Being and doing: a question of value

Being and doing: a question of value

In addressing questions to do with disabled people and work, Andy Rickell defends the rights of those who are unable to work.

I want to unpick a matter of principle in the debate about work and disabled people which is underlying an in-depth online discussion between disabled campaigners fighting for the right to work, and other disabled campaigners fighting for the right not to work. Actually both are correct – we are fighting both for the right to work for those who want to, and the right not to work for those for whom work will have a bad impact on their health or for whom it is genuinely unfair to expect them to work, who should instead be assured of a reasonable level of social security.

The matter of principle is about human value. The problem is that there are two different ways of valuing a person, and these are often confused or wrongly assumed to be dependent on each other. One of those values is about our “being”, and the other is about our “doing”.

Human rights doctrine, underpinned by religious and humanist thinking, sets the same very high value on each and every human life, just for “being”, for existing. Every human, irrespective of anything that person can do or cannot do, is valued and they are entitled to be fully included as a citizen with all the rights to maximise their life. So it is absolutely right to be fighting for social security for every disabled person, whether or not they are capable of work, and to challenge any state which tries to push disabled people to work when it is contrary to their individual best interests.

A different human right is the right to be valued for what we can do, for “doing”, for the active contribution we can make to our community, society and nation by using our skills, talents and creativity. So it is also absolutely right to be fighting to overcome the prejudice and the practical, societal and economic barriers which exclude disabled people from being able to demonstrate the contribution they can make and hence receive the value which society places on the person for that contribution.

Both of these means of valuing people is important. To overemphasise “being” rather than “doing” ultimately leads to a fair but unambitious society in terms of improving human wealth and choice, arts, science and all endeavour. To overemphasise “doing” rather than “being” ultimately leads to a society which sets individuals against each other, with the weak and unproductive being abused and eventually euthanized.

It’s wrong for the state or anyone to conflate the two – that an individual will be treated better for “being” because they offer more to society by their “doing”. Economically inactive disabled people should not be treated as second class citizens.

Equally it is reasonable for society to expect any capable individual to contribute to the common good when they can by working. And that can mean supporting a disabled individual to overcome the oppressive former assumptions of society that they are incapable which they may have internalised. But the state has to avoid implying that unemployment is something that must be forced out of disabled people by tighter social security rules too.

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