Friday, 23 July 2010

The disabled deserve dignity whether they're ex-soldiers or not

Private Aron Shelton lost his leg in 2008. He has since adapted to life with a prosthetic limb and can now walk 400 metres unaided. As a result, the government has withdrawn his £180-a-month Disability Living Allowance.

In the media, the focus of this story has been on the fact that Shelton was a soldier who "served his country." As the headline in the Mirror puts it, "I was there for my country ... now nobody gives a stuff!" But, in truth, that he "gave up nine years of his life" "to his country" is utterly irrelevant.

Private Shelton's case is far from extraordinary and, to his credit, he realises that. In his words, "it is no way to treat anyone who needs help - it doesn't matter whether they were injured fighting in Afghanistan or are just an ordinary civilian."

If his leg had been mangled in a car wreck, crushed in a factory accident, or even mutilated through his own stupidity, the injustice would be exactly the same.

That injustice is one felt by disabled people in Britain on a regular basis. Disability is viewed as an excuse rather than an affliction. This government, as New Labour before them, is engaged in a crusade to find as many people as possible to be "not disabled enough." Regardless of fact.

And the reality is very different from the rhetoric.

Amongst families with disabled children, "23%, almost one in four, had to turn off their heating to save money and one in seven, 14%, are going without food." More broadly, "disabled people face poverty, social isolation and are more likely to have accidents because of harsher eligibility criteria for a diminishing pot of funding for social care support."

As Emmanuel Smith wrote for the Guardian's Comment is Free;
I am 54 years old and deafblind. I have Usher type II syndrome, which means I have partial hearing and extremely limited vision (progressive sight and hearing loss). All I can see is light and shade, and I have been registered blind since 1985. I would be very restricted in the type of work I can do, but am a keen volunteer. It would be very difficult for an employer to take me on with my complex limitations.

I worked for 20 years for the civil service before I was forcibly retired on medical grounds 14 years ago. I survive on incapacity benefits, DLA and a small pension (this is reduced as I only worked for two decades). Contrary to what many people believe, this really does not amount to much. I am also allowed to earn £80 extra myself, which I do by playing the piano in local venues.

This coalition government wants to speed up what Labour started and move me from incapacity benefit to employment support allowance, with no transitional relief. This could mean a potential extra cut of £40-50 a week. Add to this a rise in VAT, stricter requirements for DLA (which is awarded to help with the extra costs associated with having a disability, such as paying for communication support) and, suddenly, the "firm but fair" rhetoric used by the coalition government looks anything but.

It's time the government stopped using disabled people and the support we get as a political football. We are not scroungers; just vulnerable people who already experience higher levels of poverty and discrimination. Yet, this government wants to pile on more.
Bendy Girl has suggested that, in response, "maybe we cripples need to take heed of the media and form that all powerful disability lobby they keep banging on about," and she's not far wrong.

As with most things, the only effective way to challenge the government's attacks on the disabled is through organisation. But whilst useful in drawing attention to the cause, lobbying cannot be the limit of a campaign which seeks any serious victories. The state can ignore letters to newspapers, petitions with a million signatures, and even static protests.

On the other hand, direct action is a lot harder to brush away. More than that, if built from the ground-up on the basis of mass participation, it creates a culture of resistance that is difficult to extinguish. And that is the key to victory.

When the disabled are not easy scapegoats or pitiable victims but active rebels, the government would do well to tremble.