I am afraid that I have to tell you all that it's a difficult time to be disabled in the UK right now. Whatever the pros and cons of the current benefit reforms might be, the wildly contradicting reports and views from the media mean that those people who are personally effected by the changes are under a considerable amount of stress and worry about what the future might hold. Alongside these worries the wider society is unsure of how they feel about the disabled people. In my youth I found that when non-disabled people came into contact with me I was viewed with a mixture of sadness and awe. My disability was a tragedy and the way I coped with it was amazing. While these reactions did annoy me from time to time, in the last decade or so I have found that I look back on those reactions with fondness. The change started with the theft of four Blue Badges from my car, all on separate occasions which proved troublesome and costly, but things soon became much more serious when my wife and I were the target of disability hate crime. A campaign of intimidation and threats that came to a head when my wife was violently attacked by three masked youths and we then had to leave my wonderfully wheelchair accessible flat after we were threatened with being burned alive in our beds. I am now regularly confronted by people who feel they have the right to question whether I work, how much I get from the state and even if I am actually disabled at all. It makes me feel a little uneasy every time I leave my flat as I am unsure of what strange or aggressive reaction I may be met by that day, and I know that so many disabled people feel exactly the same as I do, if not worse.
But this unpleasant atmosphere does actually have a silver lining. For every person who has hardened their heart towards disabled people for whatever reason there are just as many who feel it is time to embrace the ideal of creating a more inclusive society. In my work as an access and inclusion expert I am finding that more and more of my business clients want to ensure that their services are fully accessible to disabled people, and while this is driven in part by a desire to fulfill any legal requirements and to cash in on the spending power of the disabled community there is also a strong element of wanting to do the right thing. For every bad reaction I face out in public there are a greater number from people who see my disability as no reason not to see me as a total equal. In fact most of the wider society think it is time that the barriers faced by disabled people are removed and that our country becomes a fairer more inclusive place.
A campaign, started by the disability charity Scope, called Britain Cares taps into our love of photography to allow people to show their support for disabled people by simply taking a snap of them holding a sign that states "I Care". It aims to focus directly on the proposed changes to how social care is provided, which impacts mostly on those disabled people with profound impairments, and hopes to show that many more people than might be expected are really concerned about what these changes may mean. One of the great things about this campaign is that it allows anyone to play a part, so disabled people can also show their support for other members of their community alongside everyone else who has sent in a photo, but the most wonderful thing is that it makes sure that all disabled people can see they are not alone or ignored as they struggle to find a way through this difficult time.
Alongside all of this activity by the wider society, disabled people themselves are getting active. Not since the glory days of the political disabled movement of the early 1990s have so many disabled people got together to make their voices heard. All over the country disabled people are forming organizations to provide advice and support for members of their community, to take over the running of services in their area and to campaign on issues both national and regional. On top of that more radical political groups, such as DPAC and Black Triangle, are making sure that disabled people are not seen as passive in the political process.
A petition created by disabled comedienne Francesca Martinez that calls for "a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, and a New Deal for sick & disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions", nicknamed the WOW petition, demonstrates what disabled people can do if they put their mind to it. Run entirely by disabled supporters, one of the team behind it informed me that it is part of a wider campaign to ensure that disabled people are not negatively impacted by any changes to the benefits, services and support they are currently entitled to. As the petition nears it's half way mark of 50,000 signatures and with a deadline of December 12th 2013 it looks like it will be successful in it's aims.
Now this article might be a bit aimless and lacking focus or detail, but I just wanted to get it out there that if you don't agree with the way disabled people are being portrayed by the media or the government and you are worried about the way systems that have been put in place over many years to enure that disabled people can lead independent lives are being mucked about with without really knowing if the end result will make our lives better you can make your protest heard. But what is really worth shouting about is that the mantra of the disabled community of By Us, Not For Us has come to pass with the methods of making that protest. Disabled people may be one of the groups most deeply impacted by the current changes in the welfare and care systems, but they are also the ones who are at the forefront of ensuring that these changes do not go unchallenged. As around one in four people in the UK are touched by some form of disability or serious illness that's a really big section of society for our government to try to ignore.