Researching the history of incapacity benefits

Claiming incapacity benefits

If you claim Employment and Support Allowance in the UK today you will undergo a medical test to assess whether or not you are ‘capable of work’. If you are found capable of work you can appeal against this decision.  Not everybody appeals of course but many of those who do are successful, raising questions about whether the medical tests are fair.

Looking to the past

These debates are not new.   I have been looking at similar questions about how to assess people’s capacity for work right back at the beginning of the welfare state in the early 20th century.  In the National Archives in London there are records of appeal hearings against refusals of sickness benefits.  These include the case of a former miner, who could no longer work in the mines.  He was that told there was nothing wrong with his voice and he could work as a public speaker.  This man used the appeal procedure to get the decision overturned.  Another housebound disabled woman was not so lucky as the appeal judges told her that she could take in lodgers, echoing some of the debates we hear today about the bedroom tax.

My research shows that decision makers used an assortment of measures to check whether people were capable of work, ranging from sick visitors who spied on claimants to state doctors who provided second opinions on cases.  Like today, people were often unhappy with these decisions and appealed against them.  These cases involved ordinary working people who had little experience of dealing with paperwork or the law but somehow they made their way through this process to have their cases heard.

What do we mean by ‘incapacity for work’ and how has this changed?

If people qualify for benefit because they are ‘unable’ to ‘work’ then we need to have a common understanding of what we mean by work and who is expected to perform it. Looking at these appeal cases shows me that there were a whole lot of social assumptions about ‘work’ and particularly about men and women – so men were expected to do manual labour but not domestic work like cleaning or taking in washing.  Women, on the other hand, could have their benefit stopped because they had been caught doing the laundry – if they could do their own washing, then they could go out and do someone else’s; they were capable of work

I’m looking at how these ideas changed – or possibly stayed the same – across a hundred years, from the first sickness benefit scheme in 1911, the effects of mass unemployment in the 1930s, the introduction of the modern welfare state following the second world war, then the changes brought about by European laws on gender equality in the 1970s and up to the Employment and Support Allowance reforms today.

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Making links across time and space

What links German peasants in the 1500s, travelling people in Sweden in the 1960s, and applicants to special educational needs appeals in the USA today?

These groups of people were all discussed in papers at conferences which I attended recently. One of the great things about conferences is the opportunity to hear about research that you wouldn’t immediately think was relevant to your own but which allows you to make links across time and space and topic. So what did I learn about this group of  people from very different times and places?

Disability and social welfare in Germany in the 1500s

It was at a European conference on social history  that I went to a session on ‘Disability in early modern society’, which focussed on times before 1800. Angela Schattner from the German Historical Institute in London talked about her research on Public welfare in Germany in the 1500s. She observed that access to welfare only became available when all other sources of support had fallen away. Such welfare was pretty limited and might amount only to the right to beg. The definition of incapacity in her cases had nothing to do with impairment as such or the ‘ability to work’ but people’s ability to provide for themselves, which included access to family resources.  In those days, before the welfare state as we understand it today, there was less of a concern with ‘incapacity for work’ and more of a concern with ‘inability to have enough money to live on’, which are two slightly different things.

Travelling people in Sweden

Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir from Linnaeus University in Sweden talked about a social initiative in Sweden in the 1960s which attempted to provide medical and social services to ‘Swedish Gypsies’. A campaigning doctor of the time, John Takman, carried out a mass study of everybody classified as a ‘gypsy’, which involved medical examinations, home visits and advice on social needs, including housing, education, health needs and job advice. The study was organised by the Swedish Labour Board and its purpose was to integrate the Gypsy people into mainstream Swedish community and for them to find work . When I first saw the title of this paper I did not immediately think it had any relevance to my research but I was struck almost straight away when Ida introduced the paper, describing the Swedish gypsies as ‘socially handicapped’ and ‘partially able-bodied’. These were not her words but (translations of) the words used at the time to describe the travelling community. Here was a link between her research and mine. Although the group of people that she is interested in were discriminated against on the grounds of ethnicity rather than disability, the problems they were experiencing were framed in the same way as those of people who have difficulty finding work because of disabilities or health issues.
As with many government attempts to provide services for disabled people, the survey and its consequences were not entirely positive and there have been many criticisms of it. What I learned from this though, was that a social model of ‘labour market disadvantage’ can encompass both physical or mental impairment and social disadvantage because of ethnicity and social background … but the views of professionals, in particular medical professionals, can still carry very heavy weight within this model.

Thanks to Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir for this information, also available on her University website

The secret law of disability?

And, finally, at the Law and Society Association conference  Jasmine Harris from the American University Washington College of Law gave a paper on the ‘Secret Law of Disability’ where she argued that legal hearings on social security, special educational needs and mental health should be held in public rather than in private. We tend to think these kinds of hearings should be private to protect people’s privacy but Jasmine Harris argued that they should be public so that issues concerning discrimination against disabled people would be more publicly debated. That connects to some ideas that I have been having about the ethics of using people’s names compared with keeping them anonymous in historical research. As a social scientist, the codes of ethics that I follow usually emphasise the importance of anonymity but historians tend to use people’s real names, and sometimes photographs if they are available. I’ve been wondering where the boundary lies.

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