Disabled People: Included in a technological revolution or excluded by techno‑fascism?

Bob Williams-Findlay on developments and contradictions.

 

The relationship between technological innovation and disabled people has been a common theme among campaigners for inclusivity, social change, and integrated or independent living for decades. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) wrote in 1975:

“The Union’s social theory of disability, itself a product of the technological changes in society, reflects the most advanced developments which make it clear that the alternative to an ‘incomes’ (or more properly, ‘pensions’) approach to the particular poverty in disability is to struggle for changes to the organisation of society so that employment and full social participation are made accessible to all people, including those with physical impairments.”

Contradictions

Since the 1970s, disabled people have seen an increase in awareness around the type of social restrictions and disabling barriers they encounter. It could also be argued that much of the progressive social change UPIAS hoped for has been rather piecemeal and largely ineffective in terms of addressing disabled people’s oppression.

UPIAS understood there was always a contradiction within the emancipation struggle – disabled people were demanding social integration into a capitalist society that was determined by a socio-economic system which, by design, excluded and marginalised them. This oppressive social situation was created and maintained through dominant theories and practice which negatively appraised bodies deemed “abnormal”, and which therefore viewed individuals who could not fulfil the accepted and expected social roles as lacking in capacity and social worth.

UPIAS challenged viewing “disability” as a personal characteristic and the direct cause of their disadvantage and social exclusion. They saw disability (that is unnecessary social restrictions) as being imposed on top of the realities of impairment by the nature of societal structures, systems, values, cultures, etc. Thus removing of reducing disabling barriers would, they argued, enable full social participation.

Breaking the causal link between the reality of impairment and social exclusion was a political act. It was not, as some claim, a denial or playing down of impairment reality, but pointing out that it is the negative interactions between people with impairments and their lived environments that disables them. This is where technology, for many disabled people, can play an empowering or disempowering role.

Technology

In 2003, John Low wrote in The Guardian:

“The promise of a technological revolution that will realise the ideal of a fully integrated society for disabled people has never seemed nearer. Yet when it comes to harnessing technology for the benefit of disabled people, Britain has lagged far behind. This is especially true in public services.”

Almost twenty years down the road, I would argue, the distance between the desire for inclusivity and civil and human rights and the realisation of this desire for disabled people has become wider, not narrower.

Social restrictions and disabling barriers

Among the gains being rolled back in recent times has been legal protection against discrimination. In today’s Britain, there are a million and one things that are wrong and unjust. As an ageing disabled activist, I believe that the need to address the undermining of disabled people’s civil and human rights has to be viewed as a priority. If we surrender ground on civil and human rights, making reasonable adjustments or promoting inclusive practice, then we run the risk of allowing our people who face disablism to be subject to forms of apartheid, socially imprisoned, and eradicated from society.

One definition of “disablism” is that disablism is the acceptance and promotion of ideas and practice associated with dominant ideologies that present “disability” as the absence of normality, a state of inferiority and the cause of perceived lack of social worth found within an individual – that is that they are a burden on society, lacking in capacity, etc.

The social model switches the focus away from looking at an individual’s loss of functioning in body activity as the root cause of their participation disadvantage and instead turns towards how the social organisation of society creates restrictions and disabling barriers. The objective is to identify how policy, practice, design and socially built environments, disable differing groups of people with impairments and seek to address the ways they exclude or marginalise disabled people. The “unequal and differential treatment” experienced by disabled people results in discrimination and disempowerment and is subsequently viewed as a form of social oppression.

Making disabled people’s civil and human rights a priority, however, has to be seen as a means to an end, not the solution in and of itself. The Disabled People’s Movement, for example, was guilty of putting all their eggs in one basket in their pursuit of anti-discrimination legislation.

Apps not so smart

The closing down of ticket offices at tube and railway stations, the drive to have everything done via an app on a smart phone, and the increase in the number of self-service outlets, are examples of new disabling barriers and further social restrictions being encountered by older and disabled people. Automation and technological control may not be viewed as highly oppressive for nondisabled younger generations, but for older and disabled people these things are increasingly harming our well-being.

Given the negative ways in which mainstream society defines what it means to be a “disabled person”, many older people reject being viewed as such. Greater dialogue between older people’s groups and disabled activist has the potential of identifying common ground in the struggle against social exclusion. Within the social definition of disability, many older people are disabled.

It has to be acknowledged that any technological revolution could have different impacts on people with various impairments, health conditions, or reductions in functional capacity. These impacts could be positive or negative, and it should be taken for granted that technological innovation and its application need to be factored into the processes of development and implementation.

Coproduction

In order to achieve an inclusive society, one of the tools we ought to be employing is coproduction, involving people at all stages of development to input their knowledge and experience. Coproduction creates dialogue and opens up the possibility of understanding differing perspectives, priorities, needs, and wants. Boyle and Harris in 2009 (in The challenge of co-production: how equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, London: Nesta) define coproduction as follows:

“Coproduction means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families, and their neighbours.”

They speak of coproduction in relation to public services, however, as a means of working, it could be extended into other areas of society including the private sector.

Unfortunately, coproduction is undervalued. The decrease in the opportunities for older and disabled people to be heard today, is affected by the erosion of their human and civil rights. The Equality Act 2010 is even less effective than it was. The reduction of funding to local authorities corresponds with the demise of the Public Sector Duty and the decline in the number of equality impact assessments being undertaken.

If the Equality Duty was really implemented, it would encourage public bodies to consider how different people can or could be affected by their activities. By carrying out an investigation or assessment, these bodies would be in a better position to ensure that their policies and services are appropriate, accessible to all, and meet different people’s needs.

What I have outlined to date is bad enough. However, I believe it is actually only part of a gloomier picture. I believe what I have outlined can be framed within the context of a growing techno-fascism.

What is techno-fascism?

I am mindful of the fact that often the word “fascist” is used carelessly and that fascism itself is extremely difficult to define. Umberto Eco, a cultural theorist, outlined fourteen general properties of fascist ideology in 1995 in an essay called ‘Ur-fascism’ in New York Review of Books. It was his view that these properties could not be organised into a coherent system, but that “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it”.

It is argued by some comrades that we are witnessing creeping fascism where some of these properties are present. It is not my aim to offer a comprehensive definition or analysis of techno-fascism; besides, it is defined in a variety of ways and covers a multitude of ideas and practices. It is evident that elements of both the Left and Right are laying claim to the existence of techno-fascism, citing common and different themes and agencies.

One writer, Mark Carrigan, states:

“Techno-fascism is characterized by the ways more aspects of daily life are becoming dependent upon digital technologies that lead to many benefits while at the same time reducing the diversity of cultural ways of knowing and by increasingly subordinating human thought and behaviors to the dictates of machines.”

It is within this framework that I wish to make the argument that older and disabled people are being subjected to techno-fascism. Four years ago, Chet Bowers, a now-deceased author, lecturer, and environmental activist, wrote:

“While the moral foundations of techno-fascism align with the values of market capitalism and the progress-oriented ideology of science that easily slips into scientism, its level of efficiency and totalitarian potential can easily lead to repressive systems that will not tolerate dissent, especially on the part of those challenging how the colonizing nature of techno-fascism promotes consumerism that is destroying the environment and alternative cultural lifestyles such as the cultural commons.”

In relation to older and disabled people, the shift from paternalistic social democratic economic and social policies towards neoliberal ones has had a profound impact upon their lives which was compounded by the austerity policies and the Covid-19 pandemic. The 1990s saw the introduction of inadequate anti-discrimination legislation, but no sooner had it arrived, we were witnessing Blair’s “rights with responsibilities” mantra, the benefit scrounger narrative, increased commodification of both services and service users, and the encouragement of self-reliance.

The British Disabled People’s Movement as a consequence was split asunder and what I call “Janus politics” came to the fore. Janus politics saw market facing disabled people’s organisations teaming up with ‘disability charities’ such as Scope, to take the radical concepts of the Movement’s past, and transform them into tools which assisted the maintaining of the status quo where disabled people were expected to ‘fit into’ the existing social relations through “personalisation”. (see Williams-Findlay, B. (2019) ‘The Disabled People’s Movement in the Age of Austerity: Rights, Resistance and Reclamation’ in Resist the Punitive State, Grassroots Struggles Across Welfare, Housing, Education and Prisons, edited by Emily Luise Hart, Joe Greener, and Rich Moth, London, Pluto Press).

So where has this left us?

Commodification, consumerism, and callous disregard

I know through my experiences in life, and the research I’ve undertaken, that I am not alone in believing that it is becoming increasingly more difficult and stressful for older and disabled people with the volume of car parks resorting to charging all customers for parking. Leaving aside the moral arguments, I want to suggest that one clear example of how techno-fascism is impacting upon the lives of older and disabled people can be found within the disabling policies and practice of the companies running these car parking schemes and the appeals body.

The parking charges are, I would argue, an element of the commodification of individuals. A third parking penalty charge of £60 within under a year, led me to investigate the industry’s policies and practice. The research found evidence of the super-exploitative methods being used and Part Three of the Equality Act 2010 regarding reasonable adjustments ignored.

The assumption and practice is that everyone pays and is treated in the same way. No consideration is given to any impairment based needs – most methods require voice or good dexterity – what about those with no smart phones or the ability to push buttons on payment machines? Yes, there are machines in certain car parks that have contactless payment but they can also produce difficulties. Using this method, my ticket was spat out onto the floor.

A version of my concerns about car parking paying methods was sent to a leading organisation of disabled people which deals with motoring issues. I am not going to reveal which organisation it was, however I am using quotations from their response because I believe they highlight a major rift among disabled people as I described as Janus politics. What I see is in part a Right to Left division between those who seek “accommodation” or purely reformist solutions versus those like myself who believe only an anti-capitalist transformative approach can emancipate disabled people.

Their starting point was the legal position:

“For a car park to comply with the equality act they must make a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for disabled people. This is obviously very interpretative and hard to prove that a car park is not complying. It seems like your member wants to make parking free of charge for all disabled motorists because he has trouble with payment machinery.”

Firstly, there are a number of assumptions here. The first sentence is correct, but I would question the second. A key word is “reasonable,” and I would suggest that this places certain boundaries around what service providers should consider doing. Thus, it is only interpretative to a degree. An easy safeguard for everyone, therefore, would be to undertake an equality impact assessment on major policies and procedures, as this would evidence compliance.

Secondly, I made no view known on whether I believe parking should be free or not as my focus is on current practice. Why assume this is my position? What purpose does it serve other than to imply that I am “unrealistic” in my pursuit of a resolution for me? This issue is not just about me as I have made clear from the beginning, My concerns are for specific groups of older/disabled people who are being subjected to disabling barriers.

Obviously, I have drawn on personal experience, but placed this in the wider context of drivers with speech and dexterity issues for example. This also relates to what is “reasonable” – at no time can we expect every need of an individual to be met – however, there is an anticipatory duty when developing policies and procedures in a broad sense.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the disabled people’s organisation response was this:

“Most car parks, in our experience, now offer multiple ways for paying for parking. Whether that’s at a physical machine with card or cash, on an app or over the phone. This probably covers most people being able to make payment. Most car parks now offer a contactless payment option so I do disagree with him on that one.”

I am not troubled by anyone disagreeing with me; however, what exactly is the basis upon which their disagreement is built? I have never questioned the existence of “multiple ways for paying for parking. Whether that is at a physical machine with card or cash, on an app or over the phone.” What I am highlighting is that all these multiple ways for paying for parking share a common feature in terms of presenting disabling barriers for those who have speech or dexterity implications – sure, they may be a small percentage of disabled drivers, but does this mean their rights and needs can be ignored?

I am astounded by the comment that: “This probably covers most people being able to make payment” because while it may be factually true, it is still oppressive mind-set. Why do I make such a claim? Very simply, this is the exact same argument disabled people heard in the 1970s and 1980s when challenging inaccessible environments. It is at the heart of disablism – “you are a discountable freak minority”!

Again, more absurd assumptions: “Most car parks now offer a contactless payment option….” I am in favour of increasing contactless payment methods, but isn’t the representative of this DPO forgetting something? You still have to key in your registration number! It still presents a disabling barrier. None of these methods can be classed as making ‘reasonable adjustments’. I believe wholesale discrimination is taking place and soon disabled people like me will be denied by default access to car parking. The Covid-19 pandemic in particular illustrated the callous disregard for older and disabled people.

I do not want to make my own assumptions, however I do know that this organisation does offer an accreditation scheme to car park operators, so perhaps my “concerns” are viewed as rocking the boat? The demise of the Disabled People’s Movement has seen only pockets of resistance remain, and many organisations of disabled people are colluding with our oppressors. Most organisations for disabled people can only exist by selling or managing services in the capitalist market.

Praxis

I recognise that some disabled and nondisabled people will question how important this issue of car parking charging methods is with so many other more pressing and larger problems facing older and disabled people. To counteract this opinion, I would argue that three facts need consideration: firstly, public transport can never be a “catch all solution”. Secondly, following on from the first, many social restrictions that are encountered can be alleviated or reduced by having access to a car.

Finally, the principles of working class struggle and the Disabled People’s Movement in the form of praxis have a common theme: with both ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, and ‘nothing about us, without us’, shaping our actions and understanding of solidarity. Most forms of inequality and discrimination are symptomatic of a larger problem. I believe techno-fascism has the potential of being a major force in the continued oppression of disabled people.

It is true that we cannot tackle every issue, but we still need to raise them in order to raise consciousness and assist people to become aware of the interconnectedness of our struggles.

To remain silent, to do nothing, to see everything as too big to handle are not options we can afford to choose. To save humanity and the planet, to achieve inclusivity and social justice, it requires us to shine a light on darkness and to make a stand, no matter the number of people who may stand alongside us. What matters is finding useful ways to fight back.



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Bob Williams-Findlay has been a leading disability activist in Britain for thirty years appearing on TV and being a keynote speaker at numerous conferences. He has written numerous articles on Disability Politics and Social Oppression.

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