I am one of the lucky ones. I have a good education, and I run my own business. Yet every day the fact that I am a disabled person means that I am stereotyped and have assumptions made about me. People will often speak to my personal assistant about me, rather than to me, and I need to work twice as hard to prove that I am capable.
And on top of all this, disabled people are now living with the sudden obsession with “benefit scroungers” that can result in total strangers questioning whether you are “disabled enough”. This is creating a potentially dangerous view of disability, implying that it is a lifestyle choice for those simply too lazy to work. This undermines all those legitimately claiming benefits who would love to be able to work, but simply can’t.
Disabled people’s lives are relentless. The things that everyone else takes for granted – getting dressed, cooking dinner, jumping on a bus – can become major hurdles if, like me, you’re in a wheelchair. Financial support like disability living allowance (DLA) is a small recognition that at least some of these hurdles can be overcome with a little extra money. Yet DLA, which is not an out-of-work benefit, is now threatened with a cut of over 20% by 2013.
I use the care component of my DLA to contribute to things like the cost of pre-prepared vegetables. If I lost this I might require a support worker to come to my home for an hour a day, at about £10 an hour, to prepare my food. The maths pretty quickly shows that diced carrots are by far the cheapest option to keep me independent and healthy. Put pressure on this allowance and all the creative ways in which we manage our impairments start to break down.
Likewise, the mobility component of my DLA has just paid for an automatic wheelchair lock in my van, so that in the winter, when my body doesn’t function in the cold, my PA can drive and I can carry on going to work. In fact, a Scope/ComRes poll found that 82% of disabled people believe their dependency on the welfare system could actually increase as a result of spending cuts.
On Monday in Burnley and Aberdeen the government begins trialling its plans to reassess all those claiming incapacity benefits, using the work capability assessment – a test that asks questions such as, “Can you turn a tap on?” (to which my answer would be: “It depends on the tap”). Through this assessment alone disabled people will lose £5bn in the next five years. Our charity works with Helen, a wheelchair user who would love to work but had to give up her job in 2004 because of the daily fluctuations in her levels of fatigue and pain. She worries about medical assessments because her symptoms are invisible and difficult to prove. Another young person, James, is blind, deaf and can’t walk or talk, yet has been deemed “fit for work” by the new system, entitling him to only £53 per week.
I welcome plans that genuinely support more disabled people into employment. But the government’s plans will not achieve this. By moving disabled people off employment and support allowance there will be no structures in place to help them overcome the many barriers there are to employment – not only physical accessibility, but also employer attitudes. The government will merely be moving disabled people from one benefit to another, and abandoning them to a lifetime of joblessness.
There is still time for the government to get it right. It can meet its legal duties to carry out an impact assessment of the cuts; it can abandon its plans to use the flawed work capability assessment; and it can commit to ensuring that disabled people receive the tailored support they need to move into work. These are not expensive commitments, but they will go a long way to helping disabled people participate in our society and contribute to our economy.