Over the past few years I have often decried the lack of attention disability issues have received in the national media. But over the past six to twelve months there has been a seismic shift in the amount of coverage such issues have received. A particularly favourite topic of late has been accessibility. Channel 4 News has lead the way with its investigation into the huge barriers to transport inclusion disabled people face on a day to day basis and they also reported recently on how disabled people feel locked out of the property market. Eighty five per cent of disabled people do not feel confident that access advice given by estate agents, local authorities and other housing providers is accurate and almost a quarter say a landlord has refused to carry out minor adjustments or refused to let them make their own adjustments to the property they live in.
Channel 4 News interviewed several disabled people with varying impairments over a week of special programmes dedicated to the issue and gave a fascinating insight in to the barriers that disabled people have to negotiate when using public transport ; bus's wheelchair spaces being taken up by buggies, taxi's driving past wheelchair users when they try to flag one down, train station's lifts being out of order, underground stations not being made accessible and a whole other range of issues besides. I have been with friends who are wheelchair users when we have been out on the town or to the pub and we order a taxi and when the driver arrives and takes one look at us he promptly drives off.
I suppose this is one of the very few good things that have come out of the Olympics, albeit more specifically the Paralympics, which is benefiting people across the country and not just in London. The debate about accessibility is back on our telly screens and in our newspapers and blogs. It is a shame it has taken £20 Billion and the biggest event on earth minus the second coming to do this, but as us disabled people are often told 'stop moaning and just be grateful'.
But sadly this new, bright and refreshing discourse of taking disability issues seriously in the national media has manifested at the same time the Government is seeking to carry out the next phase of it's attack on disabled people and the bouleversement of the welfare state. In April, the Government will metamorphose the disability benefit 'Disability Living Allowance' (DLA) in to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The reason? This Government, made up of millionaires who think disabled people should be 'allowed' to work for less than the minimum wage to make them employable, is concerned that the current title of this particular welfare payment is too negative - that it just doesn't do disabled people justice. Personally I doubt the Government, particularly Esther McVey (Minister For Disabled People), perturbs itself over the feelings of disabled people. Ultimately, this reform to DLA is all about reducing the number of people claiming, and for the people who are left on it, reduce the amount they receive.
Everyone who currently receives DLA will have to undergo a medical assessment (many physically impaired people will be forced to strip naked so that the assessor can prod around) and by the end of the assessment they will need to have earned enough points for being impaired in lots of different ways in order to continue to receive their welfare payments. Everyone I know who is on DLA is utterly delighted to hear (yes that is sarcasm) that it will be ATOS who is the contractor that will be carrying these assessments out. ATOS need little introduction so far as the reckoning of the validity of disabled people's impairments goes - both BBC Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches have run exposés on ATOS, with Panorama managing to go undercover and discovering that ATOS pressurise their assessors to recommend to the Department For Work & Pensions (DWP) the annulment of as many people's welfare payment's as possible. Symptomatic of this, happily, is that 40% of such decisions are overturned on appeal - establishing rigidly, that the system is not fit for purpose. The fundamental flaw, it seems, in ATOS's assessment process is that it is based on a points system. Systems such as this do not make allowances for fluctuating conditions (which many impairments, both physical and mental, are). As a friend of mine rightly pointed out, impairment and disability, like so many other things, is not black and white. Yes someone may be able to walk 200 metres, but after walking that distance they would need to rest for an entire day or face a deterioration of their health.
The transition from DLA to PIP does not look set to be an improvement in any way, shape or form. Seeing how the public and the media (even the right-wing media) has been completely disgusted at the treatment of disabled people, the Government has kept very quiet about the introduction of PIP. Out of the three DLA claimants I asked to comment about their thoughts and concerns in respect to the transition, only one of them had been told anything about the change to their benefits and the assessment process they would have to go through. Oli who is 23, has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and is a wheelchair user from Leeds, told me how he thought the entire process was completely underhand and that he found the prospect of ATOS assessments 'frightening'. Laura from Southampton who is 32 and has Autism said, 'I have only recently had an ATOS assessment for my Employment & Support Allowance, the assessor hadn't a clue about my impairment and how it affected me and I was told I was fit for work despite reams of medical evidence from psychologists who have known me for years saying there was no way I could be expected to obtain and hold down a job that would pay enough for me to live on. I was passed as fit to work by ATOS but thankfully I managed to win on appeal.' Finally, Ben from Swindon who has Cerebral Palsy and is a wheelchair user said, 'well it kind of scares the life out of me. I'm at uni for another two years and I struggle with rent and bills anyway as I have to pay for my carer's accommodation as well as my own. Money is always a constant worry as it is without the prospect of it being reduced to worry about.'
The Government and some sections of the media say that these reassessments are necessary in order to fight benefit fraud. The fact is, according to the DWP's own figures, fraudulent claims account for just 0.5% of expenditure on welfare. I accept, as do most disabled people, that an initial assessment should be carried out when first claiming disability benefits. I do not think, however, that people should be subject to invasive assessments every couple of years - especially when there is no chance of their impairment magically disappearing. Autism is a lifelong condition, people with prosthetic limbs do not just grow new arms and legs and people with Muscular Dystrophy, as people who have encountered the condition know, does not just go away miraculously. I also think that the Disability Rights Movement should stop being deferential to the charge that 'disabled people have to take their fair share of the burden of austerity too'. No. We shouldn't. Disabled people and the welfare state, however much the Tories might tell you otherwise, did not cause the financial crisis, bankers running casinos in their trading floors did. In these tough times disabled people need more support from society, not less.
My only hope is that the media coverage of the plight of disabled people in the UK does not fade away, the momentum is kept and disabled people continue to make their voices heard. The cuts to disability welfare and services has only just begun, and the ramifications of the cuts will only start to be felt later on this year. When the sh*t hits the fan, disabled people need to be ready to hold the Tories to account for the suffering they will have inflicted.