Why Is It Acceptable to Trash Disabled People?

When I was a teenager attending a mainstream school, something unheard of at that time, I felt like I was the only disabled person for miles. I of course knew this what not the case but being disabled was a very big thing then, and it was rarely talked about or discussed in the media. The few times I saw a younger disabled person on the TV was a huge event for me as I was hungry for people to see disabled people as members of society. My disabled peers were in special schools, and bound for day services or residential care, leaving me to fight a mainstream lifestyle alone. Disability was a taboo that was only framed in terms of tragedy.

Nowadays it seems difficult to go without a day where there is not some kind of disability related news item in the mainstream media, and disabled people appear to be taking over the country. Disabled people are certainly more visible, and there are certainly more people who define themselves as being disabled. The media seems to be in the middle of a love affair on the idea of disability, poking and prodding us to find fresh angles like we are new toys to play with. How can we date? Do we have sex? Can we be happy? Will we ever go to space? Endless unimportant articles that still frame us as still something very different to ‘normal’ people.

You would think I would be happy with all this attention and up to 5 years ago, I would have said yes, definitely. But the welfare reforms were a major set back in the media portrayal of disabled people by all sides. While the welfare activists have complained that the media has framed disabled people as ‘benefit scroungers’, I am more concerned at how the welfare activists have used their own sympathetic media to frame disabled people.

If we believe their media, I am vulnerable and helpless, dependent on the state for benefits and support in the name of compassion and fairness. Believe me, the people who try to cross me are in a more vulnerable situation than I would ever be. But what is worse is that disabled people like myself are framed as unable to work, unless we foolishly want to work, even if the DWP have found us fit for work. The fact I require care and support is often use to undermine my intelligence within an environment where family carers know best because they have a heart of gold! When there are carers, disabled people are framed as simply voiceless burdens.

I think the outrage over sanctions has clearly shown how far people are willing to go far in trashing disabled people to prove a point. One of the arguments of those opposing sanctions is regardless of how the authorities, medical professionals, and people themselves regard their capabilities to take personal responsibility, it is immoral to regard disabled people as being able to be consenting adults, and therefore must not be sanctioned, and therefore must not be seen as capable citizens.

Disabled people may well be more visible in society, but I am not sure they are being fairly represented in a way they deserve, as a complex group of individual viewpoints. While we believe we understand the concepts of institutionalised racism and sexism, disablism is still not only understood but I believe celebrated in the media as compassion and fairness, often by those who claim to have the best interests of disabled people in mind. Unfortunately you can not tell people what they are not ready to hear, and only time and history will set the record straight.

Disabled people are still used as pawns by the media, activists and politicians, who can be talked about in any way people want, often having their lives trashed, without any consideration for their feelings. Trashing disabled people is still something socially acceptable and it will remain so until disabled people, those who believe in their inclusion within society, start fighting back.

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We Must Stop Calling Sick and Disabled People Unfit

The Work Capacity Assessment (WCA) has been a central battleground between the government and welfare activists. The assessment is simply designed to determine if a sick or disabled person is currently fit or unfit for work. While activists seem unhappy that too many people are found ‘unfairly’ fit for work, I am concerned that too many people are found unfit for work and therefore denied the opportunity to progress with their life journey.

At the risk of repeating myself, I believe everyone has the potential with the right support and encouragement to provide a meaningful contribution to their families, community and society at large, which does not necessarily mean paid work, although it should never be automatically ruled out. I also acknowledge that on a day to day basis, someone’s health or other circumstances may prevent them from effectively performing certain activities at specific times, but that does not necessarily mean there do not have the inner ability or potential to contribute to society.

My concern is therefore maybe not so much the WCA test, but the fact it results in a financially desirable label of being ‘unfit’. While the term is used in terms of paid work, the psychological and sociological implications of calling people unfit has deeper implications for how sick and disabled people see themselves, and how they are seen by others. Because employment is the cornerstone of any post-industrial society, regardless of the political ideology of managing human capital, calling someone unfit for work is the same as calling them unfit for society.

And if deep down someone is regarded as unfit for society, their ability to grow and develop can be perceived to be halted, and they can be forced into a social coma, dependent on state handouts in the name of compassion. This is a form of social exclusion that is self-fulfilling since current social policy uses the label of unfit to close people’s opportunities to enablement and empowerment support that allows them to progress in their life journey and to a point where they are able and willing to make a greater contribution.

I often say labelling people unfit is a form of warehousing because it is simply paying people to sit at home excluded from activities that could unlock their long-term potential. A reliance on a compassionate society can only go so far and within a political environment of increasingly less resources, framing sick and disabled people as eternally inactive citizens can only have disastrous consequences for social policy in the longer term.

While the political battle between inclusion and welfare could be seen as the battle between collective compassion, and the fulfilling of individual potential through the nurturing of self-determination, why can’t there be a third way where collectivism and individualism work together? Could we have a collective desire to ensure any individual has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential, or at least be aware of their potential if they choose to not use it?

I believe that the term unfit is symbolic of the deep rooted prejudices towards sick and disabled people, creating a vague and imagined line between those society will fully accept, and those society will currently tolerate in the name of fairness and compassion. We need to erase the artificial line and celebrate every individual for the bundle of potential they are. This is not about forcing people into a paid working environment before they are ready, but simply recognising whether it takes weeks, months, years or indeed forever, there may be a time with ever changing circumstances where paid employment is possible for them.

I would like to see a time where society regards the term ‘unfit’ as a derogatory term in the way I personally do now, and as a term that symbolises social exclusion. I however know when welfare reform remains a fierce political battleground, there is currently little room for the quantum leap in thinking I would dearly love to see.

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Assisted Dying is Just Wrong

You can call it assisted dying, assisted suicide, mercy killings, helping people along or anything else you want, but whatever you call it, I would say it is just wrong. The debates and pressure to legalise assisting dying has focused on the right to choose how we die, but this is in reality a right afforded to no one as we live in a world where no one knows when they we are going to die.

You may argue that people who commit suicide know when they are going to but few people actually plan to commit suicide as a rational act to take control of their destiny and it is not a form of action that has gained any acceptance within society. I am sure daytime TV will never be offering advice on how to have a good suicide! Instead, suicide and suicidal thoughts come as a possible immediate solution to a period of immense depression or frustration. It is an irrational desire that comes from people not seeing other ways forward.

When a supposedly well or non-disabled person commits suicide, there is shock and horror as people examine the environmental causes that may have led them to suicide, generally concluding the real reasons may probably always be a mystery. If a non-disabled or well person expresses a desire to commit suicide, those they tell are most likely to do everything they have to talk them out of their desire by asking them to think of the positive things in their life.

When a sick or disabled person commits suicide, the rules change. There is an unspoken assumption they had a valid reason to do so with people remarking they are probably better off now. More worrying is families, coroners and the media seem eager to make clear conclusions, particularly that ‘stress’ caused by their interaction with DWP is a key reason for their suicide, when there could in reality be a whole range of factors. I find this politicisation of what is a tragic event quite sickening and deeply worrying, as it shows deep rooted prejudices toward sick and disabled people.

And when sick and disabled people show a desire to wish to commit suicide, assisted or unassisted, suddenly what is normally perceived as an irrational non-starter caused by depression is reframed as a brave and courage rational decision that is obviously correct given their circumstances. The person’s environment, that may be the reason for their despair, is totally ignored as the focus becomes how they supposedly feel about their impairment or illness.

While I can totally understand how people can feel and their desire is clearly genuine, my concern is how those around them, as well as the media and society at large, respond differently to their desire because they are sick or disabled. There is deep rooted prejudices towards sick and disabled people that are not yet openly discussed and are allowed to be celebrated to a degree.

I strongly believe the same deep rooted prejudices that are used to justify assisted suicide are the same prejudices that are in place when the media and other complain about disabled people who are found fit for work in a manner they regard as unfair, and recently the pity for disabled people who are sanctioned in a manner they perceive as unfairly. I am further argue that many sick and disabled people can share these prejudices and they are not exempt just because of their status.

Because these prejudices are framed as compassion, fairness, justice and so on, they are extremely difficult to currently challenge, leaving those of us who see it clearly as being regarded as heretics, criticised for not being compassionate enough! But the inclusion of disabled people is never going to move forward towards something more meaningful until we expose and truly challenge the deep rooted prejudices that exists within most current social policy around sick and disabled people.

Assisted suicide and how it is being framed as an act of compassion is perhaps the crossroads to society deciding what it really thinks about sick and disabled people. If assisted suicide becomes law, it could be the start of a slow and steady ‘compassionate’ path to a new kind of holocaust for sick and disabled people that we will not realise is happening until it is far too late.

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Inaccessible Buildings Is Not Necessarily Discrimination

In the ideal world, every building in the UK would be accessible to wheelchair users and people with a wide range of impairments, but things are not that simple. Rebuilding inaccessible infrastructure that has existed for hundreds of years in some cases takes time and money. I believe the moral argument has been won, and it is now about letting the slow wheels of progress turn.

This is why I was bemused to read about the campaign complaining about inaccessible MPs constituency offices whipped up by the ‘Disability News Service’ and the provocative journalist John Pring. He has highlighted concerns with a number of offices, whipping up a number of activists to demand that all MPs are forced to move to accessible offices, at any cost.

While this sounds a great idea, it misses a few points. Firstly, having an inaccessible office does not necessarily cause discrimination. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, and now the Equality Act, service providers have to make reasonable adaptations to their policies and procedures to avoid less favourable treatment. This means that discrimination only occurs if MPs require disabled members of public to meet them at an inaccessible venue, without offering to meet them somewhere accessible. And as far as I can understand, there is absolutely no evidence any MP has so far discriminated anyone in this matter.

It is important to understand this in terms of their constituency offices, MPs are treated as self employed, and must arrange their offices and staff themselves out of their own expenses. Therefore when there is public pressure not to overspent in terms of expenses, it can be difficult to find office space that is central enough for their constituency without breaking the bank, let alone adding in the need to be accessible, in what remains a working office as oppose to a public building. If a MP is willing to meet people in accessible venues, what is the problem in the short term?

Personally I would change the whole system and make parliament directly responsible for local permanent offices, where some MPs may share, that comes with the job and can be used for a number of statutory functions. But this is an investment for the long term. Meanwhile, people need to do their best with a difficult situation.

I have to admit myself that my office at my home is not accessible to wheelchair users, despite being an outdoor wheelchair user myself, because I have chosen to live and work in a first floor flat. The reason for this is that when I previously lived on the ground floor, I was mugged in my own home, twice! I therefore feel safer where I am. I am of course happy to meet wheelchair user colleagues at accessible venues.

While the activists may grudgingly acknowledge MPs can meet wheelchair users at other accessible venues, they next concern is what if a wheelchair user wants to work for a MP. Again, we live in a world where technology means people can work at home, or anywhere they want, and I am sure MPs could and would accommodate people’s needs if and when needed. We can not endlessly demand money is spent, or indeed wasted, on ‘what-if’ situations. Is your roof strong enough for the day it starts raining elephants?

If I believe an MP, or indeed any other organisation, was directly discriminating disabled people by refusing to meet them in an accessible venue, I would be one of the first people to complain, but let us give them with benefit of doubt, and provide them the opportunity to get it right as the role models of our society, because punishing them for the way society is constructed. If we were going to demand that all inaccessible property across the country had to be abandoned, then whole villages, if not towns, would become ghost towns.

We do need accessible buildings and things have improved dramatically over the last 20, 30 and 40 years, but to have a totally accessible country, and eventually world, will take many more decades and so we need to find other ways to ensure wheelchair users and people with other impairments are not discriminated.

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