Disabled people, work and welfare

I have just (briefly) read the book ‘Disabled people, work and welfare’ edited by Chris Grover and Linda Piggott. This post is not so much a review of the book as a summary of my initial thoughts on how the contents relate to my own interest: the right to work for disabled people.


Firstly, as always, there are definitional issues: what counts as disability and what counts as work? Examining disability from a social welfare perspective creates particular definitions linked to thresholds of benefit entitlement, which in turn may be linked to the ability or inability to work. In the UK eligibility for Incapacity Benefit, now Employment and Support Allowance, are based on ‘work capability assessments’. Parallel and independent of the work related assessments are assessments of ‘independence’. These look at mobility and daily living needs that are greater than those of people of a similar age and in the UK ‘Personal Independence Payments’ are awarded to help with the costs of such additional needs. These are flat rate payments according to the band of need, they do not assess the actual costs of needs. The book explores the approaches to these assessments and the underlying political and ideological motivations for changes to in work and out of work benefits, in particular the increased conditionality of income transfers for people who are disabled.

The value and nature of work

Consistent with the academic literature in the field, the definition of work is problematised within various chapters of the book. The potential value of work is acknowledged in terms of social inclusion, therapeutic occupation, choice, independence and a way out of poverty. However, there is recognition that the work must be ‘decent work’. (A point which echoes the International Labour Organisation’s ‘decent work’ agenda.) However the book also recognises that out-with a capitalist welfare state alternative means for achieving these benefits could exist and work itself is not to be idolised. The book sees potential in arguments from Paul Lafargue and Bertrand Russell, who called for less work and more leisure or cultural activities, Peter Kropotkin and more recently Bob Black who advocate the abolition of work altogether. Grosvener and Piggott see arguments for working less, or not at all, particularly pertinent from a disability perspective, given that for some people who are disabled coerced work may be harmful or just not feasible “In this space there must be room for an approach to be developed that allows for disabled people to legitimately not do wage work” (249).

What is counted as work is also explored and positioned as varieties of productivity in which only a specific tax paying from of productivity is valorised and unpaid work or work within the informal economy is not recognised. In relation to people who are disabled, Alan Rouleston in Chapter 14 also questions the employer/employee and producer/recipient dichotomies in the context of people who employ personal assistants, albeit funded by direct payments from social services or access to work. He points to the HR functions such employment involves and the skills required to direct, manage and develop personal assistants, and the economic contribution of such work.

The right to work and the right not to work

‘The right to work’ for people who are disabled is not unequivocally accepted or advocated. At its most minimal the right to work has been described as the right not to be discriminated against at work (Hepple, 1981. Cited in Grosvenor and Piggot, 2015: 243). From the book’s examination of recent government policies it is evident that government obligations to meet the right to work have been interpreted by governments as a right to receive (some) government funded support getting work and staying in work, coupled with legislation to outlaw unreasonable or arbitrary disability discrimination. Beyond this the discourse of the right to work may have the unintended consequence of privileging work about other activities. Accordingly, in chapter thirteen Glover and Piggott advocate for the right not to work. From a marxist perspective they note that the commodification of wage labour is exploitative, suggesting that paid work may not end the oppression of the disabled but alter or subsume it within the oppression of the working classes. Glover and Piggott also note the links between neoliberalism and the right to work for people who are disabled: both are about getting people economically active and promoted not just by some disabled people, but by organisations contracted to get the disabled into work (2015, 243). They seem to question whether this is really in the interests of (all) people who are disabled.

Grosvenor and Piggott note the increasing imbalance in the obligations of employers and disabled people. On the one hand employers are obligated to abide by equalities legislation, which on my view is weakly enforced. On the other disabled people are not legally forced to work (forced labour is a prohibited under ICCPR) but eligibility criteria for benefits mean that materially and culturally they may have no choice but to work. Grosvenor and Piggott see this as “a disjuncture between a liberal approach to the right to work and a more authoritarian approach located in the obligation to work” (249). Furthermore they argue that liberalisms pluralistic attitude to conceptions of the good should be employed so as to be value neutral about paid work. They argue that for liberals the right to work should be accompanied by the right not to work (250).


Rights are linked to the concept of citizenship. Increasingly rights have been linked to responsibilities, particularly in relation to social welfare. Successive welfare reforms have increased levels of conditionality accompanied by a rhetoric of ‘no rights without responsibilities’ (Giddens, 1998,p 65. Cited in Patrick and Fenney: 26). In the US theorists such as Lawrence Mead have portrayed conditionality as central to reciprocity “without which those in receipt of benefits cannot be seen as equal citizens” (Patrick and Fenney: 26). In the UK conditionality has been extended to increasing numbers of disabled people with the introduction of Employment and Support  Allowance. Owen, Gould and Parker Harris claim that the increasing linkage of rights and responsibilities changes who ‘qualifies’ as an equal citizen and globally changes to welfare policies have made participation in the workforce ‘the central tenet of citizenship’ given the barriers to work that disabled people face this is problematic. (Owen, Gould and Parker Harris, 2015: 130).



Author: Caroline Lambert

I am a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics. My background is in discrimination law. I have a particular interests in disability discrimination and human rights. I fit the Equality Act definition of a disabled person.

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