by Eugene Grant
As they prepare for what is certain to be one of the most anticipated and fiercely fought elections in recent memory, the leaders of all three political parties would do well to pay close attention to the ideas of Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist and philosopher who just last week delivered the Demos Annual Lecture. Sen’s work on freedom and justice has continued to inspire and inform centre-left politics; his groundbreaking capability approach has received plenty of attention.
Such attention is well deserved. However, Sen’s capability approach, and particularly his work on disability, contains vital lessons from which any proponent of progressive politics can learn. In terms of disability inequality, Sen’s approach provides a welcome and refreshing departure from current fixations on income distribution. As he rightly pointed out in the Guardian being disabled has a ‘double effect’: disability not only reduces a person’s ability to earn an income; it reduces their available income even further because they have to pay more to achieve a good standard of living. In short, a disabled person’s income may place them on or above the poverty line, but once we factor in how much they have to spend on disability-related services (assistance, for example), many will fall well below this measure. This is the effect of the ‘conversion handicap’.
All too often poverty and disability go hand in hand. During the last fifteen years income earnings for disabled people have actually decreased. Recent figures from the Employers Forum on Disability reveal that almost a third of disabled adults in the UK live in poverty (indeed, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty than their non-disabled counterparts). If we were to factor in Sen’s conversion handicap the number would undoubtedly be far higher.
The recession has hit disabled people disproportionately hard; the coming cuts in public spending will hit them even harder. As of yet, no political party has outlined an explicit and progressive commitment to addressing disability inequality; none appear to have a comprehensive policy programme on tackling this ‘last prejudice’. With six weeks until the election there’s still time to rectify this. Picking up a copy of The Idea of Justice would be a very good place to start.