Brexit and the logics of ableism

Interdependence is central to the lives of disabled people – yet an ideology of ableism, reflected in the Brexit vote, runs counter to this

Dan GoodleySince June and the fall-out from the EU referendum result many of us on the left of British politics (and the related media) have struggled to make sense of the decision to leave the EU. Trawling through social media and the mainstream press reveal a number of explanations: We are now Little Britain. Leave is a cultural vent for the rise in racism and xenophobia. We are witnessing the expression of opposition to the bureaucratic machine that is the EU project. Leave reflects a more general move to the right in democratic politics. Leave voters were taking a stance against immigration.

One of the many questions that has been overlooked is what does Brexit mean for disabled people? And more broadly, but as importantly, what does Brexit tell us about British society and the values that underpin it? How might we read the vote to leave if we were to think of it in terms of a rational decision that reflects a particular kind of guiding idea or ideological narrative? Those defending leaving the EU have developed an explanatory discourse that includes the following tropes:

  • Standing alone
  • Reclaiming our independence
  • Being self-sufficient
  • Seeking autonomy (economic, cultural and national)
  • Self-rule over our national concerns
  • Maintaining our sovereignty

Our task, then, is to reconnect with one another: to reform our links and emphasise our dependencies upon one another. We need to build a political commons that reaches us, that emphasises our shared vulnerabilities and builds bridges between fractured communities. Our research through the Human Activism project is just one small attempt to make these connections. We are not alone in this life together; no matter what Brexit might stand for.

One view of Brexit is that it represents ableism writ large: the ideology that assumes independence lies at the heart of what it means to be a good British citizen. Brexit marks the nation state of Britain as an ableist ideal: capable of governance and trade devoid of reliance on interdependent relationship with other European nations. And crucially a nation state with non-porous borders; where European others are cast as threats to British ideals. Brexit might be viewed as a consequence of the actions of neoliberal-ableist citizens of this brave new world of self-sufficient independence. These individuals are the treasured subjects of austerity. Working hard. Shopping enough. Delighting in their lack of need to pull down resources from the welfare state. Standing alone. Pulling themselves up by the boot-strings.  The timing of Brexit and austerity are not coincidental. What we have witnessed over the last six years is a fundamental rewriting of the British citizen’s relationship with government. The government rolls back and individual responsibility rolls in. As such Brexit should have come as no surprise. It is merely another example of the neoliberal-ableist individualism that increasingly marks our communities. Why would anyone want dependence, mutuality or interconnection with the European project when we are all austerity subjects now?

Many disabled people’s organisations worry that Brexit will lead to a lack of engagement with EU disability rights law and jeopardise much needed financial support for UK disabled people from EU Structural and Investment Funds. And we know from our research with disabled people with learning disabilities that their organisations offer many exciting ways of supporting people into employment, promoting community participation and helping people to live meaningful lives. Public spending cuts and now Brexit threaten to undermine this important work. As the stories on our Human Activism website demonstrate – disabled people are best placed to support one another to live interdependent lives. This latter phrase – interdependence – is key to disabled people and their organisations. We need others to live. And others need us to be around in order for them also to feel human. Disability turns up in the world to make a simple but profound point; none of us are independent as we all rely upon our mutual relationships with one another in order to exist. But what about Brexit?

I have recently argued, then, that we live in ‘neoliberal-able’ times where the emphasis is on the abilities of individual labourers and consumers to work the market for their own needs and desires (untouched by the helping hand of welfare and big government). The reality, however, is that many citizens fail to match up to these neoliberal-able demands. Indeed, our research project ‘Big Society? Disabled People with Learning Disabilities and Civil Society’ has documented the challenges faced by disabled people in a time of austerity. Cuts to health, employment, social care and education services risk leaving disabled people isolated and alone. And this rolling back of the welfare state perfectly fits with the current Brexit vision of living independently without the support of others. In contrast, many disabled people and their families now find themselves in incredibly vulnerable positions because hitherto their lives have relied upon essential services which have now been taken away. Similarly, we would suggest, many Remain voters feel isolated and cast off from our European brothers and sisters. But this is much more than simply a crisis of cultural identity.

These statements are familiar to those of us who do disability research. We know that each of these tropes is consistently fused with another in order to articulate an ideology of ableism. This ideology underpins our neoliberal, late capitalist societies in which the lone entrepreneurial citizen works to keep him or her self-sustainable. Ableism emphasises self-sufficiency, containment, independence and autonomy. We are not reliant upon others. We need only ourselves.