Nomination for most influential left-wing thinker: The disabled rights community

Nomination for left-wing thinker of the year: The disability rights community, in trying to change the way the whole country thinks about people with disabilities.

The Broken of Britain: Fighting Gideon’s savage attacks on the disabled

Westminster is a town that knows far more about politics than policies. And one things it knows is that nobody wants to be on the side of ‘scroungers’ – the supposed thousands, often paraded across the Daily Mail and the Sun, who are ‘swinging the lead’ and ‘living on the sick’.

It has been said that one of Labour’s problems at the last election was that it was seen to be on the side of these ‘scroungers’. And so the consensus bellows out – from the tabloids, from the politicians, from the lobby groups – the welfare state is spoiling the workshy who are pretending to be ill. It’s time to crackdown.

This is the atmosphere in which Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reform bill has been drafted. Many believe, with good cause, that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is a sincere man trying to do a good job.

But being in charge of an unpopular high spending department at a time of cuts has had its impact on the bill.

Key measures include:

• The replacing of the Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Independence Payment with the explicit target of reducing expenditure by 20%, whatever the spin;

• The ending of Employment and  Support Allowance, that covers costs such as transport and specialised wheelchairs, for those who have ever held a job, after 12 months;

• The continuation of the Work Capacity Assessment regime inherited from Labour, which decides the level of assistance recipients receive, which 40 per cent of those assessed appeal against the decision, of whom 70 per cent are successful.

The impact of these changes to some of the most vulnerable in our society will be horrendous. But how do you push back at such a wall-to-wall consensus? 

One thing the disabled community has done has claimed the language used to denounce it – see the excellent blogs such as Sue Marsh’s Diary of a Benefit Scounger, and Kaliya Franklin’s Benefit Scrounging Scum.

Once the disabled own those words they somehow begin to lose their power. However the next question is, how do you change an entire culture’s way of thinking about an issue.

Disabled rights activists have started by claiming the evidential high ground. The statistical mastery of economist-activists like Rhydion Fon James and Mason Dixon, Autistic – showing that fraud on disability benefits is far below that on the general state pension, or that the government’s contract with Atos to weed out fraud costs more than fraud (£500m versus £250 million) ensures a permission to be heard.

We are now seeing the general population increasingly willing to listen to individual testimonies, realising that they cannot be dismissed as one-off stories. This approach was pioneered by the Broken of Britan’s One Month Before Heartbreak campaign – run by activists like Emma Crees that documented testimonies from those on incapacity benefit about how their lives would be shaken by the proposed changes.

It has continued to this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, where a key vote on calling for the government to look again at its disability proposal was won, in no short measure due to one such testimony:

In fact the motion came about after a member of Liberal Youth was inspired to take up the issue as a cause after reading Diary of a Benefit Scrounger.

It is still an uphill task for the disability rights activists. The Hardest Hit lobby of Parliament contesting the changes that drew 8,000 partipants, many of whom are severely disabled, only received a fraction of coverage the press lavished on the pro-cuts and mostly able-bodied Rally Against Debt – that attracted hundreds.

Such are the skewed prioroties of our media and political class. But the way that disabled activists like Lisa Ellwood have pushed social media has meant they are at last being challenged. 

The disabled rights movement may fail in the task that confronts us all, to try to limit the damage this bill will cause.

However, the disabled rights community has already done more to change the politicians and the public think about these issues than we ever thought possible. And for that, they deserve a nomination for Left-wing thinker of the year.

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  • Sue Marsh

    This is an amazing thing! I’m humbled and excited at the same time.
    Excited that in just one short year, so much has happened.

    However, this struggle has been going on for decades, and many have been fighting for as long.

    I think the difference really came when we all started working so closely together. DPAC, Where’s the Benefit, Benefits and Work, The ABC of ESA (Miss Ben E Fit) Nicky Clark, latentexistence, Disabled Bloggers, Broken of Britain and so many others, all using their own unique voices to say the same thing. We have pulled together, supported one another where we can, but never criticised another’s approach.

    I really believe THIS is what has made us successful and if we carry on working together, supporting each other and building support, we can only achieve our goals – a fair society that treats sick and disabled people with dignity and respect. Not a society that turns the clock back 80 years to attack, de-value and abuse her most vulnerable citizens of all.

    A million thank yous Left Foot Forward.

    “Alone we whisper, together we Shout”

  • Sue Marsh

    I’m so sorry, and of course Carer’s Watch (I just woke up 😉 and other carer groups, equally under attack, if not more so and churning out brilliant research and campaigns despite great personal demands

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  • Ash

    Have I contracted political-correctness-gone-mad-itis, or is there something a bit off about treating ‘the disabled rights community’ as a single homogenous ‘thinker’ while people from comparable groups (‘the environmentalist lobby’, ‘the Trade Union movement’, ‘civil rights campaigners’, ‘anti-war groups’) have always been nominated as individuals?

    Compare: ‘and the nominations for Greatest All-Time Sports Star are: George Best, Martina Navratilova, black sprinters, Michael Schumacher…’.

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  • Kevin

    For decades the disabled people’s rights movement has been pushing a fundamentally anti-capitalist philosophy in the form of the social model of disability. It is now widely recognised in national, regional and local policy as the correct way to view disability and, although it is doubtful how far policy makers are really aware of the Marxist interpretations of the model, its acceptance is testament to the success of the disabled people’s community in promoting left wing values. With the recent government attacks on disabled people I have been inspired by the efforts put into direct actions and grassroots activism by groups like DPAC who have sought to build bridges with the unions and overcome traditional tensions (there has in the past been a tendency for unions to represent the rights of social care workers while portraying disabled people as the passive recipients of care to the detriment of our empowerment), in order to be stronger together. The nomination for influential left wing thinking has been well deserved by the community for years.

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  • Mason Dixon, Autistic

    Contrary to Kevin’s post, I feel that disability rights has only become Left-wing by omission: virtually all mainstream Right-wing and conservative voices excluded themselves from this. What was once either a neutral or at least bi-partisan principle that ours is an advanced forward-looking nation which shall ultimately be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable members, the Right have pulled out of this. Some of their more extreme participants are outright hostile to it and make no secret of it.

    The government is keen to speak for this principle with empty words such as ‘we will protect the most vulnerable’. But that cravat dominates: ‘most’. Anyone vulnerable but not the ‘most’; the government has nothing to say about them nor will they define where they judge that line to be even as they impose ‘objective’ testing.

    I do not see why it has not been possible for the Right to be in favour of the government’s economic policy, yet see the obvious and immense problems the cuts to services and benefits for disabled will cause, all of which are likely to cost more than they save. There is nothing especially Right-wing about the niche obsession the tabloids have with ‘scroungers’ claiming disability-related benefits they don’t need. Services are especially an area where fraud is not only unheard of, no one even pretends it exists like they do in an extensive way for disability benefits despite the evidence.

    We didn’t move these issues to the Left. The Right gave up and surrendered them to the Left. How else could we end up with such an inappropriately titled ‘Minister For Disabled People’?

  • Mary

    @ash – I see where you’re coming from.

    However the important thing about this issue is that, almost by definition, the disabled rights community does not consist of individuals who are capable of fighting their corner on a full-time or even really a part-time basis. Individuals are constantly going in and out of hospital, in and out of “bad phases”, and of course fighting the assaults on an individual level as we see our own personal day-to-day survival level support packages being tweaked and cut. The only reason we are able to campaign at all is because we do so as a community, and when one individual has to take a few weeks out (because they have to devote all their time and energy to sorting out their own housing crisis or are existing in an insensible haze of morphine) others fill the gap.

    Commenters on blogs like Where’s The Benefit often try to argue that if we’re doing all this campaigning then we’re clearly capable of full-time work. The reality is that each of these blogs has a team of a dozen people or more who between them are doing the work of one full-time campaigner.

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  • Sue Marsh

    Mary – Spot on! We call it “passing the baton” at Broken of Britain. At any one time at least two of us will be out of action or in hospital.

    When disabled activists live tweet an event, it isn’t planned, as one flags and needs pain relief or sleep, someone else seamlessly “takes up the baton”.

    Many of my blog posts are written by others too terrified to step into the limelight for fear of media or DWP reprisals.

    If you nominated Martin Luther King for the black rights movement it would immediately exclude every last person of colour who made a stand.

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