Reviews on the cover of Frances Ryan's (2019) Crippled: Austerity and the demonization of disabled people call the book "devastating" (McDonnell), "essential" (Grey-Thompson), and "a ferocious, thoroughly substantiated indictment of [the U.K.] government's maltreatment of its disabled children, women, and men" (Delaney). It is all of these things. It's also an accessible, well-written book that pulls readers in with stories of disabled people barely—or not—surviving austerity alongside clear statistics and reporting on research.

The human cost of austerity measures in the U.K. over the last decade is no secret. Since sweeping cuts were initiated in 2010 in response to the economic crash of 2008, homelessness has increased 165% (Eaton, 2020), child poverty has risen to a level not seen since before WWII (Toynbee & Walker, 2020), and life expectancy has stagnated overall and been reduced for those most marginalized (Boseley, 2020). Local council budgets have been slashed by a third (Toynbee & Walker, 2020), leading to cuts in social services, transportation, community centers, libraries, and education. As Ryan (2019) notes, these measures have hit disabled people 9-19 times harder than nondisabled citizens. Coupled with cuts and changes to welfare benefits, austerity measures have been catastrophic for people with disabilities.

Ryan documents this catastrophic impact across six interlocking domains: poverty, work, independence, housing, women, and children. In chapters addressing each area, readers meet people counted by statistics. There's Susan, one of many interviewed by Ryan who are "starving" (p. 13), unable to go out, heat their home, or afford the diet they need thanks to the bedroom tax and cuts to care subsidies. There's David, who died with an empty stomach from a lack of insulin after losing his benefits because he missed meetings at the JobCentre. And Robert, a wheelchair-user trapped in an inaccessible second-floor apartment where his skeleton crew of carers drag him from room to room and down the stairs when he needs to go out for medical appointments. Denied care because his home life is too disabling, alone and unable to move for an equivalent of four days a week, Robert describes how he feels "like [he] no longer [has] permission to be a part of society…That [he's] excluded from any form of dignity or human rights" (p. 112). His words echo in the stories of many others described in the book.

One of Crippled's biggest strengths comes from Ryan's ability to connect the dots between policies, dehumanizing discourse, and the lived experiences of disabled people. She describes how austerity measures were justified by scapegoating people with disabilities, with politicians and media outlets blaming welfare for the economic crash. In this discursive landscape, disabled people are characterized as "scroungers," liars and "fraudsters," lazy leeches "milking the state." As Ryan points out, these dehumanizing characterizations are evident in the suspicion underlying work capability assessments, in surveillance aimed at spotting "fakers," in sanctions that punish disabled people for being unable to comply with jobless benefit requirements, in the bedroom tax penalizing disabled people for "spare rooms" typically used for medical equipment and carers, and in the benefit cap promoted as a measure of "fairness" for workers "leaving home in the dark hours of early morning… [while] their next-door neighbor [sleeps] off a life on benefits" (Osborne quoted in Ryan, 2019, p. 124). Ryan also traces the connection between "scrounger" discourse and the abusive and discriminatory attitudes of benefits assessors, the uptick of hate crimes against disabled people, workplace and housing discrimination, and the internalized oppression of disabled people who "reassure [Ryan] that they understood that the welfare bill was out of control but that they needed their benefits" (Ryan, 2019, p. 30).

Throughout the book, Ryan lays bare the disabling effects of welfare cuts. Again and again, policies exacerbate health problems, plunge people into crisis, and snatch away supports they need to get out. For instance, work capability assessments—"the embodiment of the post-crash narrative that disabled people were suspects… [whereby] every single disabled person on out-of-work sickness benefits in the country was told they were to be tested to see if they were in fact 'fit for work'" (p. 48)—were shown to have a negative impact on participants' health and to increase their level of pain. Assessments also stripped many disabled people of their benefits and required them to go back to work. With many JobCentres closed, sick and disabled people who suddenly lose out-of-work sickness benefits are forced to travel farther for unemployment support. Those lucky enough to find work in spite of pervasive discrimination against disabled applicants are often trapped in low-wage, high-stress jobs that further damage their health. Many women have been pushed into sex work. These cuts have led to so many deaths—from the toll of working with life-threatening conditions, stress, destitution, and suicide—that Ryan calls death "part of Britain's benefits system" (p. 51). A failure at every level, these welfare cuts have not even delivered promised economic gains. Assessment tests have cost the U.K. government more than it has saved by reducing benefits.

The stories in Crippled demonstrate that vulnerability is a structural, not individual, condition. Ryan writes,

Contrary to the cultural myths surrounding disability, it is not inevitable for people with disabilities to be afraid, desperate or isolated. Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives—knowing full well the misery it will cause (p. 8-9).

Disabled people are made vulnerable by "severe material deprivation" (p. 20), destitution, and homelessness caused by a combination of cuts, high rents, and benefits delays. Disabled children are made vulnerable by cuts to child benefits, two-child-limit tax credits, the elimination of youth and respite centers, and cuts to educational supports and specialist provisions. Disabled women are made vulnerable by the elimination of refuges for women and children, policies that deem them incapable of parenting but not disabled enough to receive support, inaccessibility in refuges, and the universal credit system that pays breadwinners, making it easy for abusive partners to withhold money.

Bearing witness to these injustices, readers are called to action. In the concluding chapter and a new essay on coronavirus included in the 2020 edition, Ryan offers some hope, pointing out that the will and ability to fix the broken safety net exist in Britain. She argues that repairs will require us to change attitudes around disability and welfare, address barriers to work and structural causes of hardship, increase the representation of disabled people in media and politics, and center the voices of disabled people in policy conversations. Most importantly, we need to recognize that the gains of disability rights movements are fragile. We must "remake the case for state support for disabled people as a fundamental right" (p. 199). Given the toll cuts have already taken, calls for new cuts in response to COVID-19 (Atkinson, 2020), and proposals to follow the U.K.'s playbook to cut social security in the U.S. (Vallas, 2020), Ryan's rallying cry could not be more urgent.

References

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