On the day that the Labour party are calling for Lord Freud to either resign or be sacked, and when the campaigning groups DPAC and Occupy are holding a rally asking for the same in central London, a rally that ironically I cannot attend as I am working, I felt I needed to write something about the whole affair. At first I found myself writing just about the events of last week but I expect that if you don't know them then you won't really care about the ramblings of one wheelchair using writer, so instead I will try to explain how I have been left feeling and what I see as the truth is behind the headlines.
I should explain that I have experienced the attitude that my work is worth less than non-disabled people in my own professional career. Back in the late 1980s I broke into the television industry as a presenter. Very soon I was being hailed as the first of a new generation of disabled talent that was highlighting how forward thinking the industry was, and by the early 1990s I had been hired to front a TV series for Channel 4. My wages did not turn out to be anywhere near as huge as I expected, and I put this down to the media hyping how much TV personalities got paid. To a working class boy from Luton my wages were great, as I was bringing home three times the pay packet my father earned at his job in a factory. The series was a smash hit, acclaimed all over the world and even won an Emmy, with my input being hailed as one of the reason for this award by the committee who voted for our little show. Everyone involved was over the moon. At a party to celebrate a Channel 4 exec let slip how much the show's director was being given as a bonus for each of the shows in the series. It worked out that I was being paid 0.1% of this bonus. So the next time I met with the production company I raised the issue of a raise in my fee, and was promptly let go. The very next show I worked on I was paid four times as much per day and I earned per week on the award winning show, and the company involved in that show told me that even this was cheap. So I had basically been screwed and while it could be laid at the feet of my useless agent, I am sure it is also because there has always been at attitude that disabled people are worth less.
My good friend actor and presenter Julie Fernandez, the first disabled actor to play a long term character in a UK soap, also had this experience but her's was far more blunt. She also discovered she was on a lesser rate when working on a TV drama. When she raised the issue she was told, "well you are lucky to be in work". So no raise for Julie either then! In fact, I know for a fact that since I was hailed as the next big thing on the disabled star front there have been at least three more such fledgling disabled celebs. All of them also tell stories of their star falling as soon as they began asking for the usual level of pay a non-disabled person might receive.
I had hoped that this attitude had died out in 21st Century Britain, but the last week has proved this not the case. While this really did sadden me, it was the fact that as I added my voice to the #2fingersto2pounds Twitter campaign started by Shape Arts I began receiving tweets from disabled people in support of Lord Freud that broke my heart. I read each of them with a growing sense of sadness. I know that many parents of disabled children might think they understand what is means to be disabled, sadly a large number of them cannot shake the impression that disability equals being worth less. It always cuts me to the core when I see that concept has rubbed off on their children. Society has always made us feel lesser and excluded, but our parents should give us the tools to know this isn't true. My Mother raised me to not only feel equal to my "able boded" school mates but to know I was superior, as I fought and won many battles that they could never even imagine let alone triumph over. It might sound rough blaming the feelings of inferiority of many disabled people on their parents, but remember this whole affair began after one such parent asked Lord Freud a question about paying learning disabled people less than the National Minimum Wage.
Disabled people must not believe that taking less than the NMW will give them a "step up on the ladder", as expressed by @BhalaSadaBlog in one twitter discussion. Instead it will turn us all into cheap labour, and if we ever dare to ask for what we are worth, even after we have proved ourselves by working to the highest of standards, we will be let go and replaced with another younger disabled person also keen to grab that first step. This £2/hour approach will also devalue all disabled workers, as why pay full whack for a disabled employee when you can get one of the same for so much less? We must not believe what we are told by nearly everyone around us. We are not lessened due to our impairments, we are as good (if not better) than those who have yet to experience disability. Our labour is worth just the same as anyone else's. Don't let society carve into to stone what we know to be wrong by allowing this opinion to go unchallenged. So if you agree with me, join the campaign and stick up #2fingersto2pounds.