Thoughts on Disability and Brexit


I wanted to take some time to talk about the EU referendum in the context of disability. I’m not going to focus on any disability specific policies held by the EU (though I’m sure they exist and Baroness Campbell tried to get disabled people invested in the campaign to Remain).

Instead, I am going to look at ableist responses to the vote to leave and how Britain leaving the EU could further limit the opportunities of disabled Britons to travel.

One of my pet peeves in foreign policy is the discriminatory way that disabled people are treated in immigration (I wrote a Canada specific critique here). Generally disabled people are severely limited if not completely barred from immigrating. The EU offers something of an exception in that it allows free movement for purposes of residency and work between many of its member states of which Britain was one (and still is for at least the short term). If the EU exit negotiations do not include keeping that freedom of movement, the possibility of moving countries will be all but eliminated.

As a side note the fact that Nigel Farage has all but guaranteed that the pro-Brexit campaign promise of spending more money on the UK’s National Health Service was a mistake will of course also negatively impact disabled British citizens.

But back to immigration. For the average nondisabled British citizen immigration is still an option, though it will now likely involve far more paperwork. Paperwork that often requires applicants to include medical information that would exclude disabled applicants.

This reality is frustrating as in standard form in response to an unpopular political shift, people are discussing emigrating. We see this rhetoric all the time (if X politician is elected, I’m moving to Canada), while the words rarely turn into actual action, and are unlikely to unless some of the more extreme and dire Brexit predictions come to pass (World War III) it is frustrating to see people fall back on an option that millions of British citizens just lost.

Add to that the fact that some of the anger over the result of the referendum has taken a decidedly ableist tone and disabled Britons are not faring well in the immediate response to the Brexit result.

The problem here primarily hinges on the fact that the largest demographic which supported the Leave campaign were over 65 while the youth vote overwhelmingly voted to Remain. Anger has therefor been targeted at the elderly with comments about people who are about to die (I was unaware that life expectancy was so low in Britain that anyone over 65 is in danger of just keeling over).

This demographic split has resulted in a lot of youth anger being focused on the senior population, with one person tweeting

The thing is people aren’t supposed to give up their seats to the elderly out of respect. They do it because age is associated with a loss of mobility. Note that the tweet has been shared over 16,000 times.

The tweeter later defended himself by claiming it was a joke but some responders have doubled down and insisted that they are sincere in their support for the tweet, with at least one going so far as to say that he would demand to know how someone had voted before giving up his seat regardless of whether the person was elderly.

The fact that the anger of the vote so quickly turned to ableism is concerning. The fact that it is used against the demographic that most often voted to Leave is bad enough but the fact that people are clearly willing to extend it to people who are not so clearly associated with the Leave result is especially troubling.

This is the danger of falling back on bigotry in the face of political disagreement. It takes the focus away from why the ideological split really happened and far to often spreads beyond the initial target group. Which doesn’t really make for a funny joke, now does it?

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