Guest Roast: Bad news? Sick and disabled people in British media

By Dr. Kayleigh Garthwaite

For the past three years, I have been studying the lives of long-term sickness benefits recipients in North East England, U.K. as part of my PhD research. In that time, government policy has increasingly distinguished between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ in relation to sick and disabled people. Yet it is not only policy that makes that distinction.

In recent years, the media have taken a more vitriolic stance towards sick and disabled people, often branding them deeply offensive terms such as ‘scum’, ‘feckless’, and ‘work-shy’ (Garthwaite 2011). A comparable discourse is evident not only in political debates and the mass media, but also when considering public opinion. Polls show unsurprising support for welfare reform plans, signalling the public’s negative view towards benefits and people who receive them. For example, an IPSOS Mori poll carried out for the BBC published in October 2011 revealed that although a resounding 92 percent of British people wanted a benefits system providing a safety net for all, 63 percent doubted the U.K. benefits system works effectively, 72 percent wanted politicians to do more to cut the benefits bill, and 84 percent wanted to see stricter testing for sickness benefits.

The focus on ‘fairness for taxpayers’ has fostered the notion that disabled people are a separate group who don’t contribute. Interestingly, the media has undergone profound changes in recent years, with a wider range of communication modes being used and more opportunities being afforded for participatory journalism. Beresford (2012) comments how increasingly disabled people are blogging, podcasting, tweeting, and communicating within their own Facebook groups. Pickets and demonstrations are becoming ever more common, signalling new kinds of activism and collective action. Examples of such activity include Black Triangle, The Broken of Britain, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, and The Hardest Hit campaign.

Taking Responsible Reform, also known as The Spartacus Report as an example of how activism can help to influence and shape future policy. The report was financed and undertaken by sick and disabled people and analysed over 500 group responses made to the Government’s consultation on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reform and found that (in contrast to the Government’s claims of broad support for the measures) 74 percent opposed the plans. Overwhelmingly, participants objected to plans to make people wait longer before they could access support (98 percent) and opposed scrapping the lowest rate of DLA which allows many sick and disabled people to stay in work (92 percent).

The above sets the scene for the research I’ve carried out in recent years. I spoke to 25 long-term sick and disabled people about their experiences of receiving sickness benefits, alongside their experiences and perspectives on welfare reform. The majority of narratives revealed a huge amount of fear and trepidation over ongoing welfare reform. Participants spoke about worrying about the assessment on a daily basis, accompanied by a deep mistrust of the entire system. Below, Fred*, 53, a former Army sergeant who suffers poly-arthritis throughout his body and who has been receiving sickness benefits for over 8 years, gives his thoughts on the process:

I think a lot of people in my situation that are genuinely ill are gonna be pressurized and it’s gonna cause breakdowns, possibly even the worst case scenario y’know topping yourself but there again what can you do? If they could cut a penny in half they would. I think if they could bring euthanasia in, they would. If they could find a way of getting round all the moral outrage they’d probably do it. Take all the lame ones out, just like a sick animal.

An example of the importance of media portrayals of benefit recipients can be found in Alice’s story. Alice, 54, suffers from arthritis and various physical health problems such as diabetes and heart problems and has been receiving sickness benefits for over 20 years. She spoke about her annoyance at the link between those who receive benefits and the London riots of summer 2011. When asked about media representations of sickness benefits recipients, Alice said:

 It worries us and it’s annoying like these riots they’re trying to blame people on benefits like me. David Cameron is an arsehole – I can hardly walk to the doctors but he doesn’t know that, I cannot stand for 8 hours a day, and then he has the gall to say things like that. He really has no idea whatsoever what it’s like to be me.

Terry, 53, who has been receiving sickness benefits for 12 years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, highlighted the impact of how out of touch politicians and the media are when it comes to talking about people receiving sickness benefits:

I’d say when you look at it in the press there’s always that scrounger element, the government, the media, they always use the word scrounger and people on Incapacity Benefit are tarred with that brush, all of them. A lot of people are genuinely ill y’know and they don’t realize, they can’t empathize. They’ve never traveled a mile in my shoes and they make no effort to, so until they change their basic premise by which they go about these things, that’ll never change.

As the narratives shows, the scrounger character created in the media and perpetuated in government language is having a real impact upon the lives of sick and disabled people. Yet perhaps through activism and collective action, the voices of sick and disabled people in the media will show that people receiving sickness benefits are not ‘the Other’ – instead, ‘they’ could be any one of ‘us’.

Do you think the media misrepresents disability? Leave a reply below.

*All names are pseudonyms.

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Dr. Kayleigh Garthwaite is Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography, Durham University. She has a degree in Sociology from Durham University (2007); an MA in Social Research Methods (Social Policy) and a PhD in Human Geography (2012) from Durham University entitled ‘Incapacitated? Exploring the health and illness narratives of Incapacity Benefit recipients’. Kayleigh joined the Department of Geography in October 2012 where she is based in the Wolfson Research Institute. She is currently working on various projects related to health inequalities, worklessness and health and wellbeing for County Durham and Darlington Primary Care Trust. Kayleigh previously worked at Teesside University as a Research Assistant on a project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which sought to understand the dynamics of poverty and marginal work across the life-course. Her research interests focus on the relationship between health and disability, welfare-to-work policies, and self-identity, with a particular interest in spatial disadvantage in terms of worklessness.

For your reference:

Beresford, P. (2012) From ‘vulnerable’ to vanguard: challenging the Coalition.Soundings, Number 50, April 2012 , pp. 46-57(12). Available at:

Campbell, J. et al (2011) Responsible reform (‘Spartacus Report’). Available files/response_to_proposed_dla_reforms.pdf

IPSOS Mori (2011) Future state of welfare: Vast majority support benefits system – but want the system to be stricter. Available at:

Garthwaite, K. (2011) ‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform. Disability & Society 26, no. 3: 369–72. Available at:



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