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

Published on Red Pepper, by Lorna Stephenson, August 2012.

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.

‘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: … //

… 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: … //

… (full long text).

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