Fitness for Work: Disability, Labour and the Monstrous

(first published Nyx 2012)

Over the last few years and particularly since the beginning of the recession in 2008, violent attacks on disabled people, often in the street, have increased (Boffey, 2011). This increase has been directly linked to recent benefit cuts and can be looked at in relation to attitudes towards labour and the welfare state. In 2008 Atos Origin, the company that delivers the assessment for work tests changed the way they assessed capacity for work, using a new computer program to come to decisions about whether claimants were able to work or not. Becoming increasingly Kafkaesque, the seemingly banal questions of the assessment can be interpreted to create a picture of laziness and indolence. Many claimants have complained that it seemed to be assumed they were lying. And whilst numbers of people found “fit for work” have increased, so have tribunals overturning these decisions (Gentleman, 2011). People with terminal illnesses have been found fit for work. These changes are indicative of government cuts to the benefit system and in particular on disability and sickness benefits. They have been presented as a way of “rooting out” the “shirkers”, “scroungers” and “benefit cheats” but are affecting disabled people particularly badly.

In his Etymologiae, the mediaeval scholar and theologian, Isidore of Seville compiled a taxonomy of the monstrous (Barney et al., 2010: 243-246). Based on Aristotelian categories he identified and catalogued dangers that could threaten the human body. Starting with hypertrophy and atrophy of body parts, the taxonomy moves through various grades to mixtures of animal and human parts and then to monsters themselves. This classification of physical deformity also had a moral and spiritual aspect. In the Middle Ages, disability was seen in terms of the spiritually unclean, closely aligned to disease and interpreted as punishment for past sins or divine disfavour. Within the mediaeval cosmology, bodily impairments were therefore also perceived as being part of a moral normative index.

Isidore of Seville labelled the physical deformities in his taxonomy as “portents”, signs or warnings of a threatening or disquieting significance, signs that something momentous or calamitous might happen. Encounters with deformity or disability confront us with the uncanny, producing a “subliminal unease” (Quayson, 2007: 14) that reminds the able-bodied of the temporality of the healthy body and ultimately of its mortality.

The desire to eradicate this unease can directly translate into attacks on those who confront us with it. The victim becomes a thing onto which despised parts of the self can be projected. In the context of the discourse around labour, this may be those parts of the self that don’t want to work. Envy can be mixed with fear of the abnormal to produce anger and hatred. Debates around how to deal with the “workshy” and the “undeserving poor” have recently reappeared and austerity is being used to divide those that “have played by the rules” and worked hard from those who haven’t. Mistrust of people suffering from complex or chronic health conditions, including mental health issues places the sick and disabled in an ambivalent position between the two, seeming to blur the line between what people can’t and don’t want to do.

The spectre of the unproductive body is frightening. Poverty and sickness have historically gone hand-in-hand and are a monstrous and horrifying vision to the well and wealthy. No matter that Henry Ford asserted a vision of his factories being able to be run by “the armless, the legless and the blind” (Seltzer, 1992: 157), the reality is that most employers are not adequately able to adapt to workers with disabilities or chronic health conditions. It is after all workers who are meant to adapt to the labour market and those who cannot, join the ragged, demoralised and poverty stricken. Marx’s Capital contains many monsters including the Cyclops of mechanised industry (1976: 506-7). Marx documented the damage done to the bodies and minds of workers chewed up and spat out by the factory system, but even (or perhaps even especially) in our Post-Fordist and digital era, stress and overwork is a major cause of sickness and absence from work. For the vast majority of people who fall ill and cannot work, it is doubly humiliating having the state crudely and suspiciously monitor their health and decide whether, how and when they can work. Evidence of this monstrosity is that some people are attempting suicide rather than face repeated Work Capability Assessments (Domotus & Taylor, 2011, Gentleman, 2011).

We are in a system in which we are compelled to work. It is a deal backed by force, and this is currently increasing. The Workfare scheme in which the unemployed will be coerced into working for nothing for large corporations that can afford to pay, is surely about punishing the unemployed with unpaid labour as well as, of course, extracting more profit. Is it any wonder then that anger, rage and resentment are played out against the most vulnerable? We may be facing a return to a pre-welfare state in which we are confronted with the monstrous on several levels: not just lack of support for the sick and disabled and increasing numbers below the poverty line, but also increased blame and hostility towards those who find themselves in that position. But can this outrage be redirected? At a moment when the blatant inhumanity and inequality of the current system is becoming increasingly obvious we need to re-call for what others have described as the right to be idle or lazy, (John Holloway, Bertrand Russell et al.) that is, not to be forced into a position of overwork and underpay, to be able to have control over one’s own time and to be able to slow down and take respite when needed. If an encounter with disability can show us anything it is the need to create situations in which people are able to work at their own pace and not at the inhumanly frenetic one currently imposed.


Boffey, Daniel. Disabled people face abuse and threats of violence after fraud crackdown, The Observer, 15 May 2011

Barney, et al. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010

Domotus, John & Taylor, Matthew. Mental health experts warn against pace of incapacity benefit cuts, The, Tuesday 31 March 2011

Gentleman, Amelia. Work capability assessment is assessed, and found lacking,, Monday 7 March 2011

Gentleman, Amelia. “The medical was an absolute joke”, The Guardian, Wednesday 23 February, 2011

Holloway, John. In a public address to Occupy London, St Paul’s, Saturday 26th November 2011

Marx, Karl. Capital volume 1, Pelican books, London 1976

Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness, Disability and the Crisis of Representation, Columbia University press, New York 2007

Russell, Bertrand. In Praise of Idleness,, 1932

Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines, Routledge, New York and London 1992



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