Spouted so often it's almost become a cliché, the unprecedented attack on the disabled by the coalition government in their continued efforts to reduce the welfare bill has had an impact on disabled people nationwide, whether or not they work or are in receipt of some form of benefits.
I am a disabled person, with a rare genetic condition known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bones), which confines me to a wheelchair. My youth consisted of hundreds of bone breaks, about 100 surgeries and numerous hours of physiotherapy so that I could be as mobile and independent as possible. Now an adult, I am still confined to a wheelchair and due to the nature of the disability, there are some deformities which are apparent to any passer by.
I have worked since the day I left school, been to university and obtained a degree in Law as well as a Masters in International Justice and Human Rights, and now working toward a PhD so that I may go on to become a university lecturer and academic. You may be wondering why all this matters. Well I'm someone who would, like the millions of other disabled people in the UK, fairly proud of my accomplishments and knowing full well that my disability, while a mild inconvenience in some respects, has not stopped me from achieving my full potential, yet the other day, a complete stranger decided that I was a 'leech'. Presuming they weren't legitimately confusing me with the blood-sucking worm, I asked what they meant, and they simply remarked that I should 'get a job', then carried on with their walk as if nothing had happened.
This event isn't an entirely new experience for me. It is the general nature the human species that we judge people based on their appearance, first and foremost (have you seen the state of Miley Cyrus' hair? I know, right?), but the equating of disabled people with being benefit 'scroungers' or 'leeches' has become a lot more common since our wonderful Coalition government was formed. Now I do receive some state benefits.
I, like many other disabled people, am in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which allows me to cover the additional costs that come with care, transport etc. This is something that was awarded to me in the 90s as a child due to the permanent, nature of my condition. In a few years, due to the changes by the coalition government, I will be subjected to an infamous ATOS assessment, and it frankly terrifies me.
I never objected to the proposed changes by the government. On paper, they are reasonable and understandable. The intent, at least that we are told, is to put an end to the degree of permanence that 'traps' people in welfare dependency and crack down on benefit fraud. Who would disagree with that?
The changes, however, have become a nightmare that has subjected the sick and the vulnerable to unfair assessments, that has led to a disproportionate number being removed from the benefit, only to be placed back on them following appeal. The coalition government's changes are a nightmare for disabled people nationwide. Over 46% of working age disabled people, including myself, are in some form of employment yet you'd be forgiven for believing, based on the rhetoric of the coalition government, that we are all out of work, and exist to merely leech of the state until we do the world a favour and die.
Even if an individual doesn't work, whether that be through disability or some other circumstances, this doesn't make them a scrounger anymore than walking across a football pitch makes you a professional player. The DWP's own statistics show that just over 2% of all benefit expenditure is due to fraud and error. Such a small percentage does not mean that the disabled and the vulnerable deserve to be put through such treatment when subjected to the ATOS assessments.
If you look closely, you will see there are human beings in those wheelchairs.
The cost of living in this country continues to rise, yet rather than make any genuine efforts to help those in the poorest communities, the government has launched a full scale attack on those who cannot defend themselves. The attacks are supposed to encourage people to become more independent, to go out and seek work, and to catch those fraudulently playing the system, yet they have only succeeded in forcing an unprecedented number of poor, vulnerable and disabled people to visit food banks to ensure their survival.
If you are poor, then you only have yourself to blame. If you're disabled, just work a bit harder and everything will be alright in the end. These tag lines may work well in selling a few issues of the Daily Mail, or gaining a round of applause at a Tory party conference, but they do not accurately reflect the true nature of the circumstances faced by the poor and the disabled.
Disability is a complex term, and while my disability may be quite severe on paper, the support of my family and close friends, as well as my general surroundings, has allowed me to flourish and pursue a full and happy life in which I can achieve my ambitions. I am a lucky one, disability comes in many forms and even two people with the same disability may, depending on their environment, manage the disability in significantly different ways. I've been called a 'leech' and many other associated terms that imply I am some form of drain on the public finances, and such words are hurled at me for one reason, and one reason only, the fact that I am bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my natural life.
When thinking about these occasions, I'm reminded about the story of Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey who was told by a van driver to 'get a job', and I can do nothing but laugh, but it's a laughter that comes from a sad place. The coalition government will tell you that their rhetoric is not aimed at people like me, and many others who work. They will tell you that so long as we are contributing to society, we will get all the support we need, but that is not the reality. In taking away the benefits of a disabled person, you are taking away the funds that may have been their weekly shop, they may be the funds that could be covering the transport costs to their next job interview and to cut those, is to cut off any real chance that they would have become one of those productive members of society the coalition so desperately want to create.
Life is difficult, this is a lesson we all learn when growing up, but a disabled person faces many more challenges, and at times needs the extra help and support to really make a positive life for themselves and their family. The coalition government promised us as 'new politics' they promised us something different, yet all we're seeing is the same old, same old. Attack those who don't have a voice, and hope for the best. 2015 will tell us whether their hateful, dehumanising and divisive rhetoric worked, and whether I should start saving up what little funds I have to move to a country where I will be more welcome.