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Column: A disabled person’s view on the charity crisis

Charity is often framed as an alternative to welfare, the underlying assumption being that it provides a taxation-free way of helping others. In reality, it is a hierarchical relationship which allows us to escape our collective social obligations, writes Chris Lowe.

Chris Lowe

RECENT CONTROVERSIES ON the charity industry have raised concerns about their ability to meet the needs of their recipients. These concerns ignore the issues that surrounds charity in the first place, concentrating on the disabled people but it can be expanded to other groups. Before starting it is important to acknowledge that there are many people who rely on charity, but the automatic assumption of a connection on disabled people with charity is ableism.

Central to any critique of charity is the social relationship it generates. As disabled people, the charity model constructs us as helpless recipients with our abled champions coming to our aid – just look at charity advertisements reliant on images of disabled children. This creates an unequal, paternalistic relationship which patronises those who need to rely on aid. Hiding behind the philantrophic gesture there are business considerations, charities as we have seen quite recently are often essentially companies privatising, or perhaps more accurately, semi-privatising help.


We have to assume that the majority of those who give to charity do so not because they feel superior, or to feel good, but because they genuinely seek to help others. Many of those directly involved in charity undoubtedly also have benign motives, however it is unquestionable that there are plenty of people whose involvment is at least part based on how it would look on their CV. This careerism feeds in to the higher levels of some charities which are essentially businesses, leading to the pay levels of some of their heads.

Charity is often framed as an alternative to welfare, the underlying assumption here is that it provides a mass taxation free way of helping others. In reality this is nothing more than an attempt to escape our collective social obligations.


Given that charity is based on a hierarchical relationship, which avoids the responsibility of society perhaps welfare is the answer. On the face of it welfare does cover the basics; supporters would claim that it is provided by society as a whole, acting through the State, to make up for inequalities inherent within the system we live. Leaving aside the fact that society and the state are not the same, there are many disability rights groups and activists who believe that this is the way forward, although a number have critiqued this as at best a stop-gap solution in advance of our achieving our barrier free haven.

An additional problem is that while the State has had an important role in coercing the private sector to become more accessible, it has also failed to completely implement the 2005 Disability Act which itself accorded rather limited rights. Leaving aside the State’s failure to follow its own legislation, by conflating rights with equality we are presented with the problem that this only benefits those who have the resources to take legal action to guarantee those rights. This means that the State takes an approach to disability which is not compatible with the social model of disability, and yet this is the one underpinning disability welfare. The State is, simply, not our ally.

We should also ask how much welfare really changes society? While an important safety net it has had a role in maintaining social cohesion, so that while basic left wing ideas are taken on board, it leaves pre-existing social inequalities intact. Like charity we have to recognise that there are those among our people who genuinely rely on this, I am not for one instant that we as a social group abandon charity and welfare immediately.

Mutual Aid

So how can we address the problem of impairment in a way which is genuinely respectful and more importantly equitable, in other words how can we create an alternative? I believe the answer is through the adaptation of a different model, a return to the idea of mutual aid. Mutual aid, as explained by Peter Kropotkin (1902), has at its basis the principle of voluntary cooperation and sharing of resources for the benefit of all, basically these will be societies in which recipients and givers are the same people, so to continue with our argument around disability, they can be run by disabled people for disabled people based on relationships of equality and consent.

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Examples of this have in the past number of years been tried among activist circles in Toronto. In these care collectives the giver is also a recipient of aid, and no money changes hands, in this way charity is absent. One of these is described in the book chapter Queer Cripping Anarchy (2013) as having been in existence for six years. While these are based on ensuring levels of care for political activists, especially those who are disabled, they provide us with a vision of an alternative way of providing for disabled people. There is nothing to stop abled people from being involved in these collectives, they will just be on an equal footing with their disabled allies.

As a rule anarchist collectives are modelled around leaderless structures, this circumvents the problem of having well payed CEOs, the problem that has recently pushed the charities affairs into the public eye and tarred the reputation of all charities. Added to this benefit we must consider that charity heads are granted access to positions of power, by not having a leader no one gains these positions.

Funding these is quite simple, given that at present we as a people are, as A.J. Withers the disability activist and author has pointed out, dependent on work, welfare or charity, so we need to use these benefits to fund our activism and build our alternative structures (Withers 2012).

Chris Lowe is a PhD. Candidate at the Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth and currently teaches an undergraduate research elective on the Social Model of Disability.

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Chris Lowe

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