Allowed to be Idle: Perpetuating Victorian Attitudes to Deafness and Employability in United Kingdom

Atherton, Martin orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-7300-2339 (2020) Allowed to be Idle: Perpetuating Victorian Attitudes to Deafness and Employability in United Kingdom. In: Disability and the Victorians: Attitudes, Interventions and Experiences. Palgrave Macmillan, London. ISBN 9781526145710

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Despite the plethora of social policy legislation and policies introduced in the United Kingdom over the past thirty years, deaf people still find themselves facing serious challenges in finding employment opportunities that match both their aspirations and their abilities. As an abundance of research over the last quarter century has shown, deaf people are both unemployed and underemployed at rates that would be deemed unacceptable among the general working-age population. One of the main reasons for this is that deafness is regarded as a disability in both legislative and practical terms and so negative perceptions of disabled (and by extension deaf) people influence attitudes among employers and legislators. Consequently, deaf and disabled people who find themselves unemployed are treated more leniently when claiming benefits and financial support, even under the increasingly draconian measures introduced as part of the UK government’s financial austerity programme of the second decade of the twenty-first century. In essence, deaf people – through their legislative status as being disabled – are one of the very few groups within society who are allowed to be unemployed.
This chapter will explore the current state of deaf employment in the UK and investigate the perceptions of deaf people themselves towards their employment prospects. Deaf people want to be productive members of society, rather than recipients of welfare who are subjected to derogatory attitudes and expectations. This examination will show how attitudes to deafness and deaf people inhibit their long-term goals to gain rewarding jobs and careers that make the best use of their abilities. The range of legislative measures that apply to deaf people will be unpacked in order to show how societal values and perceptions are both reflected and perpetuated by government policies and practices. These policies are meant to remove, rather than institutionalise, discriminatory practices in the workplace and beyond, but often fail in this objective. The chapter will conclude by proposing the argument that current UK disability legislation is predicated on statutes and perceptions dating back to at least the early nineteenth century. The underlying principles of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act in England and Wales have remained embedded in virtually all subsequent measures aimed at responding to unemployment, establishing the Victorian philosophy that the vast majority of people who are out of work find themselves in this condition through either choice or inherent indolence. One of the rare exceptions allowed by this philosophy were people we would now regard as disabled. And so the origins of contemporary attitudes towards this section of society, and the specific effects this has had on deaf people in the workplace, will be explored.

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