Skip to content

What Kind Of Country Have We Become? Try Asking A Disabled Person

June 10, 2019

I grew up in a Britain that said life would be full of promise for disabled people like me. We might not have conquered the media and corridors of power, but – unlike generations before me – by the 1990s we were no longer hidden from sight. Grim words such as “crippled” and “retarded” were no longer part of everyday speech. Charity tins that until recently symbolised the scraps handed out to us were now accompanied by concrete rights – from the groundbreaking disability civil rights law of my childhood to the welfare state’s tailor-made benefits and services for disabled people.

Progress, though, is rarely as permanent as it appears. Nearly 20 years later, in the spring of 2013, I watched as David Cameron’s coalition government launched what would become an unprecedented assault on disabled people: from the bedroom tax to the rollout of “fit for work tests”, and the abolition of disability living allowance.

Britain likes to tell itself that it is a fair and compassionate country. How it treats disabled people has long been at the heart of this. And over this past decade of austerity, ministers have relied on this narrative more than ever: that even in tough economic times, “the most vulnerable” would always be protected.

Listen to Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and you start to get an idea of just how far the spin is from truth. Disabled people have been “some of the hardest hit by austerity measures”, he warned in a damning report last month, with many “driven to breaking point” by cuts. A broken benefits system has led to thousands of people dying after being found “fit for work”. Food banks are packed with people battling mental and physical health problems. The threadbare social care system is leaving disabled people trapped in their homes, in some cases waiting 14 hours without access to their toilet.

It is not simply that Britain is shirking its responsibility to its disabled citizens. We have reached a point where negligence is so widespread that at its extremes it is tantamount to abuse. The British state has to all intents and purposes turned on the very people who need it most.

I’ve spent the last seven years speaking to hundreds of these people, and 18 months writing a book. What I found were individuals who had been fundamentally abandoned. Susan, who has multiple sclerosis, has lost 4kg (8.8lb) after skipping meals to pay for her care and even her incontinence pads. Paul, a homeless part-time wheelchair user, sleeps rough in disabled toilets and at Heathrow airport. Rachel, a former nurse, has had her entire social care package removed; without someone to help her into bed at night, she now sleeps fully clothed in her wheelchair.

Anyone who thinks these horrors are an aberration in Britain’s supposed long history of care for disabled people is missing the point. That brief period of gains when I was a child aside, the crisis befalling us is so horrendous not because it is new, but precisely because it is not. People forget how recently it was that disabled people were shut away in institutions in Britain, or effectively banned from public transport, schools or jobs.

The brutal cost-cutting of the last decade has been a lesson in just how quickly hard-won rights for minorities can be rolled back. Just ask the parents protesting last month after their disabled children were pushed out of education because of funding cuts. Or the young disabled adults threatened with being forced out of their family homes and into care homes for the elderly.

None of this has happened by accident, though. Rather, it has come about as a deliberate attack on disabled people. In a climate of disenfranchisement, squeezed wages and growing inequality, post-2010, ministers and large parts of the media saw the so-called “scrounging sick” as an easy target. Smearing disabled people as little more than a drain on the public purse was not only a means to distract from the real causes of people’s problems, but came to excuse and normalise any number of nightmarish results that, even a few years ago, we’d have said were unthinkable.

While the ill-treatment of disabled people over the last decade has been the direct result of political choices, Britain is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and so has every chance to turn the situation around – if it wants to. That none of this is inevitable is both bleak and a sign of hope.

Polling consistently shows that tolerance of government cuts is collapsing. The left can seize on this shift to recapture and build on the optimism of my childhood, remaking the case for flourishing public services, and with them, disability rights.

The most effective way to tackle the inequality faced by disabled people is to think about it in the round, looking at issues of housing, employment, social security and social care, and offering a coordinated strategy that is not only morally right but also speaks to common sense. Invest in accessible homes, care packages and benefits, and NHS bills go down and tax revenue up.

One of the greatest challenges in any of this is the way disabled people are perceived. Longstanding cultural prejudice around disability, combined with the demonising rhetoric of austerity, has exacerbated a sense of difference in society; an othering that perpetuates the idea that disabled people aren’t quite normal, or don’t want a life, a family, a home or an education like everyone else.

These attitudes do not spring from nowhere, but are directly related to how willing non-disabled people are to let state programmes for disabled people be decimated, and allow ministers who wield the axe to get away with it. What’s the point in funding social care if disabled people don’t really go to the pub with friends or travel to the office like “normal” people? Attitudes, just as much as funding cuts, need tackling in the coming years.

Britain feels increasingly as if it is at a point of national reckoning – this country, scarred by a decade of austerity and fatigued by Brexit, is now charged with working out what kind of society it wants to be. Where disabled people fit into any of this is rarely part of the conversation, and yet it should be one of the most pressing questions. The poignancy of this is all the greater considering we have largely been here before: generations had to fight for the disability rights that are now being carelessly stripped away.

This is a warning sign that should rally all of us who care about the future of our welfare state. When disabled people are hungry and housebound, the idea that Britain still has a meaningful safety net is increasingly obscene.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nathiya Manoj permalink
    June 17, 2019 7:12 am

    Hey very nice blog. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment. Thanks for sharing.

    FS Transit Wheelchair

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: