women who are unable to obtain educational qualifications resulting from increased fees and reduced disability support may see their earning potential and job opportunities further decreased (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).

Moreover, there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that in the British context, disabled students experience discrimination in HE, due to barriers such as inaccessible information and physical structures, as well as lack of funding and support (Collinson et al., 2011; Farrar, 2007; Soorenian, 2008).  Non-disabled people are twice as likely to have studied at HE than disabled people (Grewal et al., 2002).  Eleven per cent of working age disabled people hold a degree-level qualification compared to 22 per cent of working age non-disabled people (DWP, 2008b).  In 2009-10, of the 959,060 people, who entered into HE, only seven per cent were disabled learners (Papworth trust, 2011).  It is predicted that by 2020, 42 per cent of jobs will require a degree level qualification or above.  Hence, there is a strong correlation between low skills and unemployment (Papworth trust, 2011).

As a result, disabled people experience more discrimination in everyday life generally, and in the job market specifically.  As far back as 1991, Boylan argued that even though disabled women are deprived from the same standard of education as disabled men, when disabled women succeed in achieving high qualifications their prospects for finding desirable jobs remain limited.  Consequently, many disabled women are economically weak and dependent on others (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).  A limited, or indeed complete lack of education, can have a negative impact on disabled women in later life.  Older disabled women from ethnic minority communities, for example, often have limited access to training and employment options through online resources mostly due to the poor formal education received (Shadow Report: Older Women’s Rights in the United Kingdom, 2011).


Create inclusive education practices, both at school and at university level.


Disabled people’s social mobility is said to be on a sharp decline (Wood et al., 2011).  The employment rates of disabled people are around 48 per cent, compared with around 78 per cent of non-disabled people (DWP, 2011).  Due to factors such as a lack of job opportunities, inaccessible transport, employer prejudice and barriers or family responsibilities, 56 per cent of adults with impairments face restrictions in the paid work they can undertake compared with 26 per cent of adults without impairments (Office for National Statistics, 2011).  Without recognising the difficulties that disabled lone parents may face when returning to work, the UK Government announced in June 2010 that “it expects lone parents to look for work when their youngest child goes to school” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 161).  Thus disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than non-disabled people (Papworth trust, 2011).  In 2008, 19 per cent of disabled people experienced unfair treatment at work compared to 13 per cent of non-disabled people (DWP, 2008a).  The average gross hourly pay for disabled employees, for example, is £11.08 compared to £12.30 for non-disabled employees (Office for National Statistics, 2009).

Furthermore, disabled women are far less likely to be in employment than non-disabled women and suffer widespread discrimination (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  Despite the Government’s claim to have introduced “reforms to remove barriers to work” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 159); disabled women are said to experience extreme levels of exclusion and more discrimination in the search of a suitable job in the workplace, from colleagues and employers, based on sexist and disablist attitudes.  As is the case with many other areas, in theory disabled women are said to have equal opportunities in the labour market.  In practise the situation is often very different: for instance, a tenth of disabled women have incomes below £31 per week compared with a tenth of disabled men, who have incomes below £59 per week (DPAC, 2010b).  Additionally, as Papworth trust (2011) reports the pay gap between disabled women and non-disabled men is large at 22 per cent.  This is despite the Government’s attempts to “address the ongoing challenge of the gender pay …” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 162).

Women’s roles are often linked to their duties as homemakers; when a disabled woman is seen as unable to fulfil her home-related duties, society further devalues her (International Network of Women with Disabilities, 2012), including in the job market.  Disabled women are perceived as belonging to the ‘corner’ of the house and incapable of being economically productive: “Just because a woman is confined to a wheelchair, it is commonly assumed that she is best at work with her hands.” (Boylan, 1991: 31).  This then affects the quality of disabled women’s lives, being unable to have stimulating, satisfactory and independent life opportunities.

Disabled women, generally, receive an insufficient amount of vocational rehabilitation (this is noted by Boylan [1991] to be a male-orientated service) after acquiring an impairment.  As well as facing the possibility of exploitation by their employers, as the following case study in Sutherland (1981: 34) indicated disabled women are often denied adaptation and support to be able to have an equal access to employment as non-disabled people in general, and disabled men specifically.  Maggie Woolley: “If I was to marry a deaf man, he could get the hearing aid, he wanted free because of his work but my work isn’t important enough, I find that really heavy discrimination.”

Reflecting this statement 30 years on, today at the same time as the Government’s claims to help disabled people back into work, the ‘Access to Work’ funding scheme, which meets the costs to employers of any reasonable adjustments needed in a workplace, has been slashed (Bott, 2011).  In general, 95 per cent of employers employ 20 or less people and thus are unlikely to pay for the many items that employers are expected to contribute to or pay the full cost of with the ‘Access to Work’ cutbacks.  The eligibility criteria for this benefit has been changing and tightening since 2010.  In general, current reforms to unemployment benefits, and the delivery of the ‘Work Programme’, scrutinise disabled individuals’ motivation and attitude (Morris, 2012).

These reforms are imposed on disabled people, who are not assumed to be experts in their needs and barriers or in how to address either. Far from being in control over how to use resources, disabled people are told to do (including unpaid work for unlimited periods). (Morris, 2012: unpaged).

Employment rates vary greatly according to the type of impairment a person has (Office for National Statistics, 2009), and are particularly poor for those with learning disabilities (less than one in five) (Papworth trust, 2011).  Only 15 per cent of people with Autism, and 35 per cent of those with mental health issues are in employment (DPAC, 2010b).  Furthermore, as the following case study in Brown (1988: 36) indicated women with learning difficulties are marginalised to a deeper level in the working environment simply because of their difficulties in memorising and understanding: “Other employees were kind to me at first, but rapidly grew impatient as I constantly asked questions.  I couldn’t memorize the prices, despite studying the menu during breaks …”  This may even continue today, where people with learning difficulties have no choice other than to work in segregated workshops doing routine jobs.  However, this would require further research.

Additionally, budget cuts are leading to public sector job losses; in Coventry alone, women are the majority of workers throughout the public sector (Stephenson & Harrison, 2011).  This discussion explains why disabled women’s careers choices are limited compared to non-disabled or even disabled men, and also why disabled women are often within the poorest group in society.  The implications are that disabled women have to depend on state benefit and friend/family charity.  Unfortunately, sometimes this means that they tolerate violent living conditions in order to ensure a minimum level of survival.  Being economically disadvantaged means that disabled women are deprived of accessible and safe housing (particularly in the rural areas), suitable medical-care and are unable to provide fulfilling lifestyles for their children.  Thus both at work and consequently in their disadvantaged lives, they may be exploited, marginalised, powerless and in extreme cases, subjected to violence (Naidu et al., 2005).


Create accessible employment opportunities for disabled women and provide appropriate support and adaptation.  Introduce and expand specific programmes, policies, and facilities geared towards recruitment of disabled people.  


Although the UK Government is said to be ambitious to “end violence against women and girls (VAWG)” (CEDAW report, 2011: Paragraph 251); the current work showed that the barriers encountered by disabled women in all the public areas discussed above were exacerbated by the interplay of their identities as ‘disabled’ and ‘woman’.  On the whole disablism and sexism coexist simultaneously.  Whilst the intersectionality of ‘disability’ and ‘gender’ disadvantages disabled women double-fold in these key spheres, the disproportionate effects of the current public spending cuts will have further negative impact on their human rights.  Restricting eligibility to ‘care’ and closing the ILF, removing financial support for those who leave work because of a health condition or impairment, and removing financial support for disabled people seeking legal aid, infringes on fundamental articles in the CRPD (Bush, 2012).  In addition to these, age, ‘class’, ethnicity, and sexuality similarly can increase or decrease disabled women’s oppression in all the aspects explored here.  As one such marginal group, disabled rural women, for example, are left out of most aspects of mainstream life by not having access to internet, which exacerbates their isolation.  “For women and girls with disabilities, it may actually be more difficult in a rural area to build up a network, keep up relationships and achieve status in the community.” (International Network of Women with Disabilities, 2012: unpaged).

Disabled LBT, Black Minority and Ethnic (BME), and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) women face multiple forms of discrimination when accessing community services and resources.  There are specific problems related to each community concerning the practical access issues as well as the profile and relevance of Disabled People’s Organisations (DPO) to LGBT, BME and GRT people (Hodgkins & Close, 2011).  Moreover, non-disability community organisations are often unfamiliar with the barriers experienced by disabled people on a daily basis.  As a result, certain communities of disabled women can become isolated and lead insular lives.


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CEDAW shadow report section on Disabled Women (Word Doc of section on Disabled Women for CEDAW shadow report) 147kb

3 responses to “Economic Austerity or Justification for Denying Disabled Women’s Independence?”

  1. […] of Frida have been involved in the CEDAW working group by members attending meetings and Armineh Soorenian has contributed to the report on disabled […]

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