Bob Williams-Findlay, Disabled Socialist and Civil Rights campaigner, outlines how the Government’s attack on public expenditure and the Welfare State increases the social oppression of disabled people.
Slash and burn
Earlier this year I addressed the Birmingham Against The Cuts Rally as a co-founder of the newly formed Disabled People Against Cuts(DPAC). We set it up to develop resistance, support, visibility and action against the financial assault on disabled people imposed by the Coalition’s spending cuts. October 2010 saw the first mass protest against the austerity cuts outside the Tory conference. It was led by disabled people under the name of The Disabled Peoples’ Protest. DPAC co-founders are the original Disabled Peoples’ Protest organisers.
We returned to Birmingham because the City has experienced six years of a Coalition regime which has faithfully placed the interests of capital over the needs of disabled and non-disabled citizens. It has announced the most savage mauling of public services ever seen with £212m slashed from its annual budget at the expense of 2,450 jobs. As a former Planning Officer in the Social Services Department I’m aware of the fact that most of the services I was responsible for have gone and so too have services in the Third Sector where cuts between 20% and 60% have been experienced.
Disabled people in Birmingham, like the rest of the UK, are facing a situation where instead of having our human rights enhanced through the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons we are undergoing a wholesale attack on our living conditions by the coalition government. Instead of developing schemes which would give disabled people control over their lives via independent living, we are witnessing disabled people being imprisoned in their own homes or facing the prospect of being forced against their will into residential care. The Tories complain about giving convicted prisoners the vote but have no qualms about imprisoning people with impairments who are considered “a burden on society” – in other words being unproductive and a barrier to increased profits is seen as a crime!
Disabled people under attack
The attacks on disabled people are widespread. It began under New Labour as former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions James Purnell, backed by the Tory Press, used propaganda not unlike that employed by the Nazis to brand disabled people as lazy, fraudsters or ‘not really “disabled” at all’. The Con Dem welfare reform programme sees no less than fourteen separate attacks on the benefits needed by people who are either sick or unable to work due to either impairment related issues or disabling barriers within the labour market.
Thousands of pounds is being wasted however by paying a company called Atos to assess “people fit for work”. Recently, the Daily Mail complained that too many of Atos’ decisions were being overturned on appeal. One person found ‘fit for work’ died from his illness only weeks after an Atos verdict. This is happening because the Department of Work and Pensions want to impose ‘the sick role’ on only a certain number of disabled people in order to paint others as ‘economically active’ because it suits the Government’s needs. It’s an age old ploy of creating two groups – ‘the deserving’ and ‘the undeserving’ poor.
The Government is throwing thousands of sick and disabled people off benefits into a labour market when they know full well employment discrimination is rife, they have slashed and burnt the Access 2 Work programme which supports disabled people into or at work, and that it is impossible for the majority of disabled people to up sticks and look for work. The attack upon disabled people should not be viewed in isolation however because it is very much part of the wider political and social agenda. The needs of Capital require the dismantling of the Welfare State and this in turn requires an ideological shift in the ways in which disabled people are both seen and treated.
Fighting cuts as part of the struggle against Disablism
Many people are now familiar with the causes of inequality within capitalist societies, where issues relating to racism, sexism and homophobia, have been documented. Unfortunately, even within the Left, the issue of disablism is largely absent or not recognised from the perspective of disabled people. Since the late 1960s disabled people have challenged the dominant ideologies associated with defining “disability”. Rather than accepting “disability” as a ‘individual personal tragedy’ caused by the inability to fulfil the expected roles – defined by “normality” and articulated through the measurement of loss of bodily functioning – disabled people argue they have social restrictions imposed on top of their impairments by the structures, systems and environments of specific societies. Within Capitalist Western societies the ‘medicalisation’ of people with impairments’ lives has assisted in creating the conditions whereby they live disabled lives – excluded from or marginalised within mainstream social activites.
Disability therefore is a political issue; it is a form of social oppression. The paradox is that the manner in which disabled people ‘are taken into account’ – the negative stereotyping as ‘abnormal’, ‘victims’, ‘burdens’ or ‘vulnerable’ – ultimately leads to them ‘not being taken into account’. It is the nature of the capitalist system – created disabling barriers – not the the nature of an individual’s bodily restrictions that causes disablism. It is not our bodies that make us ‘vulnerable’, it is the ideological policies of this Government and the hatred being stirred up by the mass media. Together they have been responsible for the surge in disability hate crime disabled people are experiencing.
For forty years disabled people have fought for their civil and human rights as a means of combating the disabling barriers found within society. Just when we were establishing user-led organisations to challenge and change the outdated public and third sector ‘dependency model’ approach to service delivery; the greed of the capitalist classes and the dehumanising economic system they rely on has started to kick us back to square one. Some disabled people are living in dread of what might be, others feel so battered they are considering ending their lives. Thankfully, there are pockets of resistance among disabled people, such as those campaigning with DPAC, who are not prepared to go down without a fight. We see the fight against the cuts as being part of the struggle against disablism; our right to challenge the oppressive nature of both the state and society.