Sunday, 22 January 2012

Not disabled, just concerned

Apologies for this being a bit late, everyone, but here is my analysis of the Martinez-Portillo debate on the recent episode of 'This Week'. There's a lot to be said about the five-ish minutes of material given, but let's tear a few chunks out of the transcript for now...
[Andrew Neil]: "... I'm interested that you say public attitudes are hardening towards disabled people because certainly in my lifetime I've seen a revolution in attitudes towards disabled people ..."
I've certainly seen a change in attitudes in my 19 years on this planet - we've gone from public opinion varying between concern and ambivalence to having alarming levels of bile trickling down from the tabloids to the people on the street (and from what I've directly witnessed, people on public transport in Southern England).

Obviously Andrew Neil is a tad older than I am, so he might remember a time when attitudes towards disabled people and those with long-term illness were even worse than they are now, but from my perspective things are definitely going downhill. The people who claim it isn't very often have no direct experience of long-term ill-health, seeing it as a weakness which needs to be overcome rather than a condition which should carry no more stigma than a broken arm does.

If you're reading this blog post then I suspect you already know a possible motive behind the tabloids' eagerness to stoke these fires. Andrew Neil provides viewers with these reasons in the form of a question:
"Do you think, Michael [Portillo] that, um, there-there's a hardening, that in tough times there's a crackdown on welfare that there's less sympathy?"
I can shorten this down to one word: money. Times are harsh for many people at the moment with loads of us having to economise to cope with rising prices, so it's understandable that people are angry about financial inequalities and waste. Now, as you well know we've got a lot of cheating going on here in the UK, ranging from fradulent benefit claims to MPs fiddling their expenses all the way up to huge corporations hoarding billions of pounds through tax avoidance. Those last two could be very awkward for, say, a high-profile member of the Conservative party. Cue smokescreen:
[Michael Portillo]: "No, no I haven't detected that change actually and I would've said the same as you, that I've seen a revolution in the attitude in a positive sense."
Well it wouldn't have done you any favours to disagree, would it, Michael - this is a big opportunity for publicity after all.
[Portillo]: "But-but what I think there is a problem for the public is that there are many people claiming benefits who are not really disabled, but that's probably the government's view as well."
Unfortunately Michael is right on target with this one: the government are very keen on using divide and rule tactics, creating distractions to disguise various elephants in the room. There's been a lot of talk about 'deserving' and 'undeserving' people when it comes to state-funded support and the Coalition have not been shy in targetting people with disabilities and the mentally ill.

'Not really disabled'? Regardless of what some ATOS assessors think, just because someone isn't in a wheelchair or confined to a hospital ward doesn't mean they're in perfect health or being workshy when they say they can't hold down a regular routine. Funnily enough a GP would be able to tell you that but the government doesn't seem very keen to involve them in these assessments, preferring instead to go for people with targets to meet and a possible financial incentive. We don't need to wonder why.
[Portillo]: "I would've thought that disabled people would want to be very vigilant and they would want to be, you know, a-at least as concerned about that [fraud] as the government."
Disability Living Allowance claimants don't condone fraud any more than the general public do, but they're also not going to buy into the pointedly biased rhetoric going around just because a politician said so. No, instead the people who should be receiving dignified support from the Coalition have been working hard to produce the Spartacus Report and tearing down the harmful myths which are threatening their basic quality of living. It's amazing work, but it's an indictment against the people who should have been defending their basic rights. I can't blame you for wanting to hide, Michael, it's nothing but shameful.
[Portillo]: "... both parties over a long period of time have found it rather convenient to disguise unemployment as disability ... so, you know, many politicians have been complicit in this. But what I'm saying is that a lot of people who are receiving disability benefits are not, as you and I would understand it, disabled."
There was a shred of honesty there, but it was ruined by shoehorning in this outdated idea of 'undeserving' claimants. Healthcare is not a boxticking exercise, a computer system simply cannot take the variance of many conditions into account - one day can be fine, getting lots of stuff done and having a great time and the next could be extremely difficult to cope with for whatever reason. If a potential claimant wants to be thought of as being deserving to Portillo and his peers they're at the mercy of their condition being particularly noticeable on that day to an unsympathetic ATOS panel. How the hell did we get to the stage where people are hoping for the worst in order to claim help with maintaining basic care? There's nothing upstanding or respectable about this.
[Martinez]: "... These are astounding figures for a first-world country, erm, and they certainly don't reflect your view that 'oh, disabled people have it easy', but I've been researching..."

[Portillo, interrupting and shaking his head]: "But-but-but that wasn't my view." [Smiles smugly.]
Oh, come on - you'd have to be living under a rock not to notice the scare-stories about people faking mental illness to claim DLA and how claimants are just using the money to buy expensive high-end cars and the like. Has this man honestly not seen those posters encouraging people to report people they suspect of benefit fraud? The falsehood that disabled people are living it up on benefits alongside other claimants is very pervasive - in 2009/10 there were 253,708 cases of suspected fraud reported to the DWP hotline, over 700 calls per day. The reality is that over half of disabled adults live in poverty and DLA has a very low rate of fraud at 0.5%, as Francesca Martinez mentions in the debate. If Portillo really doesn't believe that disabled people aren't just scroungers looking for a quick buck then he really should be doing more to combat this common stereotype. He's either lazy or complicit in this campaign of harmful misinformation. Take your pick.

I'm not disabled myself but I'm appalled at the double-standards and sheer callousness of the Coalition towards DLA claimants. More needs to be done to show the public the truth of the situation, to make them question the tales of monstrous enemies of the state spun by the likes of the Express and the Daily Mail. This issue could affect anyone - the only thing standing between any of us and an ATOS panel is a bad fall or an incorrectly replicated cell, we would do well to create a system which is there to help us rather than treat us as guilty and dishonest before we've even started.

More importantly, during harsh economic times like this we should also be standing together in solidarity, not bickering among ourselves for the scraps of the well-to-do. The scare stories are trying to make us attack people who need a bit of extra financial support so that we don't notice people taking billions away from us to fund their excessive bonuses. We don't object to people like me receiving taxpayer money for helping out with health problems on the NHS, so why is there such vitriol over people receiving DLA payments for the same purpose? Come on people, we're way smarter than this - it's just a matter of convincing the media to follow the same logic. And that, my friends, is where the key issue lies...

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