This piece was originally written for and published in student newspaper Varsity.
I am sitting in my college ‘buttery’ (canteen) the day after the general election, giving an exasperated monologue on what the next five years will mean in terms of welfare.
“They’re forcing people who can’t work into work, and at the same time capping Access to Work so that disabled people who want to work can’t even work anyway!”
“Well,” says the Tory voter sitting opposite, “They can just work from home.”
It’s a comment which says a lot about what five years of largely Conservative government has done to widespread attitudes towards the ill and disabled. In and amongst the celebrity exposes and comment pieces about Josie Cunningham’s boobs, articles about fraudulent Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants being ‘caught’ playing golf or walking to the shops feature so regularly in the Daily Mail that you’d be forgiven for thinking every other disabled person is secretly running marathons in their back garden. Quite aside from the fact that not all disabilities affect a person’s physical mobility, and that many mobility-impaired people are still occasionally able to walk, the regularity with which these articles appear represents a gross overestimation. In fact, DLA fraud is somewhere between <0.1-0.5%, depending on which reports you read. The only benefit with a lower fraud rate is Incapacity Benefit. Who claims incapacity benefit? Oh, yes: the sick and disabled.
The British media is feeding the public a lie, and it’s one which has serious social ramifications. Disability hate crime is on the rise. Throwaway comments about so-called ‘benefit scroungers’ are becoming increasingly socially acceptable. Maybe it’s just because I’m growing up, but in the past few years I have experienced many more strangers making unpleasant comments when I dare to stand up in public than I used to. Back in 2009, standing to use an escalator or walk down a flight of stairs rarely drew anything other than a smile or an offer of assistance. Now, whilst on days when I can’t stand I still receive almost ubiquitous kindness and offers of help, the minute I stand up I am ignored, frowned upon or even verbally abused.
As a lady I met on a train the other day told me, ‘If, on a good day, I’ve managed to walk down the street unaided, that’s a major achievement. I feel like I deserve congratulation. Instead, I am gossiped about, accused of not needing a wheelchair, and have even been reported for benefit fraud.’ Indeed, despite such low fraud figures, the second result on google when I type in ‘dla fraud’ is ‘dla fraud hotline’.
In 2012, Iain Duncan-Smith told the Telegraph that, over the past ‘few’ years, DLA claimants had risen by 30%. That’s not because there was more fraud. DLA was only introduced in 1992; as more people learn about the benefit, more people claim it (I only began claiming DLA in 2009). The other major factor is that, as medicine improves, higher numbers of disabled children are living into adulthood. Disabled children have begun this awkward habit of surviving. What a crime.
Whilst we might be alive, not all of us are capable of work. There are many people with physical and/or mental or intellectual disabilities and illnesses so severe that a ‘good’ day is one where you make it out of bed. There are many people with fluctuating disabilities and illnesses who might be capable of working on a ‘good’ day, but for whom good days are rare and unpredictable. What employer would employ someone who will only work two days a fortnight, who won’t know if they can work until that morning, and who might leave at any point for a lie-down?
I personally won’t be affected by the cuts. The privilege of a Cambridge education and the sort of intelligence which society values means I have a job lined up for when I graduate, in an office which is already sufficiently accessible that I won’t need Access to Work in order to make adaptations. I will be able to afford rent, so I won’t need housing benefit. The job is in London, so I will be able to travel on accessible buses without needing an Access to Work travel package, or a Motability funded car. Although I am a full-time wheelchair user, I do not have communication problems and don’t need a carer, so I don’t need Access to Work-funded communication equipment, Carer’s Allowance, or an Independent Living Fund to pay for 24 hour care.
That’s lucky, because all of the benefits listed above have either already been cut, or are set to be capped or cut in the near future.
During the Welfare Reform of the past five years, disabled people have been hit nine times harder than the non-disabled. Over the next five, it is once again going to be those most in need of help who are the hardest hit. If you and your family are able to work, lucky you. That doesn’t give you the privilege to criticise or judge those who can’t.