Cross-posted at Where's the Benefit?
Three years ago I wrote a terrifically naïve post for the BBC Ouch! Blog entitled Who's afraid of Wellfare Reform? At the time I believed that there was some real fear-mongering going on, brought about by conjecture on the part of a desperate unpopular government heading into a financial crash. I thought that it was all rhetoric – categorising unemployable people as employable makes for bad statistics. A financial crash was coming and in the next few years, the last thing any government would want to do was risk an artificial rise in unemployment.
I have to counteract the humility with which I admit to such a mistake with the only explanation I have; I am smarter than the government. It's not exactly a boast. Even if I shared the current administration's contempt for people without alarm clocks, the assault on disability benefits is becoming a political disaster. If things are allowed to carry on as they are going, hundreds of thousands of unemployable people will be added to the already record unemployment. Further hundreds of thousands, who they government is spending money on trying to support into work, will never get into work because either they are totally unfit for work or there is no work flexible enough to employ them. And then there is the shift in the media and public feeling, as the human cost increases.
There are three dominant narratives in our culture about disability; triumph, tragedy and villainry. Disabled villains are self-pitying wretches who frequently exaggerate or even fabricate their impairments in order to manipulate others. Thus the media's love of disability benefit fraud - the more audacious, the better. And thus the Daily Mails's recent glee in spinning disablity benefits statistics to make unremarkable facts, like some people have been disabled for more than ten years, sound scandalous.
But that can't last. Until recently, everyone had an anecdote about their friend's uncle's neighbour who claimed Incapacity Benefit for an ingrowing toenail, had one of those mythical free cars and spent half the year skiing on the Costa Brava. Increasingly, everyone has an anecdote about someone they know who has a serious chronic illness, but who has been denied disability benefits, is being subjected to months of stress as they appeal, isn't able to leave the house any more because they can't afford the energy and expense, isn't getting the practical care they need to keep clean and eat properly and so on.
Some people are in deadly danger. Only being a notch or two smarter than the government, three years ago I wrote “All we can be subjected to is yet more hassle and insecurity - not good, but not disasterous.” It was very clumsy to suggest that any increase in the hassle and insecurity we have always experienced wouldn't be disasterous for some of us, but I can't berate myself for failing to imagine that things could be handled this badly. There has always hassle and insecurity - this autumn I was dealing with DLA renewal forms and divorce papers at the same time, and I really couldn't say which was the greatest source of stress. But it is as if the holes in the safety net are widening and falling straight through is becoming a serious prospect for people who don't have the resources or the energy to reach out and cling on. Our most vulnerable have become so much more vulnerable.
It was a matter of time before the tragedies associated with the disability benefit cuts became the story. This has already begun, chiefly in the Guardian and the Mirror. And this government have done as much as they could to turn the public against disabled people – hate crime which includes a reference to DLA simply cannot be unconnected to government rhetoric on disability benefits. But they have forgotten that disabled people are the public. Disabled people are the public's friends, neighbours and family members. Disabled people are what non-disabled people frequently become with age. Disability benefits and the public services we rely upon are part of the deal that everyone has been paying tax for, so that if they or those they love have the need, the support will be there.
Thanks and good wishes to everyone marching today from those of us whose impairments prevent us from doing so. If you're at home today, you can still participate in the DPAC virtual protest and follow the @wheresbenefit gang on Twitter.