A couple of days ago Iain Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, used an ordinary word in a very ugly way.
This is what he said about the numbers of working disabled people:
“But the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work.”
IDS’s use of ‘normal’ implies that disabled people aren’t normal. This divides, diminishes and dehumanises. It speaks only from his perspective, his “normal” – as a rich, old, white, non-disabled man.
This has shocked a lot of people, but I imagine there may be others who won’t see anything wrong with what he said. So here’s why ‘normality’ is an extraordinarily damaging concept – particularly in the hands of a politically powerful man.
Everyone’s body is different – this is normal.
People do things in different ways – this is normal.
Asking for and providing support – this is normal.
I say ‘biscuit’ thousands of times a day, I punch myself in the chest almost as often, and I use a wheelchair to get around. All of this is totally normal. And none this disables me.
IDS’s sentence contains an ugly assumption based on an out-dated belief that people are disabled by their bodies, rather than by a society that fails to consider difference.
This conflation of ‘non-disabled’ and ‘normal’ is perhaps understandable for someone who’s never given it much thought. But from a Government Minister responsible for creating and implementing policies that affect millions of disabled and non-disabled people, it’s utterly unacceptable. These policies include:
• The cap on Access to Work funding. This’ll hit the Deaf community particularly hard by limiting access to British Sign Language interpreters in the workplace. Communication for Deaf people will be restricted, curtailing their opportunities.
• The abolition of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the introduction of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). This introduces drastically tightened eligibility criteria for support with mobility costs. As a result over 100 disabled people per week are losing their Motability vehicles, and that means they lose their freedom.
• The disgusting Work Capability Assessment. This continues to cause huge suffering, with more than 2,380 people dying within months of being declared fit for work.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
What Duncan Smith said is too important to dismiss as just a badly phrased sentence. The language we use has the potential to shape the way we think. Words like ‘normal’ in the context of disability further embed assumptions and stereotypes.
Difference is normal, disabling policies aren’t.
Disability is created by a failure to think, adjust and support. Sadly, under the current Government, that failure’s become normal.