Why have disability categories in social security? Deborah Mabbett Brunel University

Why have disability categories in social security?

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Why have disability categories in social security?
The administration of social security involves drawing boundaries to determine who is entitled to benefits and who is not. The specification of categories (unemployment, old age, disability, etc) in legislation may help to promote justice in this process. However, the categories are often problematic, particularly the disability categories. The evidence on which decisions have to be made is complex and susceptible to different interpretations, and understandings of the nature of disability are highly contested.
Recent years have seen the emergence of a disability rights movement which has succeeded in changing the way disability is understood in social policy. The social model of disability emphasises that impairments do not have to be disabling: disabling effects arise from social structures which discriminate against and exclude those with impairments. The model therefore draws a clear distinction between impairment and disadvantage. One implication for social security categorisation might be as follows. If social security is concerned with addressing disadvantage, it may not necessarily always be relevant to consider impairment; furthermore, disadvantaged people with impairments may have a lot in common with people who have similar disadvantages but are not impaired. This suggests that social security disability categories, which select for different treatment people with impairments who also have certain disadvantages (low income, no job, constrained mobility, care needs, etc), might be dispensed with in favour of categories based on disadvantage alone.
Disability categories could be done away with in two ways: by being combined with other categories used in the same policy area (e.g. for income maintenance, with the unemployed (or ‘jobseeker’) and lone parent categories) or by being re-divided into new, smaller, more refined categories. Indeed, if we recognise that categorisation is done at different levels: in legislation, development of managerial procedures, and administrative encounters, we can see that reform of categories may entail a combination of categorical unification (at the legislative policy level) and fragmentation (at the level of the administrator-client relationship).
Unification of categories is implied by schemes for negative income taxes or basic incomes. Supporters of these schemes argue that established categories are designed around patterns of working life which have changed, and that larger categories, with no distinctions between those who are expected to be working and those who are not, can be the basis of a more flexible system. Fragmentation of categories is reflected in the adoption of ‘casework’ methods, in which the benefits awarded to applicants and the services provided are tailored to their individual needs and circumstances. For example, a contract may specify the client’s obligations to seek work, attend training sessions etc; these individually-negotiated arrangements replace the general categorical obligation on unemployed people to make themselves available for work and to look for work.
It is helpful to start with an idea of the different situations in which disability categories are used, in order to predict the issues that might be raised by unification or fragmentation. The following discussion uses information gathered in a research project conducted for the European Commission, which looked at how people were assigned to disability categories in the administration of social security, employment services and care provisions across the European states (Mabbett, 2003a). The very structure of the research project indicates the ubiquity of disability categories, but the situations in which the categories were used varied widely.

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