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Department of Social Anthropology


Senior Research Seminar with Dr Kelly Fagan Robinson (University of Cambridge)

Dislocation and epistemic injustice in UK disability assessments

In 2018, a Parliamentary review gathered 7,000 statements from disabled benefits claimants who had been subject to Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and/or Personal Independence Payments (PIP) Assessments. Half of the respondents explained that these assessments increased pain and anxiety to such an extent that they had attempted self-harm or suicide because of “shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes.” By 2019 more than 1.6 million benefits judgements had been reviewed, with 3-of-4 decisions against claimants ultimately deemed incorrect and overturned.

This exploratory paper focuses on the layers – referred to here as communication ‘affordances’ (sensu Keane 2018. Gibson 1979) – that give rise to individual understanding of what 'disability' can mean in testimonial settings. Affordances in my usage refer to the multitude of elements such as education, upbringing,  bodies, languages and a host of others influences which shape individual interpretations and categories of 'disabled' personhood.

I propose that using discourse ethnography to document and 'map' these constitutive layers offers a key means of incorporating diverse politically, emotionally and ethically charged personal attitudes built over lifetimes, pivotal integrants in the situated nature of claimant-assessor relations collapse.  Given that the "long-term adverse effects" that legally render claimants eligible for public support under the Equalities Act 2010 can take many forms, whether mental, physical, or social, eligibility criteria and expectations of disability are subject to interpretations which do not universally align. I argue that such communication dissonances may lead to epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007. Wanderer 2017) with consequences including mental health crises, poverty and suicide.

Friday, 26 February, 2021 - 16:15 to 18:00
Event location: 
Online - by email invitation