Reeve, D. (2014) ‘Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: An analysis of disabled people’s experience of welfare reform in the UK’, paper presented at 7th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 9-11 September.
This exploratory paper will utilise the liminal figure of homo sacer (Agamben, 1998) to consider the experiences of disabled people living at the sharp end of a major reform of the welfare system supporting those traditionally considered too ill to work. This is happening at a time of high unemployment and economic recession in the UK.
Two aspects of homo sacer will be discussed in this paper. Firstly it will be shown how disabled people can find themselves caught up in an ‘economic’ zone of indistinction, as a consequence of a state of exception caused by these neoliberal policies. For example, the changing of eligibility criteria for out-of-work benefits paid to disabled people has resulted in a group of disabled people who are now deemed to be fit-to-work rather than unfit-to-work. However existing barriers to paid work – whether related to the consequences of impairment or to employer attitudes – remain unchanged and so rates of employment remain low compared to non-disabled unemployed people.
Secondly, a key aspect of homo sacer is that (s)he can be killed with impunity, without the death being treated as homicide (Agamben, 1998). There have been a number of recent deaths and suicides of disabled people that have been attributed directly to benefits cuts or to the anxiety and stress caused by the work capability assessment process. The government refutes these claims and simply offers condolences to the family of the dead claimant. This ‘letting die’ of disabled people as a consequence of welfare reform could be seen as an example of the inherent structural violence associated with neoliberalism (Tyner, 2014)
This paper aims to use the figure of homo sacer to illustrate the contradictory and precarious positions that disabled people are often forced to adopt as a consequence of neoliberal welfare reform.