Opinion: We are so much more
Anna Severwright, Coproduction Group Member and Convenor of Social Care Future, reflects on our ‘Valuable AND Vulnerable’ project and the ‘vulnerable’ narrative that’s currently prevalent in the media.
During the pandemic the phrase ‘the vulnerable’ has become everyday language, usually referring to older people, disabled people and those with pre-existing medical conditions. I, along with many other disabled people, feel extremely uneasy and even angry at being labelled and categorised in this way. Here are my reasons why:
- It doesn’t work
If the aim was to protect disabled people then labelling us as vulnerable has failed, indeed the ONS1 statistics show that 6 in 10 people who died from Covid were disabled. Labelling people vulnerable did not lead to increased support or protection, rather many people were put at increased risk by having inappropriate Do Not Attempt Resuscitation orders placed on them due to a physical or learning disability, as reported by the Care Quality Commission2.
- It is othering
The phrase creates a division – the vulnerable and everyone else. Instead of including us as part of society and looking at ways to be inclusive, it was used as a reason to shut us away and feel like a separate group.
- Vulnerability is context specific
Everyone is vulnerable sometimes and nobody is vulnerable all of the time. If I put you in a room with a lion, you would be vulnerable. OK, extreme example, but you get the point. Yes, some of us are at increased risk of death if we catch Covid, but the systemic inequalities faced by people with physical and learning disabilities further increased that risk.
The times I feel vulnerable as a wheelchair user are usually because society isn’t accessible to me. When I am stuck on a train that is about to leave my station because my booked ramp isn’t there, I feel vulnerable. Or I am vulnerable to loneliness because my social care budget doesn’t allow me enough hours of support to be able to go out much and meet my friends. If we fixed a lot of the inequalities we faced, long before Covid, much vulnerability would be removed or reduced.
- It focuses on weakness
The word vulnerable is emotive, bringing up feelings of fear and weakness. As a society we often find feeling vulnerable uncomfortable, so we like to give off the impression that we are strong and tough. When I became visibly disabled, strangers started talking to me differently. They would assume I needed help or looking after. Labelling us all as vulnerable, only increases these kinds of misconceptions and stereotypes that we are helpless or need looking after.
- We are so much more
We all matter. We all have value. I shouldn’t need to say it, but unfortunately as a society we don’t act this way. As shown by the fact it needed a celebrity to call for people with learning disabilities to finally be prioritised for the vaccines after evidence showed they were at increased risk from Covid. Self-advocates and many allies had been calling for this for months and yet their voices were ignored.
As we rebuild after Covid let’s be a society that values everyone, because we are all valuable and we are all vulnerable.