Thursday, 19 June 2014

Disability or Addiction?

The flurry of headlines over the previously obscure Danish child-minder Karsten Kaltoft recently underline our society’s confusion and anxieties surrounding food addiction and obesity. For those who are unfamiliar with the case Mr Kaltoft, an obese employee of the Billund Kommune, a Danish local authority, was sacked for being unable to carry out his duties. His weight and body size prevented him from bending down and carrying out tasks such as tying children's shoe laces. Mr Kaltoft appealed against the decision to the European Court Of Justice, claiming he had been discriminated against, claiming that his weight should be counted as a disability. The ECJ is still deliberating over the ruling, but whatever it decides will have profound consequences for the treatment of the obese across the EU. Already countless column inches have been devoted to this issue, and one does not need to read between the lines in order to draw out a common theme; Eurocrats have gone too far this time and the nanny state is about to reward sloth, gluttony and lack of moral and nutritional fibre. Britain’s most rabid commentators have targeted the issue of obesity and explained it as a moral failing, one which now affects two thirds of the British population; the fact that a majority of people are now either overweight or obese should tell us something however, or should at least suggest that the tabloid cries for the nation to buck up or show some fortitude are inadequate solutions. The fact that we face an epidemic of obesity in Britain suggests that the causes of obesity lie far beyond Bunter-esque gluttony and are deeply rooted in the food economy that surrounds us every day and is infused with processed sugar (we now eat three times as much of this addictive substance than people did 50 years ago). It also suggests that instead of seeing obesity as a disability or a lack of grit, another paradigm might be employed to explain it. Obesity, like alcoholism or gambling problems, is a food addiction, and with high calorie food stuffs peddled in as cheap and as irresponsible a way as alcohol currently is, there is no shortage of ways to feed that addiction. All of us are probably familiar with comfort eating and most of us have probably engaged in it at one time or another; who doesn’t enjoy a warming meal on a cold, miserable winter’s day or a sugary treat as a reward for dealing with something challenging or difficult? The food addict is used to medicating emotional wounds and hurts with food, in the same way that the alcoholic seeks oblivion through drinking - both are seeking substances external to themselves in order to change how they feel. Seen from this point of view, a decision to classify obesity as a disability would be a catastrophe for people who struggle with food addiction, it would permanently classify them as no longer able or capable of recovering from their condition. It would give the cruel, the bitter and the intolerant carte blanche to criticise and vilify food addicts even more than they already do. A far better solution to our current crises over obesity would be to recognise over-eating as a powerful compulsive behaviour with deep seated emotional roots, but to do that we as a society would have to adopt a language that we are unfamiliar with and unaccustomed to; one that seeks to engage, empower and to find solutions instead of our current discourse which mocks, ridicules and hurts.

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Social Fly-tippers

What kind of awful, odious human being would steal from a vulnerable adult or child? Another vulnerable adult, it would appear. Certain types of crime are so abhorrent to us as a society: child abuse, sex trafficking, the exploitation of the elderly or cruelty to animals, that our media knows it can easily hit its sales targets by printing lurid details of the offence. The British public, after decades of almost Pavlovian classic conditioning, is so primed to be indignant, outraged, furious or wrathful that it is easy to engage when a heinous act is uncovered. In one such case in the last few months, a care home worker has been found guilty of stealing from residents in order to pay for her gambling addiction. In this instance we as a society have been called on to despise, detest and loathe this woman; without of course exploring on a deeper level the facts of the case. One only needs to leaf through any national newspaper and find the adverts for bingo, bookies and online poker to understand the reticence on the part of the editorial staff to explore the hold that gambling now has over our society and the destruction it has been licensed to wreak. In this case, Rachel Stokes, a care home manager from Gloucestershire admitted to stealing £1,000, though the total figure is more than likely higher, in order to pay for her addiction to online bingo. She was rightly jailed for eight months in April, though the families of her victims understandably demanded a longer sentence for her actions. Her accomplice, on the other hand, was spared both the trauma of the court room and the indignity of the press report. The online gambling industry, much like its counterpart the alcohol business, is free to saunter away from the scene of the crime. Our legal system has no conception or framework for assessing culpability when it comes to the actions of our addiction industries. Instead, the addict must shoulder the sole responsibility for the tragic consequences of their addiction and must be vilified and held up to the glare of public opprobrium for the rest of their lives. There is no disputing that Mrs. Stokes breached a trust placed in her and should be punished, but the simplistic ideas that we have about criminal culpability and agency are out of date in an age of mass addiction. Mrs. Stokes was not acting alone, she was acting in tandem with a multi-billion pound industry that relies on addiction, desperation and loneliness. She admitted her addiction in court, to the great indifference of the nation - to our knowledge this article is the first that has been written on the culpability of the gambling industry. The biggest expansion in gambling in Britain’s history is having vast and, for the most part, unseen consequences in the lives of countless people, many of whom are as broken by their addiction as the victims of their acquisitive crimes. We as a society are prohibited from placing the blame at any other door than that of the addicted individual, partly because our legal system has no other way of thinking, but mainly because vested interests in the addiction industries find that set-up most convenient for them. It is time we thought of them rather like social fly-tippers, dumping the messy by-products of their trade and scurrying away, evading the bill for the clean-up. Wynford Ellis Owen Chief Executive Living Room Cardiff / Stafell Fyw Caerdydd