On New Year’s Eve my wife and I, and a group of our oldest friends, went out to a club. It was a wonderful night, especially for me as the club was fully accessible. It had a lift to the basement level dance floor and an accessible toilet, so I could really let my hair down and see in 2018 like every other reveler. Throughout my youth to go clubbing I would’ve had to crawl down stairs to the basement and battle my way to the standard men’s toilet, but this fully accessible club meant I could relive my youth without fear of injury. The club played 80s classics and it struck me as we danced the night away to the tunes of our youth I was witnessing real change in the way our society works. I experienced the whole night in a totally equal way.
After spending a night celebrating the new year, and hoping it would bring a better tomorrow, I was brought down to earth with a bump. It became clear 2018 is going to bring more of the same for the disabled people of the UK when I read of the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the newly created Office for Students by the Department for Education. It shocked me to the core as Mr Young is another of those right wing commentators who seem to have it in for disabled people.
Towards the end of 2017 we saw chancellor Philip Hammond tell a treasury select committee that the UK’s sluggish productivity could partly be blamed on more disabled people entering the workforce. At the time I was too stunned to write anything about his comments, as I was filled with so much anger I doubted I could write anything sensible. Through my work as a journalist and disability rights campaigner I have heard so many terrible stories of disabled people being negatively impacted by changes in the welfare system. Heart-breaking stories of people struggling to get by, people having to crowd fund for wheelchairs and even people being found fit for work the same week they die of their condition. The way society has hardened it’s attitudes towards those disabled people who have to rely on welfare to live is shocking.
In the 1980s I remember being told by staff at my jobcentre that I should give up trying to find work, and be happy to be called “unemployable”. The benefits system would look after me, because finding work would be so difficult for me as a disabled youth with so many fit people unemployed. This was the future for disabled people under the Thatcherite ideology it seemed. The state would happily support disabled people who could not enter the work place. I was lucky, as I used my free time to pursue my love of music, leading to a career in music which in turn led me to breaking into the media industry. There I was a member of the workforce. While the rhetoric around disabled people hardened I never thought that those of us who were lucky enough to find work would also come under fire. Yet as 2017 ended that is exactly where we ended up. Damned if we do (work), damned if we don’t (work), eh?
As the sun rose on first day of 2018 disabled people found they were being targeted yet again. Toby Young has said and done so many things that the Tory party under Margaret Thatcher would have found objectionable that I could never list them all here, yet under the current Conservative government they are not only acceptable but are the gateway to official office. Just imagine you are disabled for a moment. Imagine how it feels to find that a person has been given the ability to shape the future of our country’s education that has gone on record as saying that ramps for wheelchair using children in schools and special educational needs units are “ghastly” because of any drive to be inclusive is something to be objected to, proof of some New Labour conspiracy to ruin education.
I went to a mainstream school in the 1970s and when I became a wheelchair user in 1981 my school was adapted for my needs, long before the term New Labour existed. It was under Thatcher’s government. Back then Tory did not mean far right. You know the kind of right wing who support eugenics. Young also believes that eugenics will solve the issue of benefit dependency, by editing out of the gene pool people with “below-average IQs”. Once just these two view points would have made him untouchable by a government of any colour, now our current government not only give him the position but then claim he’s the right man for the job even after the radical nature of Young’s views become clear to everyone.
I truly hope that the out cry around Young’s appointment make the Tory party stop and look at themselves. As someone who has never voted Tory it pains me to say this, but compared to today if you are disabled things were better under Margaret Thatcher.
Since writing this our prime minister has declared she finds some of Young’s comments “distasteful” but has refused to dismiss him from the OfS.