As well as being a part-time superhero and working one day a week for Touretteshero, for four days a week I work as a project coordinator for a children’s organisation in London. My role covers three main areas:
2) Supporting volunteers
3) Developing new projects and services
I’ve worked there for four years and in that time I’ve:
1) Secured over half a million pounds in funding for the organisation
2) Supported over three hundred regular volunteers
3) Helped triple the services the organisation provides
I’m telling you this now not because I want to brag but to give you a sense of the work I do and because yet another Conservative minister has suggested that some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage.
This time it was Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud. But this shocking idea isn’t new: back in 2011 Conservative MP Philip Davies suggested something similar. I wrote about it then and I’m doing so again now to say this idea is ridiculous and deeply dangerous. Let me explain why.
It’s dangerous because the minimum wage stops being the minimum wage the moment you say some people don’t need that much. The minimum wage exists to prevent unscrupulous employment practices and maintain basic standards of living. How could you ever justify the claim that one group of people aren’t eligible for this?
Lord Freud’s comment brings this Government’s embedded assumptions and prejudices out into the open. It was our Welfare Reform Minister, not someone on the fringes of politics, who shamelessly made this claim.
It’s ridiculous because it suggests that the presence or lack of impairments is a sensible measure of productivity. What I’m ‘worth’ to my organisation has nothing to do with my disability but everything to do with how effectively I do my job.
Some people may be thinking, ‘That’s all very well, but you’re probably not who Freud’s talking about, you can’t be that disabled.’ They’d be wrong though, because by any measure my impairments are significant and complex. I need 24-hour support, I make constant involuntary noises and movements, I have frequent episodes where I completely lose the ability to speak and to control my body, and I’m a wheelchair user with limited independent mobility.
But here’s the thing that Freud missed – it’s not my impairments that disable me. I’m only disabled when I haven’t got the right support or when things are set up without understanding that some people will need to do them differently. Take away my support worker and my wheelchair and I wouldn’t last very long, let alone be able to do my job. With these things in place I can do my work well and be worth a great deal to my organisation.
So, Lord Freud, my point is that ‘the disabled’ who you deem unworthy of the minimum wage aren’t disabled by their bodies, but by minds like yours that create disabling environments and prejudice.
The fact that this assertion comes at the same time as the ruthless undermining of Access to Work, the scheme which provides the practical support disabled people need to do their jobs, is even more alarming.
Finally Freud’s comment seems to come from a very narrow understanding of what is meant by a valuable and productive contribution. There are of course some jobs which I know I wouldn’t be suitable for – I’m not about to apply for a job as a butcher, or a silent retreat facilitator, or trapeze artist, because those roles wouldn’t be appropriate for me and I’d be unlikely to meet the person specification. But, to suggest that an employer could find me suitable for a job, but not at the same rate of pay as my non-disabled colleagues, takes us into a very dark realm.
If you still think this is a good idea, Lord Freud, can I suggest we pilot it in Government? We could start with ministers whose impairment is making poorly informed and damaging remarks. Surely, according to your twisted logic, they‘re “not worth” the minimum wage?