I took the day off work today. It wasn’t because I was ill or had a relaxing holiday planned but because I wanted to be at a protest against the drastic cuts to disability and sickness benefits that are putting countless lives at risk.
Along with my support worker Holly, I headed into central London to join hundreds of disabled and non-disabled people campaigning against these abhorrent changes. Today’s protests were organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and UKUncut.
The two-part protest first targeted ATOS, the company proudly sponsoring the Paralympics (while at the same time administering the cuts), and then moved on to the headquarters of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which is responsible for benefits and support for disabled people. Their policy decisions have the power to liberate disabled people, or to create huge suffering.
I’m a disabled person but I’m not ill, so with the right support my disability doesn’t prevent me working. I have a full time job that I love and that I’m good at, but I wouldn’t be able to maintain my health and keep working without the support of my Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
DLA is being changed, re-named and cut, all at the same time, and the Government has contracted ATOS to do the dirty work. If you believe the propaganda about disability benefits you might think that the cuts will affect only ‘scrounging’ disabled people and ‘fakers’. You’d be very wrong. The Government’s own statistics show the fraud rate for DLA is only 0.5%, but what they’ve commissioned ATOS to do is reassess and remove the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) from 20% of disabled claimants. From April, thousands of disabled people will start losing the money that gives them a fighting chance in what is still an inaccessible and unequal world.
ATOS is just getting started on DLA – they’ve only recently been awarded the £400,000,000 contract. But they’ve had another big cutting contract for some time. For the last two years they’ve been assessing sick and disabled people to see if they’re able to work. Their assessments are rudimentary, and almost four in ten of their decisions have been reversed on appeal. Most shocking of all, 1100 of the people who they’d declared fit for work have subsequently died.
The protest outside ATOS headquarters featured a ‘miracle arch’ to symbolise the many miraculous healings that ATOS appear to have achieved with the help of their computerised assessment system which has found people with terminal cancer, degenerative conditions and multiple sensory loss all fit for work.
The protest was calm but determined. People carried placards articulating their sadness, frustration and desperation. These included:
‘ATOS your time will come, bloody contract-killers.’
‘Cecilia Burns – R.I.P. Declared fit to work in February by ATOS. Died this morning, ‘nil points’ for her breast cancer. ATOS is a sick joke.’
‘ATOS sponsoring the Paralympics is like the Vatican sponsoring Pride.’
‘ATOS don’t give a toss.’
Currently I have a good job, an enlightened employer and the practical support I need to keep working. But just like everybody else, there may be a time when my health fails me and I’m not able to work. I’m sickened when I think of the thousands of people each week who are facing that reality at this moment. Their suffering’s being compounded by an inhumane and brutal assessment system that’s designed to slash spending regardless of the impact on the individual, rather than assess genuine needs and abilities.
Later in the afternoon the protest moved to Westminster and the offices of the DWP. It’s the ministers of this Department who are responsible for awarding these contracts to ATOS, overseeing the suffering they’re causing, and feeding a culture of hatred towards disabled people. Under their leadership, hard-won moves towards equality haven’t just stalled but are being rapidly reversed.
Eight protestors had occupied the lobby of the DWP building. They were asking to speak to Maria Miller, the Minster with responsibility for disabled people. Outside the building we formed an orderly line in front of the door in solidarity with those inside. It included several wheelchair users as well as many people with less visible disabilities.
During this part of the protest I had a ‘ticcing fit’ and Holly was quick to move me away from the crowd. While I ‘fitted’ I saw the boots of a lot of police officers rushing past. I also heard cries of distress. When I was able to return to the protest I found fifty or so police officers where the protestors had been. They’d used an unjustifiably high level of force to disrupt the line, dislocating the shoulder of one wheelchair user in the process.
I’m sad but not surprised that the police chose to take such an aggressive approach to a peaceful protest. Undaunted, it continued on the surrounding pavement where we took turns to read out messages from people who’d been unable to attend in person, describing their experiences and saying what they thought about the cuts.
I’d had to put a great deal of thought, planning and consideration of risk into attending today, and a quick glance around at my fellow protestors made it clear that I wasn’t the only one. For many, taking part in this action would’ve been extremely difficult and put them at great personal risk.
But ultimately the risk from staying away is much greater. Failure to speak up now means these insidious cuts can happen by stealth.
It’s an easy fact to ignore, but anyone can become disabled at any time. Are you prepared to risk living in a country where, when you most need support, you’re faced with empty corporate bureaucracy rather than getting the help you need?
If your answer is ‘No’, the time to act is now.