Bringing About Change

By Dr Frances Ryan

Frances Ryan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. She is a columnist at The Guardian and campaigns on disability rights issues. She has written about a range of subjects including the impact of austerity and cuts to public services on people with disabilities in Britain.

Tell us a bit about your work and writing. How would you summarise it?

I’m a journalist and broadcaster. I write a weekly Guardian column amongst other freelance work, and also do guest lectures at various universities and events. I write primarily about disability, economics, feminism, and education. And soaps if they let me. 

My work has a large campaigning element to it. I try to use it to highlight what’s happening to marginalised groups and to do what I can to bring about change. 

What are you working on currently? 

I have written a chapter on disabled feminism in ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’ published in the UK and US in September 2018. ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’ is a collection of essays on intersectional feminism edited by June Eric-Udorie. I’m also part of an exhibition put on by The National Trust on modern women, alongside others such as Mary Beard and Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news. 

Mainly, I’m currently chained to my laptop working on my first solo book, on disability in Britain under the austerity era, which will be released with Verso in 2019. 

Which themes appear most often in your work and why? 

My work often looks at how different inequalities intersect; from disability, class, race, to sex. I also like to bang on about the way cultural prejudice about certain groups - say, a working class mum or a wheelchair user - affects how society is willing to treat them. 

For me, a lot of it comes down to how someone’s life chances can be robbed by inequality, whether that’s your mum not being able to afford breakfast so you can concentrate in school or how social care cuts mean if you’re disabled you can’t hold down a job or meet a partner. I try and carry that through my work. 

What inspires you most? 

I’ve spoken to many hundreds of people who are struggling in poverty in recent years, often as a direct result of government policy. Many are battling illness at the same time. That definitely inspires me to keep reporting this and to bring it to the attention of the wider public. 

I think I’m also motivated by the fact we know change is possible. We see grassroots groups making a huge difference in really tough times. In my own work, we’ve seen change as a result of the journalism, from councils moving disabled people to inaccessible housing to awarding a decent care package.  That definitely motivates me to keep going. 

Why does telling stories about lived experience of issues like poverty matter? 

There’s so much patronising, paternalistic or negative coverage of poverty and those living in it that I think telling stories of people’s real experiences plays a big role in countering that. And I think, as crucially, it avoids us as journalists actually perpetuating that paternalism by talking *about* people in poverty and instead, ensures we’re listening and then reporting their direct lived experiences. The people living it should be at the forefront of journalism around poverty. 

Describe your ambitions for your work going forward. 

I think Brexit in addition to the huge cuts to local government throughout Britain, on top of the roll out of Universal Credit, are going to be very challenging for many families and I aim to report on any impact and help keep that in the public eye. I also hope my book next year helps the conversation around disability in Britain, both for disabled people and the wider public too. 

Why are writers central to aiding our understanding of poverty and hardship? 

I’ve always loved political writing for the power it can have - good writing should leave you with a punch - and I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time to have great journalism: diligent reporting, fearless, and humanising of its subject. 

In an era of ‘fake news’, increased tribalism, social media, and (often understandable) distrust of the so-called ‘MSM’, I think there’s a danger in politics of an echo chamber, less transparency of government, and some fatalism (when times are tough, apathy and hopelessness come naturally). I think good writing has a big role to play today in countering that; in challenging our preconceptions about poverty, shining a light on the reality of government policies, and also carving out hopeful alternatives to the current system. 

Why is it important to write about poverty and to tell stories that relate to it? 

Poverty takes so many shapes - from families struggling to pay extortionate private rents to disabled people unable to stretch their benefits to regular meals - that I think, if journalists aren’t writing about this, we’re failing to report on huge swathes of what’s happening in this country. And at time when it’s probably never been harder for many families to stay afloat. 

But it’s not just the stories that matter but who the storytellers are. The reality is that in most newsrooms, there will be few journalists who grew up on free school meals or who rely on social housing. Journalists of any background can and do cover social issues fantastically but I think we need to ensure there’s a diversity of writers so the people actually experiencing poverty have voice and agency.  

How can stories in fiction and non-fiction inform our understanding of poverty and the people who experience it? 

I’ve always been a huge fan of the role of popular culture, like soaps, in both normalising social change (e.g. homosexuality) and creating awareness of important issues, such as poverty. EastEnders did a storyline last year where a long term character struggled with the JobCentre and ended up having to turn to a food bank. I think stories like that can really play a part in humanising poverty and its causes and portraying the reality that this really can be experienced by any of us. 

What do you think are the biggest myths in our culture surrounding poverty? 
I think one of the central myths underpinning much of our culture is the idea that what we have in life purely stems from our talents and efforts - when in fact it’s of course deeply affected by economic and social structures. This myth simultaneously blames people in poverty for their own hardship - ‘If you try hard enough, you’ll succeed!’ - and perpetuates the idea that the ruling class are somehow owed their place. 

It’s confronting to hear that what we have might not be because we’re somehow more deserving than others. But I think unpacking that, and then working on ways to genuinely level the playing field, is one of the most crucial things we can do. 

Which issues are most overlooked in discussion about poverty?

I think the relationship between poverty and disability isn’t talked about enough. The great irony of the scrounger narrative was always that far from living the Life of Riley, disabled people are more likely to live in poverty and severe poverty than others. And this economic hardship has a huge impact on a disabled or chronically ill person’s quality of life. Disability is often spoken about in the media as a tragic pitiable existence but in addition to being untrue, it’s often a lack of economic security - that very thing government is increasingly willing to leave some without - that damages a disabled person’s ability to lead a full and flourishing life.