I wish the Paralympics well, but I can’t help noting a certain discrepancy between the celebration of the Games and the distinctly less celebratory attitudes towards the disabled that are prevalent in British society.
Yesterday David Cameron said that the Games will ‘inspire a lot of people and change people’s views on disability’. This inspirational message is based on the rejection of the idea that disabled people are less important or less valuable members of society, and the triumphant testament to the human ability to overcome adversity.
All this is good and necessary. But Cameron’s upbeat message is somewhat at odds with the actions and rhetoric of his government, which have contributed directly to a change in popular attitudes towards disability that has been largely negative.
At present hate crimes against disabled people are at an all time high, with 1,942 reported crimes in 2011. In June this year the Independent found that ‘ Disability hate crime has doubled since the start of the financial crisis in 2008’ while the numbers of convictions for such crimes has fallen.
The Independent also reported that
Disability charities receive a constant flow of reports about incidents that are never reported to police from families who have been forced out of their homes by relentless targeting, to disabled teenagers who avoid groups of strangers for fear of what might be said to them.
A number of charities and organizations working with disabled people have attributed this increase in hostility to ‘anti-scrounger’ rhetoric emanating from the Coalition government and its supporters in the tabloid press, with its relentless insinuation that people claiming disability benefits are frauds and parasites routinely conning the taxpayer.
Such rhetoric has an obvious appeal for a government that has committed itself to an unprecedented – and unpopular – swathe of public sector spending cuts in the name of austerity and deficit reduction. In this context the idea that disabled people are cheating the system provide a convenient distraction from the broader systemic failures that have led to the current crisis.
‘Anti-scrounger’ rhetoric has also served to justify cruel and punitive policies aimed at reducing the numbers of disabled people claiming benefits. The government’s determination to increase the numbers of disabled people deemed ‘fit to work’ regardless of their physical condition is often fraudulently presented as a form of social inclusion, rather than the ruthless cost-cutting exercise that it actually is.
Anyone doubting the ruthlessness of this agenda should consider the Daily Mirror’s Investigations team, which reported in April that 1,100 sickness benefits claimants had died between January and August last year after they were put in the ‘work-related activity group’ that received a reduced level of benefits and was expected to go out and look for work.
These deaths included a warehouse worker with a degenerative lung condition, who was told after his medical test for Employment and Support Allowance that he would be fit to return to work within three months, even though he had difficulty walking and breathing, and who died before the three months was up.
Many of these ‘work capability assessments’ are administered by the government’s pet company Atos Healthcare, one of the official sponsors of the Paralympics. Atos has received widespread criticism from disability campaigners for profiting from the government’s welfare reform agenda at the expense of disabled people.
Atos has also been criticized by MPs for its inadequate performance, and also by the National Audit Office, which has questioned the quality of testing procedures in which four out every ten benefit claimants categorized as fit for work have successfully appealed against these decisions.
It’s worth bearing this in mind as the Paralympics takes off and politicians and corporations seek to bathe in its life-affirming slipstream, so that the Games does not become a smokescreen and a feelgood distraction from one of the more the more sordid and inhuman manifestations of the government’s brutalist austerity programme.
Because for every athlete who has made the extraordinary journey to the London arena, there are tens of thousands of disabled people who depend for their wellbeing and survival on a safety net that is being inexorably stripped away from them, by the same politicians who are promoting the Paralympics as a shining example of inclusivity.