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

Date Posted: Wednesday 16th December 2020

Austeritydisabled womenFeminismFeminist EconomicsFeminist Economics book club

Publisher: Verso, 2019

Review by Dr Eli Pimentel de Çetin

In Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People, the author Frances Ryan weaves the raw lived experiences of disabled people struggling to cope under extreme duress and financial pressures with  research data following a decade of austerity in the UK as it is experienced by those for whom there are no social safety nets in place. She looks in turn at the impact austerity has had on disabled people in terms of poverty, work, independence, housing, women and children.

One of the most important aspects is Ryan’s awareness of  the socio-political narratives that fuel discrimination against persons with disabilities: that they somehow extract from the system without being productive members of the society or the economy. Ryan exposes how this narrative fuels political apathy towards delivering on Government commitments to safeguard the rights of persons with disabilities.

December 3 is disabilities awareness day and it is striking how little progress is made in substantively promoting a life of dignity, access to care, suitable housing, and physical and mental wellbeing. The author gives persons with disabilities the voice, and the visibility that is necessary to counter hate crimes, and the lack of understanding that often pushes these struggles out of the public eye.

Where this reviewer disagrees with the author is the manner in which the portrayals of some individuals in the book are, arguably, sensationalised. The circumstances under which persons with disabilities are forced to live is inhumane, but the book would have benefitted from a broader qualitative lens, as well as using individual case studies to show the breadth of individuals experience.

Prejudicial treatment of others based on specific categorisations such as gender, race and disability lie at the root of discrimination. Whilst such characteristics are protected by the Equalities Act of 2010, in practice Ryan attests that many policies, particularly those associated with austerity, disproportionately disadvantage disabled people.

That is not to imply that somewhere within the machineries of government there are groups of people deliberately making choices to disadvantage others and endorsing social care policies which are not fit for purpose. But the outcomes – increased poverty, ill health, and a life lived that is less than dignified – are the result of the laxity in addressing the core elements that fuel bias against any person in need of protection from the State and compassion from the public.

The other point of disagreement rests on the manner in which Ryan’s focus on the struggle of disabled persons sometimes neglects the intersection disability has with other protected characteristics such as gender and race. The overall tone of Ryan’s text construes the experiences of different demographics dealing with austerity as a zero-sum game between groups of people vying for scarce resources, rather than an intersection between multiple categorisations of disadvantage.

A critical analyses of the commonalities between groups –destitution, disenfranchisement, unsuitable housing, and exclusion from viable education, care and decision-making structures – would reveal how legally protected persons are disempowered despite the relatively robust equalities framework in place. Since 2017, the United Nations has sent Special Rapporteurs on separate missions to the U.K. to investigate the concerns that civil society groups and charities have put forth vis-à-vis life under austerity.

In 2018 the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances reported that, barring differences that exist in the four nations, and taking into account both the legacy and the lived experience of austerity, persons in the U.K. who belong to ethnic minority groups experience poorer outcomes in many areas of life, including health, the law and the justice system, policing and immigration. The Special Rapporteur on Poverty (2018) revealed in its 2019 report that poverty in the United Kingdom was the outcome of political and ideological choices. The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on concluding its visit, reminded the government in 2020 of the universality, inter-relatability and indivisibility of all human rights and the need for persons with disabilities to be guaranteed those rights without interference. The common points in all three reports demonstrate that the lack of a substantive rights framework in the U.K., and austerity, have led to a diminished quality of life for all vulnerable groups.

So while the author tries to shift the narrative around society’s perception – and Government’s neglect – of persons with disabilities, the argument would benefit by an in-depth understanding of how socio-economic systems, and legal and juridical structures are set up to perpetuate the status quo in a way that goes beyond discrimination to being one of a denial that all persons are of equal worth.

The problem with making such broad-based statements is that normative assumptions about the financial crisis and public spending on welfare lead to the stark realities of fiscal retrenchment and partial truths getting swept up into one undifferentiated remonstration. This makes it difficult to formulate an action plan that gets government ministries and agencies on board to deliver on its mandates.

Austerity was put together by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, ostensibly in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity is justified, according to the architects of the legislation, on the basis that public spending rollbacks were necessary to balance the budget.

Ryan propagates the oversimplified discourse replicated in the mainstream media that ‘bankers’ are to blame for the financial crisis that brought on austerity. The causes of the financial crisis were complex, including deregulation and lack of oversight in the financial industry. Stating otherwise oversimplifies the true causes of one of the worst human development disasters in our recent history, one which is now followed by Covid-19.

Following the 2008 financial crises, had we asked ‘who pays for the lack of regulation that occasioned the crisis?’, the answer would have included ‘women, children, and ethnic minorities’. This is a question we might be asking again in light of the economic measures to address the pandemic. Given the national debt currently stands at 92% of GDP, who will pay for setting the economy on track after the health crisis?

The book is most suited to a lay audience interested in an accessible introduction to the impacts of austerity, rather than a specialist academic or policy audience.  What is outstanding is Ryan’s insistence on the simple fact that none of the cases she highlights are rare. The increase in need and in demand for services; unsuitable housing and lack of at-home care; cuts to social care packages; the ever-growing complexity in accessing benefits; the rise in care package thresholds; the funding crisis facing the NHS and the lack of trained healthcare workers and nurses all mean that the problems will worsen and that many more will be affected given we are now entering the 11th year of austerity, with the same political actors taking variations on the same decisions that have brought us to this point.


Dr Eli Pimentel de Çetin is an Economist & Gender Policy Consultant, and a member of the UK Women’s Budget Group Policy Advisory Group.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.