Why do disabled people fear Brexit?


By Katherine Runswick-Cole

Why did over 50 Peers, MPs, academics and activists, including me, write to The Times newspaper on the 6thJune, 2016 to explain why Brexit would pose huge risks to disabled people now and in the future?

In the run up to the referendum, this letter to The Times newspaper was one of the few times when the mainstream media made a space for a discussion about the possible impact of a vote to leave on12 million people living with long term illness or impairment in the UK.

And, following the vote, there has been not a single mention of disabled people or disability in the government’s white paper on Brexit.

So why did those activists and academics agree that Brexit poses an urgent threat to the lives of disabled people? Here are four reasons why.

1. (Continued) Austerity

The first and foremost reason, is, of course, continued austerity. Disabled activists are already stretched with fighting for independent living and retaliating against savage cuts that have impacted disproportionately upon them.

Source: Centre for Welfare Reform


In our recent research, at Manchester Metropolitan University, working alongside people with learning disabilities, we found that in a time of austerity many people feel precarious, but that people with learning disabilities find themselves ‘differentially precarious’ that is, they are more precarious than others as the cumulative impact of social care and welfare cuts impact disproportionately upon them (Bates, Goodley and Runswick-Cole, 2017).

2. Health and Social Care

The second reason for disabled people to fear Brexit, is that often they are users of health and social care.

Who will forget that Boris Johnson standing in front of a big red bus and telling that that Brexit would unlock up to £350m a week for the NHS?

Good news, then, for disabled people?

The reality, post Brexit, has been different, as members of the Leave campaign immediately back tracked from their pledge to the NHS.

So, it turns out that Britain leaving the EU could be bad news for the NHS.

There are fears that Britain will no longer have any influence over the European Medicines Agency, the regulator that approves drugs for use within the EU. Research could be hit too, as there will be reduced funding streams available for medical research in Britain.

Leaving the EU may have a significant impact on people’s ability to travel in Europe.  Currently, EU citizens travelling in other member states are entitled to healthcare on a reciprocal basis, through the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). This benefit will cease with withdrawal from the EU, and because, as we’ve seen, disabled people are more likely to use healthcare services, they will be disproportionately affected by changes to EHIC.

In addition to the threats of a prolonged period of austerity to social care budgets, little attention has been paid to the fact that the social care sector employs a high number of EU migrants.  Disabled people, who often rely on personal assistants to live independently in their communities, are already struggling to recruit. If EU care worker’s rights to stay are not protected this will, inevitably, make a bad situation worse.

3. Employment

The third reason that disabled people have to fear Brexit is what this might mean for employment law. The employment equality framework directive is a major component of EU labour law and combats workplace discrimination on the grounds of disability, as well as gender, age, race and sexual orientation. Post-Brexit, the British Government will be able to decide if they want to hold on to these protections and, crucially, to what extent they are prepared to work with the groups representing the interests of disabled people to make sure that their needs are fully understood.


4. The legal rights of disabled people

The fourth reason for disabled people to be worried is also concerned with the protection of rights.  The UK has developed a string of positive legislation for the protection of the rights of disabled people, including, most notably, the Equality Act 2010. This Act consolidated a large amount of existing legislation (including those relating to other protected characteristics such as race, religion, gender and sexual orientation), and, significantly, this, and previous legislation, were introduced to ensure compliance with a number of EU equality directives. Brexit will, of course, remove the UK’s recourse to the European Court of Justice. There is a fear that Brexit will lead to a rush to deregulation which will reduce the statutory protections available to disabled people.   And all this at a time when the UN produced a damning report about the lives of disabled people and when the government seems hell bent on cutting benefits like the personal independence payment.



It is important to recognize the wider context in which these changes are taking place.  In our research, here at Manchester Metropolitan University, we have outlined what we describe as socio-political context that we call neo-liberal ableism (Goodley, Runswick-Cole and Lawthom, 2014)

Under neoliberal-ableism, the rationality of the market is paramount; the ideal citizen is an adaptable citizen indeed he is an able individual (note the deliberate gendered positioning of the subject here).  Disabled people are marginalized by this neoliberal-ableist hype – they are excluded from the category of ‘hard working family’ (Runswick-Cole, Lawthom and Goodley, 2016) or the ‘just about managing family’ and are positioned as a ‘burden’ or as ‘scroungers’.  They are pushed further to the margins where they will continue to experience ever increasing health and social care inequalities and isolation in their communities.


Our response

Our response to neo-liberal ableism has been to challenge the privileging of independence in social policy and to call for a politics built on a recognition of community and interdependence.  We have seen this in a range of good practice.   Circles of support enable the community inclusion of people with learning disabilities.   Evidence based supported employment strategies, such as working interviews and job coaching, can move people into work.  Support for self-advocacy organisations continues to be crucial in ensuring that  disabled people have a voice.

We need to work alongside disabled people’s organisation to advocate for a social policy that puts their concerns at the centre of everything we do – we believe that social policy that is good for people with learning disabilities is good social policy for all.


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