‘Superhumans’ and ‘scroungers’ – life after the Paralympics

The existence of people with disabilities is threatening: they prove progress is not always linear. A majority had some kind of ‘disability’ in Victorian Britain, with infectious disease rampant, workplace safety non-existent, and mental health untreated. The sheer number made it harder to stigmatise in some ways. The definition of ‘disability’ has constantly shifted since. The common experience of people with disabilities – physical and ‘invisible’ – remains that people with disabilities live in a world not built for them, in employment, education, even domestic violence shelters.

Attitudes – Much has been made of ‘improved attitudes’ towards disability since the London Paralympics (which two-thirds of people with disabilities want merged with the Olympics). Despite changed attitudes towards Paralympic athletes, two-thirds of sports clubs remain inaccessible. Changed attitudes have not filtered through to 11 million other people with disabilities – 81% of people with disabilities say attitudes haven’t changed, and 22% say they have got worse. Media portrayals of people with disabilities as ‘benefit scroungers’ is connected by 91% with rising hate crime. As just one example, 81% of people with autism have experienced verbal assault, and 47% physical assault. The Coalition government has exacerbated the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric, i.e. by inflating the number of DLA claimants who have illnesses related to addiction. The proliferation of media attitudes has filtered into policy areas, particularly under the Coalition government. Activists have attempted to block BBC entrances in protest at their coverage. There is a danger the Paralympics have only reinforced an existing narrative where ‘superhuman’ athletes are “deserving”, and benefit claimants are “undeserving”, even when Paralympic athletes require the same state support for care and transport.

Welfare – ‘Scrounger’ rhetoric has proliferated ableist attitudes. Institutionalised ableism has taken the form of massive cuts in financial support for people with disabilities. £28.3 billion of financial support will be removed by 2018, exacerbating a living standards crisis for people with disabilities who are three times more likely to rely on high-risk credit and other financial support. 600,000 people are set to lose Disability Living Allowance designed to cover the costs of care, mobility support, bills etc. The DLA was awarded on the basis of need, not job status or income. If the cuts are attempting to force people with disabilities into work, they are short-sighted; DLA funded the care and transport required for many people to enter work, like Motability cars. Atos, an IT company that sponsored the Paralympics, has had a controversial role in deciding who is eligible for DLA and Personal Independence Payment. Their criteria for restricting benefits have been so narrow that 40% of appeals have been successful. The ‘Spartacus Report’, a consultation launched by disability groups in response to the cuts, found mass opposition amongst people with disabilities to changing the DLA to the PIP. The PIP was introduced the day former PM Thatcher died – her funeral cost the same amount cut from the Youth Premium awarded to the most vulnerable children with disabilities.

Care – Care is negatively impacted when benefits are reduced, as the main providers are unpaid carers in receipt of benefits. As of 2011, carers saved the UK £119 billion a year while receiving a weekly £55.55 allowance. Caring makes up a large portion of other welfare costs – 33% of unemployed single parents have a disability or illness, and 34% have a child with a disability or illness. A consensus is slowly developing that workers responsible for £119 billion of savings and the stability of the social care system cannot be left so vulnerable; GPs have advocated screening carers for depression, and ministers are looking into providing respite and education rights. Increasingly, integration of social care and the NHS is seen as the best way to meet the ‘demographic challenge’ of an ‘aging population’. Fully funded social care is profoundly important for people with disabilities, physical and/or mental. People across the disability spectrum share similar needs provided by social care such as companionship, help with meals, bills, washing, getting up etc. A more holistic, multi-agency health care service would prevent much of the inefficiency and bureaucracy that undermines care for people with disabilities.

Public services – Though mental health problems cost £105 billion annually, only a quarter of people with a mental health condition receive treatment. There are widespread calls to introduce mental health on the national curriculum. But other areas of education for students with disabilities are regressing. Education Secretary Michael Gove has threatened to axe hundreds of thousands of teaching assistant jobs, which provide vital support for students with Special Educational Needs. Elsewhere, the bureaucracy resulting from people with disabilities having to ‘prove’ they are disabled leads to children waiting six-months for wheelchairs on average. Legal aid cuts threaten people with disabilities’ access to the justice system, and to benefits appeals tribunals which find in favour of DLA claims nearly 40% of the time. People with disabilities have led prominent protests over public transport accessibility. Despite the claim the Paralympics were “the most accessible ever”, Transport for London have abandoned their step-free stations and platforms policy. Probably the Coalition government’s most controversial policy has been the ‘bedroom tax’, charging social housing tenants if they are deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ their homes; two-thirds of those hit are households with a person with a disability who require ‘spare rooms’ to meet care needs. Many have advocated tactics used by the anti-Poll Tax movement, namely non-payment and issuing appeals to bring the system to collapse.

Jobs – A greater barrier to employment than inaccessible transport are ableist workplace attitudes. Government closures of Remploy factories specifically providing work to people with disabilities, while seen as outdated by many, have not been replaced with ‘inclusive’ employment for over 90% of former workers. Laws preventing people with a mental illness from becoming a school governor or company director are being banned lifted. While lifting restrictions on those detained under the Mental Health Act from continuing as an MP are a small change, they bring up broader issues about employment and representation. The various issues effecting people with disabilities have a common denominator: people with disabilities live in a world not built for them. Jobs are often built around the assumption that someone with a disability has no ability at all, and will not utilise the different perspectives and skills that a person with a disability can bring to the workplace. One means of increasing the diversity of Parliament is allowing MP’s to job-share. A more diverse Parliament might better represent the concerns around Remploy or DLA.

The range of issues effecting people with disabilities is mirrored by the breadth of the disability spectrum. Activists from groups like Disabled People Against Cuts are mobilising around people with disabilities’ material concerns, namely education, housing, employment. Other issues include domestic abuse of women with disabilities being double that of other self-identified women (often relying on their abuser for care). It all points to a society that hasn’t changed its attitudes “forever”; attitudes do not make transport and education more accessible, properly fund carers, or remove the risks of credit card debt by themselves. Such changes require more energy than throwing money at sports stadiums. A disabling society is the barrier, not people with disabilities.

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