Protesting ATOS: The Right Not to Work #Atos #Kills



Today across the UK protests are taking place against ATOS, the French based Information Technology and Health multi-national first commissioned by the Government in 2008 to carry out the discredited work capability assessments (WCAs) with those claiming or seeking disability related welfare benefits. These ‘points-based’ tests –comprising of a combination of computer based questionnaires, short face-to-face interviews and minimal physical examinations– determine whether people are fraudulently claiming benefits when they are ‘fit for work’. To date ATOS has been funded to the tune of 500 million pounds for carrying out these tests. In July 2012 the British Medical Association Conference voted unanimously for an end to the WCAs in their current form. However, they continue unabated despite sometimes horrific and deadly consequences.

Many hundreds of thousands of people which ATOS has reclassified as ‘fit for work’ (around 40%) have had that decision over-turned on appeal (Gentleman, 2012). As well as being expensive the appeals system often takes several months during which time poverty and stress often has a serious impact on the health of appellants. There is also growing evidence of a rise in the number of suicides and attempted suicides by people whose benefits have been withdrawn. These include truly heart-breaking cases, such as the suicide of Jacqueline Harris, a 53-year-old former nurse from Bristol, in 2013 .

In this blog post, I want to return us to the ‘inclusive spectacle’ of the Paralympic Games in 2012 (a moment when the British State produced itself as the inclusive state extraordinaire), in order to briefly explore the deeply toxic mix of rhetorics of inclusion and mechanisms of exclusion which people with disabilities endure in post-welfare Britain.

David Cameron, for example, recently claimed that “Britain’s Paralympic Games opened the eyes of the world to see disability in a different way”  (David Cameron 2013).


What sense can we make of Cameron’s boasts about Britain’s pride in being “disability inclusive” in the context of fiscal measures which seemingly target people with disabilities, and welfare reforms which function through the production of stigma and fear–as though fear itself might somehow generate paid work for people with disabilities.

Highlighting the recent work of colleagues Chris Grover and Linda Piggot at Lancaster University, I will argue that it is critical that we stand in solidarity with Black Triangle, Disabled People Against the Cuts and other disability protest groups today as they defend rights to not work.

A Spectacle of Inclusion: The London Olympic Stadium August 29th 2012

On the evening of August 29th 2012, the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games saw thousands of performers and volunteers stage a spectacular commemoration of the historical achievements of disability rights movement in Britain. The highlight for many viewers was a raucous mash-up of Ian Dury’s 1981 punk disability anthem ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ performed by the electronic dance duo Orbital and the Graeae Theatre Company. During this exhilarating routine dozens of disabled performers enacted an abstract montage of disability rights protests, holding up placards which spelled out ‘RIGHTS’, ‘Equality’, ‘Look Beyond Appearances’ and ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover’. The sequence culminated in the inflation of a 40ft reproduction of Marc Quinn’s sculpture of the disabled artist Alison Lapper, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’(2005), in the centre of stadium, whilst a young woman was simultaneously lifted into the air — smashing a metaphorical glass ceiling with her walking stick. The ceremony finally ended with fireworks and a rendition of the queer musical song ‘I Am What I Am’. Many commentators hailed this opening ceremony, which attracted UK television audiences of 11 million, a watershed moment in the history of disability rights in Britain which promised to challenge stigmatising cultural perceptions and attitudes around disability. Yet earlier in the day hundreds of disability activists took to the streets to stage the first of a series of rather different protest performances to make manifest their rage that the Paralympics where being sponsored by ATOS, an Information Technology and Health multi-national.

The mechanisms of exclusion

ATOS are currently in receipt of a £100 million a year contract (£500 million cumulatively) from the Government Department of Work and Pensions to undertake work capability assessments (WCAs) with those claiming or seeking disability related welfare benefits. These ‘points-based’ tests –comprising of a combination of computer based questionnaires, short face-to-face interviews and minimal physical examinations– determine whether people are fraudulently claiming benefits when they are ‘fit for work’. The Paralympic protestors, from Disabled People Against the Cuts and UK Uncut, sought to draw attention to the thousands of people who have died after ATOS tests determined them capable of finding and undertaking paid employment. Their protests began on August 29th with the staging of a memorial service outside ATOS’s London Headquarters and continued with ‘die-in’ protests outside ATOS buildings in Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and Hull. The following day they escalated the direct action staging a ‘Closing ATOS Ceremony’ which culminated in the occupation of Caxton House, the home of the Government Department of Work and Pensions. Activists used wheelchairs to lock themselves into the lobby of Caxton House, while hundreds of protesters on the street, carrying ‘ATOS kills’ placards and chanting ‘shame on you’ and ‘you can stick your work assessment up your arse’, created a human barricade to stop riot police from gaining access to the building.


WCAs where introduced in 2008 as part of a package of austerity-driven welfare reforms which to date have seen £18 billion worth of cuts made to the UK benefits system. As part of these cuts the existing benefits system for the long term sick, the physically and mentally disabled has been replaced with what the Government describes as ‘an active benefits system where individuals are provided with greater support and in return take greater responsibility for their own circumstances’ (The Department for Work and Pensions, 2009, p. 1). A series of independent reports by charities, trade unions and medical associations, the collection of hundreds of personal testimonies by activist groups and two investigative television documentaries, Don’t Hate Us! (ITV, 2012) and Disabled or Faking It? (BBC, 2012), have variously detailed the devastating impact which WCA’s are having on the lives of people with disabilities in Britain, driving many thousands into poverty and despair. Whilst the policy rhetoric centres on the presentation of ‘evidence’ of the health-benefits of paid-work (The Department for Work and Pensions, 2009), disability activists and their allies have questioned not only the testing procedures but the ideology of a policy agenda which determines welfare entitlement by assessing individuals’ capability for work in the absence of suitable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  Writing on the impact of these changes, Richard Hawkes, the Chief-Executive of disability charity Scope, notes:

“We have seen evidence of declining mental health, exacerbated by fear for the future; of physical and emotional strain […] we are seeing it become increasingly difficult for disabled people to participate in everyday family and civic life. This has all take taken place against a backdrop of growing hostility towards those who claim disability and welfare support” (Hawkes in Wood, 2012, p. 10).
Stigma produces consent for exclusion

In 2011 researchers from Strathclyde University’s Centre for Disability Research and the Glasgow University Media Unit analysed changes in the way the newspapers reported and represented disability and the impact of stigmatising coverage on public attitudes (Briant, et al., 2011). Comparing their data against a similar study undertaken five years earlier, their research reveals a ‘significantly increased use of pejorative language to describe disabled people, including suggestions that life on incapacity benefit had become a “Lifestyle Choice”’ (Briant, et al., 2011, p. 5). They also noted a surge in the number of newspaper articles that invoked ‘the “burden” that disabled people are alleged to place on the economy – with some articles even blaming the recession itself on incapacity benefit claimants’ (Briant, et al., 2011, p. 5). By undertaking a series of focus groups, what this research further detailed is how this pejorative visibility has created a consensus amongst the British public that the majority of disability benefits claims are fraudulent (Briant, et al., 2011). Indeed, as I have detailed elsewhere (Tyler 2013), since the disability welfare reform programme began in 2008, there has been a massive increase in disability hate crimes on the streets of Britain. Official police data reveals recorded incidents of disability hate crime grew by 60% between 2009 and 2011 and are now at their highest levels since records began (The Guardian, 2012). By 2012 it was estimated that disability hate crimes had risen to 65,000 per year as a consequence of the continued and incessant portrayal of people with disabilities as ‘welfare scroungers’. It was in the context of enforced destitution, stigma and growing public antipathy that activists set out to wreck ATOS’ ability to capitalise on any positive publicity generated by their Paralympic sponsorship.

Writing in The Guardian this week in Feb 2014, Shiv Malik and Patrick Butler revealed that “Atos may lose fit-for-work tests contract as ministers line up rival firms”–among these firms are, incredibly, “G4S, Serco, A4E and Capita Group, who are all listed on the government’s existing “framework” group of preferred bidders for outsourced welfare work”.

The right not to work

As Chris Grover and Linda Piggot argue in their paper “A right not to work and disabled people” (2013), attempts over 70 years to increase the number of disabled people in paid employment have failed. This paper is an important intervention, and forms part of a series of activist and academic voices from the disability movement which are beginning to challenge the rhetoric (which came in part out of the mainstreaming of disability rights movements) that only paid employment could grant ‘full citizenship’ and ‘equal rights”.

As Grover and Piggot suggest, it is crucial that the disability rights movements–ideally working in collaboration and solidarity with other social movements against austerity,  rigorously defend “the right not to work”. Indeed, as neoliberal remakes the social worlds we live in, and leaves increasing numbers of people disenfranchised and seemingly ‘discardable’, we need to radically re-think our basic understandings of work (paid, and unpaid), citizenship, equality and value.

As disability activist Sunny Taylor argues:

“The right not to work is the right not to have your value determined by your productivity as a  worker, by your employability or salary… What I mean by the right not to work is perhaps as much a shift in ideology or consciousness as it is a material shift. It is about our relation not only to labor but the significance of performing that labor, and to the idea that only through the performance of wage labor does the human being actually accrue value themselves. It is about cultivating a skeptical attitude regarding the significance of work, which should not be taken at face value as a sign of equality and enfranchisement, but should be analyzed more critically” (cited in Grover and Piggot).

The refusal to be defined by your value on the labour market

These kinds of arguments –which refuse the association between human value and labour value–are supported by feminist scholar Kathy Davis in her book The Problem With Work, who powerfully makes the case for ‘getting a life’ (as opposed to “a job”). Davis argues, and I agree, that we need together to develop ‘post-work ethics’ with which to fight the dehumanising consequences of post-welfare, neoliberal orthodoxy…

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