Narratives, solutions and disability

How disabled people are represented is really important.  The stories, or narratives, we see about disabled people do a great deal, having the potential to impact on attitudes, thoughts and feelings in relation to impairment, for disabled and non-disabled people alike. Earlier this year I wrote about the contested narratives surrounding the representation of disabled people.

In this blog, I return to this topic with an updated theory, with reference to recent events.  I believe there is a battle going on at present to shape how we think about disability and.  The results of this battle, and how we choose to negotiate it, will have a critical impact on the lives and prospects of (and for) disabled people.


Recent events serve as a microcosm of this battle and the associated conflicts.  This month, the Department of Work and Pensions are holding a month of events to celebrate the value that disabled people bring to the workforce, via its much promoted Disability Confident scheme.  On the face of it, all appears positive.    The battle continues when a narrative is presented and projected.  The Sun reported that disabled people were getting jobs in record numbers because of the scheme.  A news search reveals a wave of events to promote the scheme and a variety of positive headlines.

However, scratch a little deeper and it all gets a bit more complicated.  In short, all is not as rosy as it would appear.  An indication of this comes via Work and Pensions Select Committee Report on sanctions.  This report found that sanctions, which are deductions from benefits paid to claimants, were ‘harmful and counterproductive’ for disabled people.  There appears to be a yawning gap between the policy rhetoric and the policy reality.  On the one hand, disabled people are being celebrated, whilst simultaneously subject to harmful measures.

Further evidence comes from a recent house of commons research paper.  This shows that the difference between the employment rates of those with impairments and those without is over 30%. The ‘disability employment gap’ remains a huge one.

Polls and Solutions

A further frontier of this battle is social media.  The disability community can be vocal about its struggles here, particularly in terms of disability benefits and welfare reform.  I too have been open about the difficulties I have encountered as a result of the PIP process.  It is here, on media platforms, where narratives are constructed.

I ran two twitter polls to ask people, if based on their personal, professional or voluntary experience, life was getting easier, harder or remaining the same.  Clearly there are limitations with Twitter polls, particularly as you can’t verify the respondents or ask them about the reasons for their answers.

What was clear from the polls was that both sets of respondents were of the view that life was getting harder and by some margin (70% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people.)

Stating the problems is in one sense the easy bit. This is where moving away from the battles needs to happen.  Towards solutions.  It is finding the solutions that is critical to moving everyone forward. This is where there is a need for an inclusive dialogue about how best to move forward, which involves disabled people in a meaningful way.

That is the problem with narratives.  They don’t always either a) tell the complete story and b) allow for stories to be told in a nuanced way.  Having narratives effectively serves to obscure and amplify problems by the creation of false positions and often dichotomies (e.g. deserving v undeserving.). The power of narratives lies in their ability to enhance understanding – by opening up our capacity and space to communicate with each other.  We need to do this more so than ever before, by recognising what can unite us and not divide us, in a way that respects our differences and celebrates them.

What is needed in my view is a greater focus on solutions and a greater emphasis on understanding.  Perhaps taking the politics out of things will help too.  Call me hopelessly idealistic if you like, but I think people’s lives are too important to be ‘spun.’

In short, what we need is not battles and polarised narratives, but solutions as to how to make life better. For everyone.

About the Author

Chris Whitaker was born and grew up in Cheshire, arriving in the world with cerebral palsy after a complex childbirth. Apparently, he was lucky to be here at all and has tried to make the most of life ever since! Chris has worked in the third sector for a few years now and is also a charity trustee. Making a positive difference every day is what drives him and he gets to see the impact the third sector makes. Chris has also been able to use his own lived experience as a disabled person to make an input into his working life.

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