People are being disabled at an alarming rate and the culprit’s sweeping across the country unchecked, robbing people of their mobility, independence, and quality of life.
So who is this culprit, and what is the biggest cause of disability in the UK today?
This was made plain in a statement a few days ago by George Freeman, director of their policy unit, when he justified further cuts to disabled people’s support by saying it should go to “really disabled people” rather than people “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.”
This ignorant statement has already been widely criticised. Understandably, most coverage has focused on challenging Freeman’s crude distinction between physical and mental health. I want to address a different aspect of his statement: the concept of the “really disabled”.
My understanding of disability is based on the social model that says that disability isn’t caused by a person’s impairment but by a failure to consider difference in how society is organised. This means it’s not my tics that disable me but the environmental, attitudinal and systemic barriers I encounter in the world as a result.
But many people still understand disability using a medical or charity model, these see a person as being disabled because there’s something wrong with them and that they’re therefore in need of cure or pity. I strongly suspect that when George Freeman said “really disabled” he was using the medical model and meant people with severe or multiple impairments rather than people who face the most barriers in their day-to-day life.
Over the last six years there’s been a huge increase in the barriers disabled experience. Research from The Centre for Welfare Reform shows that austerity has impacted on disabled people a staggering nineteen times harder than most citizens.
Image by Centre for Welfare Reform
Many equalising support schemes for disabled people have either been scrapped or capped:
The Independent Living Fund that enabled people with high support needs to live independently in their own homes – scrapped in 2014.
Access to Work that provides the practical support disabled people in employment need to do their jobs – capped in 2015.
Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the non-means-tested benefit that recognised that it costs more to live as a disabled person in a largely non-accessible world. This was abolished in 2012 and replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). PIP looks similar to DLA but the eligibility criteria have been radically changed to ensure that far fewer people receive it. An estimated 500 disabled people are losing this vital support each week.
The crisis in social care is imprisoning many disabled people in their own homes or in residential care. NHS clinical commissioning groups are refusing to fund support at home, preferring cheaper residential care. And it’s this lack of support that’s the main reason cited by Marie Lopez for her decision to end her life at a Swiss clinic.
At the end of last year a highly critical UN report found that the UK’s austerity policies ‘amount to violations of disabled people’s rights’. At the same time hate crimes against disabled people have increased by 41% in just one year.
The irony of Mr Freeman’s statement is that by giving disabled people the right support, at the right level, at the right time, the Government could prevent them from becoming ‘really disabled’. But the cuts his department are proposing will make even more people more disabled.
‘Disabled’ doesn’t mean less able, it means prevented from functioning. It’s time to turn the tide, to stop accepting the rhetoric, and to act together to disable the Government!
Here are five practical actions to take in solidarity with disabled people:
1. Educate yourself on disability culture and history, and on the social model – use language that promotes respect, and challenge stereotypical or negative presentations of disability whenever you encounter them.
2. Research what’s happening in your community and take action locally. Contribute your time, skills and knowledge to help remove disabling barriers.
3. Scrutinise your MP’s views and voting record, and contact them about issues that affect disabled people.
4. Support disabled-led campaign groups such as Disability Rights UK and Not Dead Yet UK, or organisations that are investing in young disabled leadership such as Whizz Kids.
5. Whenever you are setting something up, whether it’s at work or in your community, don’t assume everyone does things in the same way, think about how to make your project accessible to disabled people – and if you’re not sure, get in touch.