Disability, Class and Agency

Portside Date:
Author: Roddy Slorach
Date of source:
International Socialism

According to two surveys by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2020, disabled people made up 59 percent of coronavirus deaths in Britain.1 However, as Guardian columnist Frances Ryan commented at the time of their publication, “You would be forgiven for not knowing this. These lives have not made the 6pm news. Newspapers’ front pages have not featured their faces. Ministers have barely uttered a word”.2 Yet, shocking as the figures are, the ONS state that it may actually underestimate the number of disabled people who have died. Why are these statistics not better known?

George Floyd’s public murder by a Minneapolis cop sparked the biggest anti-racist protests in the United States and elsewhere since the black civil rights movement. The disproportionately high number of Covid-19 deaths among African Americans fed into the protests, being seen as one striking example of how black people’s lives continue to be systematically devalued. Yet there has not been any mass movement over disability to compare with Black Lives Matter.

Life for millions of disabled people has become less and less tolerable under the pandemic. Research by the Disability News Service shows that the British government has breached their rights in 17 different ways during the coronavirus crisis. These range from the neglectful—repeatedy failing to publish vital public health information in accessible formats and to provide a British Sign Language interpreter in televised Covid-19 briefings—to the murderous, such as the delays in testing social care staff that led to thousands of disabled and older care home residents becoming infected with the virus.3 The Coronavirus Act, introduced to parliament in March 2020, cut disabled people’s rights to social care and education and weakened already inadequate safeguards for people detained under the Mental Health Act.4

These impacts of the pandemic on disabled people are discussed in an afterword to a new edition of Frances Ryan’s book, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People. The virus crisis also had effects on the wider political atmosphere. As Ryan points out, the “sort of large-scale investment formerly dismissed as a ‘magic money tree’ or dangerously ‘Marxist’ was now pragmatic common sense. The deep cuts to public services and squeezes on wages were, it seemed, a political choice after all”.5 The barrage of cuts on disabled peoples’ benefits and services over the last decade is the main subject matter of Crippled and another new book, Ellen Clifford’s The War Against Disabled People. This article discusses these books and, in particular, how they treat the relationship between disability, class and agency.

The disability offensive

In November 2020, an inquest heard the case of Roy Curtis, an autistic man with a history of mental distress. Curtis took his own life six days after being ordered to attend a “fitness for work” assessment, despite the Department for Work and Pensions being repeatedly warned that its actions had made him suicidal.6 A recent analysis by the Disability News Service suggests there were at least 750 suicides among working-age benefit claimants in 2018 alone.7 Although such deaths largely occur out of sight, they are as much a consequence of institutional discrimination as the murder of George Floyd.

The War Against Disabled People
by Ellen Clifford 
Bloomsbury (Zed Books);  264 pages
June 15, 2029
Paperback:  $20.65;  E-book:  $20.65;  PDF:  $16.52
ISBN: 9781786996640


Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People
by Frances Ryan 
Verso Books; 256 pages
June 11, 2019
Paperback:  $ 13.96 (30 % off)
ISBN: 9781788739566

Verso Books

The policies responsible for these deaths were not adopted in order to combat state debt through austerity. Instead, they were first implemented in the US many years before the 2007-8 financial crash, as shown by a collection of works by Marxist journalist Marta Russell, published posthumously in 2019 as Capitalism and Disability.8 As early as 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s administration capped disability benefits, “changing the way they were calculated in order to lower payments”. At the same time, the right wing in US politics was increasingly criticising the federal Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programme as “rife with fraud”.9 In 1996, President Bill Clinton “made moving people from welfare to work a primary goal of federal welfare policy”.10 Citing her own experience of the benefits system, Russell explained, “SSDI can be extremely difficult to obtain due to denials and the need to appeal one’s claim… The process is full of undue stress and economic hardship”.11

Although regarded as a model by other countries, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has systematically failed to improve disabled people’s lives. From 1992 to 1998, over 1,200 cases were filed under the employment provisions of the ADA, but “disabled employees prevailed only 8 percent of the time. By 2000, employers prevailed 95 percent of the time”.12 Its many other weaknesses, and subsequent dilution by successive court judgements, led Russell to describe the ADA’s provisions as “free-market civil rights” that valued employers’ property rights above those of disabled people.13

This story is remarkably similar to the later development of disability policies in Britain. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act—a British version of ADA that was incorporated into the Equalities Act in 2010—has proved equally toothless. Its enforcement body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), increasingly stripped of staff and resources, has been reduced to chronicling the devastation inflicted by cuts to benefits and services. In 2018, the EHRC reported that, “Reforms to welfare and tax since 2010 continue to have a disproportionate impact on the poorest in society…pulling more and more into poverty, particularly disabled people, people from some ethnic minorities and women”.14

Britain’s war on disabled people is powerfully documented in the two new books under discussion here. Much of the impact of Ryan’s Crippled comes from the stories of individuals she has followed over the years as austerity has devastated their lives. Ryan cites a 2018 study by Heriot-Watt University that revealed 1.5 million people in Britain are officially destitute, including “almost 650,000 people with physical or mental health problems”.15 A further report modelled the cumulative impact of 15 disability benefit “reforms”:

It found that by 2017-18, 3.7 million disabled people would experience a reduction in income… The changes would hit “the same group of people over and over again”… The Centre for Welfare Reform calculated that, by 2018, disabled people would on average be losing over £4,400 per person per annum…and around 200,000 would have lost between £15,000 and £18,000 in income through a combination of cuts.16

Ryan stresses that these calculations exclude the impact of cuts on new Employment and Support Allowance claimants and the roll-out of Universal Credit. The EHRC calculate that, by 2022, “the combined tax, social security and public spending policies carried out since 2010” will see families “with a disabled adult as well as a disabled child” hit with “annual cash losses of just over £6,500…or about 14 percent of their income”.17

Ellen Clifford, a leading activist in the radical Disabled People Against Cuts coalition (DPAC), spends much of her book covering similar ground. The War Against Disabled People, however, is more wide-ranging and comprehensive than Ryan’s book. It includes an explicitly Marxist analysis of disability discrimination and its relationship to the neoliberal consensus, as well as highlighting DPAC’s role in resisting austerity. According to Clifford, the “war” against disabled people combines three distinct neoliberal agendas, represented by three leading figures in the Conservative Party:

Chancellor George Osborne with his plan to reduce the deficit through harsh cuts to welfare spending, affecting the poorest in society; Iain Duncan Smith as secretary of state for work and pensions, with his personal commitment to overhauling the social security system; and ex-banker Lord David Freud with his determination to continue the work he started for New Labour by drastically reducing the number of out of work disability benefit claimants. The impact of any one of these initiatives alone would have been terrible, but together they were calamitous.18

Ryan and Clifford cite exhaustive evidence showing how these policies have led to homelessness, debt, hunger, survival crime and suicide. The scale, complexity and relentlessness of these attacks—illustrated by heart-rending examples of lives destroyed—mean that these books can at times be an overwhelming read.

Both authors emphasise that these policies “must be understood within the context of a wider attack on the working class in Britain”.19 As Clifford points out, other countries have also “restricted access to social security, placed greater burdens on claimants and provided profit-making opportunities to the private sector”.20 The war on disabled people therefore needs “to be understood within the overarching ambitions of capital to keep ‘unproductive’ welfare expenditure at the minimum possible and to open up new markets for private profit in the welfare sector”.21

Disability and class

As Russell bluntly puts it, disabled people are “excluded from education, transportation and other social spheres” because they “have little value to the capitalist class as workers”.22 This exclusion and isolation means, in turn, that “disabled workers and would-be workers do not have the social and political power to realize their economic wants”.23 How, then, is it possible to defeat the war on disabled people?

Seeking an answer to this question, Clifford’s book discusses the role of DPAC, the coalition founded by a group of disability activists who led an anti-austerity protest at the Conservative Party’s national conference in 2010. As she explains, DPAC’s “broadly socialist outlook” represents a shift away from the “identity politics approach” associated with the earlier disability movement of the 1980s and 1990s.24 DPAC endorses direct action as “a campaigning strategy that can compensate for disabled people’s inability to turn out en masse”.25

Clifford also describes a sharp debate in 2012, when she and other members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) won DPAC to support strikes to stop the closure of Remploy, an organisation that provided sheltered employment for disabled people. A later debate in which Clifford played a vital part, though omitted from this account, concerned whether DPAC activists should build links with workers in benefits offices or instead target these workers as enemies in the campaign against the government’s hated “work capability assessments”.26

Both debates raised questions about the relationship between disability and class. Here, each author takes a different view. Ryan argues that “disabled people’s exclusion from the labour market…is perpetuating a disabled underclass”, whereas Clifford explains this exclusion using the Marxist concept of the “reserve army of labour”.27 Ryan’s use of the term “underclass” denotes a particularly impoverished social group outside the working class, permanently unemployed and reliant on state benefits. Of course, the experience of unemployment, poverty and a life on the margins may lead some disabled people to embrace this label. However, this supposed underclass has also been consistently portrayed as deviant and criminal. These characterisations date back to Victorian notions of the “undeserving poor”.28 More recently, the underclass was demonised as “chavs” during New Labour governments’ attacks on “welfare dependency”.29 Ryan’s use of the term reinforces the notion that disabled people are a homogeneous social group outside normal class distinctions.

Crippled shows how increasingly hostile media reporting about disability, particularly related to unfounded claims about widespread benefit fraud, has been encouraged by successive governments. One effect of persistent headlines and political rhetoric about “benefit cheats” has been to increase the already common perception that all “deserving” or “genuine” disabled people are jobless. However, a relevant point here, omitted by both authors, is that the majority of working age claimants actually are in work, because low pay forces millions of workers to rely on tax credits and housing benefits.30 Moreover, the increasingly punitive testing regime that has wrecked or ended the lives of so many disabled people has also been applied to benefits affecting non-disabled working-class people.

In contrast to Ryan’s analysis, Clifford sees Marx’s concept of the “reserve army of labour” as “fundamental to understanding government policies affecting out of work benefits”.31 This disposable army of workers, maintained on meagre benefits, can be pulled into employment or expelled according to the needs of capital. Its existence strengthens the hand of employers by exerting a downward pressure on wages and posing an ever-present threat to those in work, who can be replaced if they complain or seek higher wages. The reserve army includes the unemployed and those in part-time, minimum-waged or zero-houred work unable to find more secure and better-paid work. Young people and migrants are other groups likely to form part of this army.

Marx’s theory compares favourably with the more static and sociological concept of the underclass. Marx’s framework readily accounts for short-term changes, such as the relatively minor increase in the number of disabled people forced into (largely low-paid and unskilled) jobs in recent years, as well as more fundamental and long-term trends. Women, for example, previously comprised a large proportion of the reserve army of labour, but now make up a majority of the working population. Huge numbers of disabled people also joined the workforce during the First and Second World Wars—a change that became more permanent during the long economic boom that followed the Second World War.

Unemployment rates among disabled people nevertheless remain very high compared to most other social groups—“from 36 percent in Northern Ireland to 51 percent in England”.32 The figures are considerably worse among some impairment groups. Ryan explains, for example, that just 16 percent of autistic people and less than 6 percent of people with learning disabilities are in full-time work.33

However, although these figures are horrendous, around half of all disabled people of working age are in work. Employment is also higher among those with qualifications; according to government figures, 73 percent of disabled people with a degree are in work, and many of them are in skilled or professional jobs.34 In line with wider trends, a growing number of disabled people are attending university and in 2018-19 comprised more than one in eight higher education students in England.35 Hence, a lCarge number of disabled people do not belong to the reserve army of labour and are instead a permanent part of the British workforce.

The missing war in the workplace

Neither Ryan nor Clifford see the workplace as more advantageous terrain for resisting discrimination. Indeed, few disability activists have seen trade union struggles as having any relevance to their battles. Throughout his life, recently deceased Marxist sociologist Mike Oliver, perhaps the most influential figure in British disability politics, ridiculed the claim that “the emancipation of disabled people can only be gained through joint struggles with organisations of the working class”.36

Large numbers of disabled people, however, have been part of the workforce for well over half a century. There are now around four million such workers in Britain. Notwithstanding the intensifying discrimination described by Ryan and Clifford, this increased visibility in daily public life, along with the greater independence and self-confidence that paid work can bring, has helped to undermine stereotypes and assumptions held by the wider population. Clifford writes that DPAC’s approach “of situating disabled people’s struggle within wider anti-neoliberal politics has contributed to an unprecedented awareness of disability issues among potential allies on the left”.37

Clifford also argues that “the various disability rights movements to date have received relatively little attention from socialists, union activists or academics”.38 However, this claim needs some qualification. British trade unions and the left have provided disability activists, and DPAC in particular, with many platforms over the last decade. Every major trade union now offers training for reps on campaigning for reasonable adjustments at work, and several have dedicated sections for disabled members. Unions also advocate the “social model” of disability: the important distinction made by British disability movement between, on the one hand, the sensory, physical and mental impairments of individuals and, on the other hand, the social and economic barriers that exclude and marginalise them. Progress has been uneven, but these advances are, nevertheless, important.

Many disabled people work in areas where there is greater trade union density such as education and local government. Not only are disabled workers more likely than others to join a trade union, but studies show that “equality rights are more likely to be secured in workplaces where unions are present”.39 Clifford’s suggestion that “there tends to be a high level of politicisation among disabled people” is therefore more likely to be true among those in work.40

In a chapter detailing the many obstacles to obtaining and retaining work, Ryan notes that half of disabled workers fear losing their job due to discrimination.41 These fears have very likely intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. The central problem, however, is not that the objective social and economic power of workers has declined. Instead, historically low levels of strike action has led to a decline in the belief that workers have and are able to exercise that power. The big question remains how to mobilise the power of the 6.6 million trade union members in Britain—and the millions of other workers who form part of the broader working class—in taking up issues of oppression.

Ryan believes the left has recently “not done a good enough job…of addressing the structural causes behind disabled people’s struggles”, but more importantly:

In recent years, nobody has done a good enough job of addressing the structural causes behind non-disabled people’s struggles… It is difficult to focus your energies on what is happening in a care home or to a disabled stranger when you’re struggling to pay your own bills and your children can’t find affordable housing. The challenge in the coming years is to bridge this gap and show not only that disabled people are not an economic threat, but also that the struggles facing each of us are not so different after all.42

Mass movements can help to “bridge this gap”. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, a poll in The Economist found that 67 percent of people in the developed world expressed support for its aims.43 This raised vital questions, not only for black people who previously thought they had to fight racism alone, but also for the many white people who joined the protests and want to know what role they can play in ending racism.

Both authors tend to assume that all disabled people are either poor or part of the broader working class. However, wealthier disabled people are less likely to see disability as a class issue and more likely to view it as one of securing “free market civil rights” that are more or less compatible with the status quo. This middle class layer, favouring a focus on individual rights, has traditionally dominated disability movements. Clifford hints at these divergent class interests in a later chapter exposing the myth of the “purple pound” and the record of disability charities. These organisations are an ever-present reminder of how far we are from a situation of “rights not charity”, but they are also likely to remain an important resource for many disabled people for so long as capitalism exists.44

Both Ryan and Clifford provide valuable and much needed stories “from the inside”, exploding myths about welfare spending and dependency and exposing the callous indifference of our rulers. Ryan, an experienced journalist, blends her research with testimony from a diverse range of disabled people, and there are chapters dedicated to areas such as work, housing and poverty. Her book is an angry indictment of the governments of the last decade.

Clifford’s book is angry too. The War on Disabled People is a chronicle of stories of resistance from a new generation of disability activists, written by one of its best known representatives. It provides greater depth and analysis than Ryan’s book, and is accessibly written, thoroughly referenced and includes some sharp asides criticising how disability has been portrayed on the left. The book’s many strengths far outweigh the weaknesses discussed above and its arguments provide valuable ammunition for our side in the war against all forms of oppression.


1 Office of National Statistics, 2020. The reports compare death certificates from March to July 2020 with disability data from the 2011 census, thus excluding disabled children under the age of nine as well as those who have become disabled over the last nine years.

2 Ryan, 2020a. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.

3 Pring, 2020a.

4 Inclusion London, 2020.

5 Ryan, 2020b.

6 Pring, 2020b.

7 Pring, 2020c.

8 This book includes a fascinating and wide-ranging selection of Russell’s articles, although there is no space to discuss these here.

9 Russell, 2019, p111.

10 Russell, 2019, p31.

11 Russell, 2019, p108.

12 Russell, 2019, p63.

13 Russell, 1998, p114.

14 Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018, p5.

15 Ryan, 2020c, pp20-21.

16 Ryan, 2020c, p23.

17 Ryan, 2020c, p24.

18 Clifford, 2020, p74. Freud was appointed to reform the social security system by the New Labour government in 2007. The title of his 2007 report, Reducing Dependency, Increasing Opportunity, helps explain why the coalition government kept him in this role. See Clifford, 2020, pp74-75.

19 Clifford, 2020, p145.

20 Clifford, 2020, p223.

21 Clifford, 2020, p225.

22 Russell, 2019, pp20-21.

23 Russell, 2019, p72.

24 Clifford, 2020, p272.

25 Clifford, 2020, p274.

26 Clifford and other SWP members in DPAC arranged meetings with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) to discuss the campaign, pointing out to fellow activists that many workers in the benefits system are themselves reliant on state benefits.

27 Ryan, 2020c, p54.

28 A colour-coded map of London produced by social researcher William Booth in 1889 divides the city into zones based on social class. Black indicated “the lowest class, vicious and semi-criminal”.

29 The myths associated with the term were demolished in Owen Jones’s superb Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2011).

30 For example, a recent Institute of Fiscal Studies report shows that in 2016-17, 58 percent of working age benefits in Britain were paid to households with at least someone in paid work—Joyce, 2019.

31 Clifford, 2020, p226.

32 www.jrf.org.uk/data/employment-among-disabled-people

33 Ryan, 2020c, p54.

34 House of Commons Library, 2021.

35 www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/coronavirus-briefing-note-disabled-students/#disabledstudents

36 Campbell and Oliver, 1996, p176. In a key book published 16 years later, Oliver described “the apparent disappearance of the working class and the emasculation of the trade unions”—Oliver and Barnes, 2012, p161.

37 Clifford, 2020, pp278-279.

38 Clifford, 2020, p38.

39 William and Cunningham, 2018, p2-3.

40 Clifford, 2020, p217.

41 Ryan, 2020c, p65.

42 Ryan, 2020c, p197.

43 Economist, 2020.

44 This chapter highlights the complicity of the disability charities in the cuts offensive, but in my view downplays this contradictory role. See Slorach, 2016, pp145-151.


Campbell, Jane, and Mike Oliver, 1996, Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future (Routledge).

Clifford, Ellen, 2020, The War Against Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe (Zed Books).

Economist, 2020, “The Power of Protest and the Legacy of George Floyd” (11 June).

Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018, Is Britain Fairer? The State of Equality and Human Rights 2018—Executive Summarywww.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/is-britain-fairer-2018-executive-summary-pre-lay.pdf

House of Commons Library, 2021, “Disabled People in Employment: Briefing Paper Number 7540” (24 May), https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7540/CBP-7540.pdf

Inclusion London, 2020, “Restore the Rights of Disabled People—Scrap the Coronavirus Act Easements” (22 September), www.inclusionlondon.org.uk/disability-in-london/coronavirus-updates-and-information/campaigns-news-during-coronavirus-crisis/restoring-disabled-peoples-rights-scrap-the-coronavirus-act-easements

Joyce, Robert, 2019, “Benefits Spending: Five Charts on the UK’s £100bn Bill” BBC News (22 March), www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47623277

Office for National Statistics, 2020, “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Related Deaths by Disability Status, England and Wales: 2 March to 14 July” (18 September), https://tinyurl.com/ybpzfp5e

Oliver, Mike, and Colin Barnes, 2012, The New Politics of Disablement (Palgrave Macmillan).

Pring, John, 2020a, “Coronavirus: How the Government Breached Disabled People’s Rights 17 Times During the Pandemic”, Disability News Service (23 July), www.disabilitynewsservice.com/coronavirus-how-the-government-breached-disabled-peoples-rights-17-times-during-the-pandemic

Pring, John, 2020b, “Roy Curtis: Autistic Man Killed Himself Six Days After Latest ‘Fitness for Work’ Demand”, Disability News Service (3 December), www.disabilitynewsservice.com/roy-curtis-autistic-man-killed-himself-six-days-after-latest-fitness-for-work-demand

Pring, John, 2020c, “Call for Action over ‘Scandal’ of Benefit Claimant Suicides Ignored by DWP”, Disability News Service (17 December), www.disabilitynewsservice.com/call-for-action-over-scandal-of-benefit-claimant-suicides-ignored-by-dwp

Russell, Marta, 1998, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (Common Courage Press).

Russell, Marta, 2019, Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell (Haymarket Books).

Ryan, Frances, 2020a, “Disabled People Can’t Be Cannon Fodder for Boris Johnson’s Economic Recovery Plan”, Guardian (4 August), www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/04/disabled-people-boris-johnson-economic-recovery-covid-19

Ryan, Frances, 2020b, “Rebuilding After Coronavirus”, Verso blog (1 September), www.versobooks.com/blogs/4837-rebuilding-after-coronavirus

Ryan, Frances, 2020c, Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People (Verso).

Slorach, Roddy, 2016, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (Bookmarks).

William, Laura, and Ian Cunningham, 2018, “Evaluating the Role of Trade Unions and Civil Society Organisations in Supporting Graduate Educated Disabled Workers”, University of Strathclyde (26 September), https://pure.strath.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/82509353/William_Cunningham_EID_2018_the_role_of_Trade_Unions_and_Civil_Society_Organisations_in_supporting_graduate_educated_disabled_workers.pdf

Book author Ellen Clifford is a disabled activist who has worked within the disability sector for more than 20 years. She presently serves on the national steering group for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

Book author Frances Ryan is a journalist, weekly Guardian columnist, broadcaster and campaigner  was named one of the U.K.'s most influential disabled people by the Shaw Trust in 2018. Her weekly Guardian column, Hardworking Britain, has been at the forefront of coverage of austerity over the last decade. Dr. Ryan was shortlisted for the 2020 Paul Foot Award for Investigative Journalism.

[Essayist Roddy Slorach is the author of A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability. (London, Bookmarks Publications, 2016)]

Information on International Socialism: A Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory, is available HERE.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2021-08-05/disability-class-and-agency