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Able to fight: How disabled people are taking on the Tories

As the Paralympics open, disabled people are facing an onslaught of cuts. But as Lorna Stephenson discovers, disabled activists are a force to be reckoned with

August 29, 2012
14 min read

Disabled people stopped London traffic by chaining their wheelchairs together earlier this year. Photo: Pete Riches

‘We feel that these are violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We haven’t striven for 70 years to have all these rights taken away from us in one parliament.’ John McArdle, co-founder of the Scotland-based Black Triangle Campaign, doesn’t mince his words when he talks about the need to fight the government’s cuts agenda.

All the activists interviewed for this piece shared the same anger and passion. As far as anti-austerity activism goes, the disability movement has remained mobilised, vocal and determined when other sectors of the population appear tet to have fully awakened, or in the case of students, have lost momentum after initial dramatic revolts. As John McDonnell MP warned the House of Commons in June, ‘We now have a disability movement in this country of which we have not seen the equal before … These people are not going to go away.’

That movement has been building for some time. ‘Miss Dennis Queen’ is a blogger and longtime disability rights activist with the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), who’s been involved in campaigning for more than 12 years. She acknowledges the recent ‘explosion’ of campaigning but emphasises the coalition’s policies aren’t entirely new – and neither is resistance. Labour had devised cuts that were taken on and set in stone by the current government: ‘We were talking about this before but protests at that time weren’t being reported.’

Likewise the most high profile campaigns, such as DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), already existed within the disability rights movement, which had been working for years to further equality, inclusion and recognition for the disabled population. The cuts put years of hard-won progress into reverse gear with such velocity that suffering was filtering from boardrooms to bedrooms with brutal speed. By the time the protest movement surged with students and other anti-cuts groups, thousands of disabled people were ready for a call to arms.

Bold action

The blockade of Oxford Circus with wheelchairs tied together with chain on 28 January demonstrated the readiness for civil disobedience – along with the ability to grab headlines. Andy Greene, a member of DPAC’s national steering committee, explains that the action came about as the welfare reform bill was going through parliament and was high on the agenda of both DPAC and their partners-in-protest UK Uncut. He says: ‘It kick-started consciousness more than anything … It showed we had the power within the movement to reignite the militant actions that hadn’t been seen since the late eighties and early nineties.’

Miss Dennis Queen thinks there’s an inherent power in taking direct action as a disabled person. For observers, she says, ‘being aware of us doing it contradicts the prejudice around us. It’s so opposite to what is expected of us that it educates everyone.’ And the sight of wheelchairs outnumbered by police, she adds, further proves their points.

Bold and creative actions and demonstrations have become a hallmark of the campaigns. Further London roadblocks – in Trafalgar Square, outside the Houses of Parliament – and occupations such as that of the Glasgow Atos office all involve the physical taking of space. They assert disabled people’s existence in a policy climate that seems bent on erasure, while the blocking of traffic symbolises the blocking of bills. In occupying the head office of Deloitte in Scotland, Black Triangle was showing the movement’s alternative narrative, a critique of neoliberalism, finance and tax-dodging in particular, to that put forth by the government. The accountancy firm was targeted because of the Deloitte chairman – and ‘tax-dodging guru’ – David Cruickshank’s cosy relationship with David Hartnett at HM Revenue and Customs.

John McArdle is critical of recent media resistance to reporting on demonstrations such as these. He cites the Trafalgar Square action in April: ‘The BBC reported there were traffic problems in their bulletins but there was a blackout basically. Definitely there seems to be a conscious decision not to report on acts of civil disobedience.’

The failure to cover events is not a surprise, though. While Westminster is, in McArdle’s words, ‘coming up with sheer lies and propaganda’ to garner public support for the cuts, the media seem only too happy to act as their cheerleaders. A frequently-cited example is the claim that there are huge levels of fraud in disability living allowance claims. The actual figure, according to the Department of Work and Pensions’ own report, Fraud and Error in the Benefit System, published in February, is 0.5 per cent.

Hate campaign

The government-led misinformation around these figures has underpinned what amounts to a hate campaign from the tabloid press towards disability benefit claimants. This was epitomised by the Sun’s vitriolic editorial against ‘scroungers’ in which it claimed: ‘They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs – paid for by YOU.’

At the same time, police figures show the rate of disability hate crime has soared. A total of 1,942 disability hate crimes were recorded by police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2011, up by 14 per cent on 2010 and doubling since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. According to Andy Greene, ‘Everyday on the DPAC website we’re hearing of people being accosted in the street, in their own homes, on public transport.’

In response, disability rights groups and activists have been flooding the internet with their own stories. Blogs – sarcastically named with the labels they aim to repudiate, such as ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ and ‘Diary of a Benefit Scrounger’ – have gained huge support, featuring honest accounts of negotiating the benefits system and daily life with a disability or ill health. The Black Triangle campaign website was the eighth top political blog in the ebuzzing rankings in June, while Diary of a Benefit Scrounger was ranked 15th in July.

Miss Dennis Queen comments: ‘People talk about “armchair activists”, the label used to mean people sitting in their house with opinions not necessarily taking action. But in 12–13 years of being an activist I have done most of my work from my bed.’ From resource sharing to petitions, mythbusting and networking, the internet is not just a tool but a realm for protest within the movement, and an ultimately inclusive one: those who can’t get on the streets can act from home.

This is just one example of the movement’s stated aim to use every mean at its disposal to fight back. Equally important are the links made between different campaigns, trade unions and the medical profession. Disability campaigns have reached out to trade unions to work on common goals such as protecting public services and the rights of disabled people in the workplace. One example is the Hardest Hit coalition, particularly active in the north east, where trade unions, campaigners and charities have come together to organise conferences, rallies, protests and written reports about the effects of government policy.

Support from within the medical establishment, particularly with regard to work capability assessments, is also gaining momentum. In May, GPs at the BMA’s local medical committees conference in Liverpool called for the test to be scrapped as it was harming patients. Others have been publicly questioning whether the tests are in violation of medical ethics. At the BMA’s annual conference in June, the doctors’ union passed a motion demanding that work capability assessments be ended ‘with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause unavoidable harm to some of the weakest and vulnerable in society’.

Even as the coalition tries to keep bulldozing its policies through, and local authorities keep burying their heads in the sand about the impact of their cuts, the disability movement is showing they won’t get away without a fight.


Atos and the Paralympics: rubbing salt in the wounds

Atos Healthcare’s contract to assess the ‘fitness for work’ of incapacity benefit, ESA and DLA claimants is worth £100 million per year. The company’s boss Thierry Breton was awarded a £1 million bonus this year on top of his annual pay packet of nearly £1 million. The multi-million pound IT company is one of the big winners from the government’s welfare reform programme and its privatisation agenda.

The assessments carried out by the company have become a lynchpin of the coalition’s welfare reforms. They have been criticised by doctors as ‘dominating the whole procedure’ for assigning benefit categories – despite lacking medical expertise and working, it is claimed, to targets rather than seeking an accurate reflection of need. Staff have reportedly used Facebook to refer to claimants as ‘parasitic wankers’ and ‘down and outs’.

Most controversy surrounding the assessments has been around the criteria used and the impact the stress of them has on people’s health. It’s not difficult to see why they have been widely lambasted as fundamentally flawed: Citizens Advice Scotland found that among the claimants deemed fit for work were people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, heart failure, strokes, severe depression and terminal cancer. The tests, based on drop-down box choices on a computer program, are said to be inadequate for complex conditions.

The government has boasted that half of all new ESA claimants are found fit for work. However, between 40-70 per cent of the decisions are being appealed, and so far 40 per cent of appeals have won – costing millions in taxpayer money on top of the distress and financial hardship of wrong assessments. The Daily Mirror recently reported that 32 people a week died last year after being deemed to be well enough to go out and get a job.

The human impact is becoming clearer. Coroners’ reports on suicides have noted the stress of the assessment and appeals process as a contributory factor, while citizens’ advice and welfare advice services are inundated with people seeking help on appealing benefit decisions. Not surprisingly, Atos has become one of the top targets for protesters. People are also using the web to share Atos horror stories, which continue to emerge thick and fast.

Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics this year has enraged campaigners as ‘rubbing salt into the wounds’. Demonstrations, including candlelit vigils for Atos victims, are planned in protest.


What the government is doing to disabled people

There are more than 10 million disabled people in the UK, who have been hit from various directions by coalition government policy – particularly through benefit reforms and local authority cuts. Taken together, warns Nick Coyle of Disability Alliance, ‘the combined effect will mean some people are cut adrift from the entire welfare state’.

Overall, the government has planned cuts of £2.17 billion (20 per cent) to disability living allowance (DLA), along with £2 billion of cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA). DLA can be claimed by those in or out of work to cover the extra costs of living with a disability; it is split into mobility and care components. ESA is for those out of work and can be claimed either by people in the ‘support’ group, who face the biggest barriers to working, or those in the ‘work-related activity’ group, who are expected to get back into work in the future.

ESA has been limited to one year for the latter group, while claimants must undergo ‘fitness for work’ assessments by the private firm Atos – these have been one of the most controversial, and damaging, aspects of the government’s reforms (see RP Feb/Mar 2011). Many are pushed off ESA and onto jobseekers’ allowance, ignoring the fact that the major barriers to work for disabled people remain transport and the workplace itself rather than lack of will. Activist John McArdle says this amounts to disability ‘being systematically denied in order to deprive us of the social security to which we’re entitled in a civilised society’.

Next year, the DLA will be scrapped in favour of a new benefit, the personal independence payment (PIP). In the process it is predicted that half a million people will lose their entitlement. The government has declared in advance that the switch will result in a 20 per cent cut to the benefit bill – leading campaigners to argue that this is proof that the cost reductions are determining how the eligibility criteria will be set, rather than reflecting people’s needs. Because the government claims it is focusing support on people ‘who need it most’, disability groups fear those with lesser needs could lose benefits, hitting their independence, wellbeing and quality of life. The phasing out of the independent living fund – a benefit that was specifically aimed at those with the greatest support needs – also contradicts the government rhetoric.

Local authority cuts to the adult social care budget have reached nearly £900 million this year, on top of the £1 billion cut last year, according to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. Councils are raising eligibility criteria for social care, in many cases restricting it to those with ‘critical’ or ‘substantial’ needs, increasing its cost and closing down services. Reductions in care packages have in several cases led individuals to take councils to court; legal aid cuts will make this recourse increasingly difficult in the future. Disabled services such as day centres have already lost significant funding. One in three local authorities have closed day services, while the costs of attending centres, including transport, have risen on average by 70 per cent. Mencap’s recent ‘Stuck at Home’ report found that one in four people with a learning disability now spend less than one hour outside their home every day.

True to style, the government has been willfully blind to damning evidence about its programme’s impacts on disabled people’s poverty, quality of life and mental health. In May, calls were dismissed for an assessment of the cumulative effect of the policy changes on the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The minister for disabled people, Maria Miller, claimed the exercise, called for by a joint committee on human rights, disabled people and their organisations, would be too ‘complex’.


The impact on women

The paid-work-or-nothing attitude foisted on many disabled people, together with an increasing reliance on informal carers, is having a particular impact on women. Claire Glasman from WinVisible, a grassroots group for women with visible and invisible disabilities, explains:

‘With other groups we’ve opposed the phasing out of income support, which recognises that mothers and other carers are already working unwaged and should not be harassed into a waged job.

As disabled people and disabled women we feel that coping with a disability, and all the discrimination that you face, is an unwaged workload. This deserves to be recognised and to be cut down by adaptations, because in an inaccessible world everything is an enormous effort to do. As women we are also the ones very likely to be looking after children, the ones with time to be visiting elderly relatives in hospital, and so on.

In this culture of working really long hours, there’s less and less time for relationships and caring for people. As disabled women we’re often doing that kind of unwaged work and we want it recognised, and to be able to get money to live on, without having work conditions imposed on us.’

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