Research Student: Rosa Morris
The sturdy, the undeserving and the ineligible: Political economy, definitions of labour and disregard of experience in the administrative category of disability
Current dominant political ideology places emphasis on ‘hard working families’ in opposition to ‘welfare dependency’. This has a major impact on disabled people and whether those who are unable to engage in waged labour are deemed as “deserving” of state support. Those not in waged labour are seen as not fulfilling their responsibilities to society. This is viewed as an individual failing, rather than a systemic problem and results in very little room for recognition of illness and/or impairment and of the support a person might need. It also creates a society where those not viewed as “hard working” are considered “undeserving” and a drain on society.
This idea of people being ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ has become increasingly stark in recent years.
The theoretical framework for the research will build on the writings of those such as Marta Russell who explains the changing definition of disability in terms of the role it plays in capitalism. Official definitions of disability, she writes, are "used to classify persons deemed less exploitable, or not exploitable, by the owning class who control and means of production in a capitalism economy" and therefore "the prevailing rate of exploitation determines who is ‘disabled"’and who is not”.
The research will first examine how the administrative category of disability has changed since 1945, focusing the out-of-work benefits system. Alongside this I will explore how the labour market in general, and disabled people’s employment patterns in particular, have changed.
The research will then analyse theories of illness and disability informing the Work Capability Assessment, and how these determine fitness for work criteria. I will compare - using focus groups, interviews and questionnaires - disabled people’s experiences of the Work Capability Assessment with their lived experiences of impairment and disability, and the impact on their ability to work.
My undergraduate degree was in Politics and Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Being a disabled woman myself, and growing up with a disabled parent I was interested in how ignored disability appeared to be within development studies. This then led me to want to do an MA in Disability Studies at Leeds, during which my focus of interest switched more to the UK and government policy. My dissertation for this looked at changes in approach to disability in the UK since 1945. I then decided I wanted to do a PhD but this required certain research methods training I did not have. So I then did an MA in Social Research. My dissertation for this looked at the impact on disabled people of cuts and changes in benefits and services. This dissertation is available in full online.
I also wrote an article for Disability and Society about using social media as part of my research which can be found here.
What motivated me to undertake PhD study?
I didn’t go to university until I was 25, and had previously not thought of myself as academic. However the more studying I did the more I came to enjoy it and want to continue learning. I also feel the subject of my PhD is a very important one.
What makes me passionate about my subject?
There is increasing, mainly anecdotal, evidence that there is a significant gap between disabled people’s actual experiences of how impairment and/or illness affects their ability to work, and the implementation of the Work Capability Assessment. I have both direct and indirect experience of this contrast. This is an urgent issue which needs full examination, particularly in the light of the major impact that the result of a WCA can have on a disabled person’s life.
My personal interest in this area of work is also driven by my understanding of the social model of disability and how the application of this way of approaching impairment can bring about improvements to disabled people’s lives. The contrast with the approach of the WCA seems very stark. I believe there is enormous scope for critiquing the theory on which the WCA and its criteria are based.
What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?
I hope that the findings of my research could help inform both campaigning and policy work on the future development of the administrative category of disability. I would aim to use my knowledge and research experience to further this aim, ideally by working with a disabled people’s organisation.