Yesterday I was changing trains. As I came down the steps, I walked past a lady who was slowly and painfully descending, bumping her child in a pushchair from one step to the other. Normally, I would of course have offered to carry the pushchair with her. But I couldn’t – I have recently undergone an operation which means “no heavy lifting”. It was embarrassing: I don’t look different, and i don’t feel that different. But there are some things I just can’t do.
It’s a new and unusual situation for me, but of course it is the norm for many – including many of you reading this blog. My brief brush with disability, which will (I hope) last only a few weeks, has given me a new respect for people who live with disability day by day. It’s not only the inability to do certain things, or even the embarrassment of needing help. What I have been very aware of is that nagging feeling that you don’t quite fit. The world is constructed around expectations of a certain level of ability, which differs according to your age, and possibly other less reasonable factors like gender.
If you can’t do the things that you “should” be capable of at first glance, you feel as if you should be apologising for yourself. Certainly when I was going down the stairs at the railway station I felt an irrational desire to apologise to the woman with the pushchair, to explain why I was unable to help her, maybe even to show her my scar!
I’m not sure what can be done about this; I suspect a lot of it is hardwired into us. It would seem a little extreme to inflict temporary disability on everybody in order to understand more of what it’s like, but that might be the only thing that would overcome our unconscious judgements on others.
As the next tranche of benefit cuts come into force, it seems to be more and more difficult for people to see the human stories which lie behind the headlines and instant opinions. I’m very glad to be able to share (with her permission) Valerie Lang’s reflections on the changing culture in which we live – and the way in which it is becoming more difficult for disabled people to enter the workplace, even as they are being hectored more and more to do so.
As a disabled person I found it very difficult to find work in the 1960s and ’70s, even though I had a lot going for me. Certainly in the ’60s rates of unemployment were much lower, I had a degree from the London School of Economics, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Librarianship. I also had employers and friends willing to recommend me to one another. Because of this help I was in fact never out of work until I retired in 1997.
Today the Government says that it wants more disabled people to go and find work. But does it?
It has reduced the availability of the Access to Work scheme, which paid for adaptations in the work place. Its “Bedroom tax” will force many disabled people out of their homes and localities. (Yes, Local Government can help them to stay where they are, but only for a short time.) Its press allies run numerous stories about benefits cheats and disabled people who don’t get out of bed, leading to a public perception that 7 out of 10 disabled people are cheating. This is a far cry from the DWP’s own statistics which show that fraudulent claims of Disability Living Allowance have been only 0.5%, a fact that the Government chooses to ignore.
Further, the private company Atos, contracted to assess who is fit for work apparently tells blind people who can find their way around their own homes, that this means that they are fit for work. This is in spite of a DWP survey finding that over 90% of employers saying that they would not employ a blind person. About 40% of disabled people who have contested Atos findings that they are fit for work have had their appeals upheld. Instead of radically changing the fit for work test, the Government has simply stopped Legal Aid from being available for such appeals.
The Government seems to think that jobs grow on trees – to be picked at any time someone cares to go and look. In fact one can only get a job if an employer takes one on. Does the Government not realise, or does it just not care, that potential employers read the same stories about so called cheats and scroungers? What employer is going to pick the disabled so-called skiver when there is a whole queue of non-disabled applicants waiting?
I certainly would not have found work if I had faced the same barrage of anti-disability rhetoric in the media. It was difficult enough to persuade employers to look beyond my disability – which affected my speech as well as all my limbs. It is indeed possible for disabled people to hold down good jobs, but only if they are taken on, and given a proper chance. Before I retired I had become a Senior Research Officer, at the Civil Aviation Authority, but I very much fear that today’s disabled people will not get the chance to work that I had.
In fact it is my opinion that the Coalition Government, too afraid to deal with the Bankers’ part in the current economic debacle, would prefer to blame disabled people for almost all of the country’s economic woes – scapegoats in the traditional Biblical sense.
Valerie Lang, MBE, BSc(Econ.)