Saturday 5 February 2011

Absolutely Outrageous!

Or not...

I'm feeling quite sad this week that the general public, and more specifically anti-cuts campaigners, all consider books and trees to be far more important in the grand scheme of things than I - a human being - am.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of libraries and trees. As a child I always had my nose in a book. Always. And that was partly a disability-related thing: I couldn't run around or ride a bike, I spent a lot of time in bed with broken bones. Reading was something I could do and could do well. Very well. I could read books by myself before I started school and had a reading age far advanced of my chronological age.

The library was a huge part of my life. I couldn't possibly own all the books I read, if I did my mum and I would've had no room to move our wheelchairs around because there would just be piles of books everywhere. My local library used to have competitions in the summer holidays to see who could read the most books and it was genuinely gutting that I never won (I suspect the kids who beat me must've cheated and not read the books they claimed to have read).

Libraries don't just loan out books, they also loan CDs and DVDs. In the days before sites like Spotify allowed you to listen to an album before you bought it I'd often get CDs out of the library to try before buying. And obviously as a film geek I've taken hundreds of videos and DVDs out of the library. As a teenager I recall hunting high and low for a film I wanted to see that had been deleted on video and eventually stumbling across it on the World Cinema shelf of Cambridge's Central Library.

At this point it's almost impossible to live a life completely free from the internet. There are people who can't afford to have internet at home, or their computer broke and they can't afford to fix it, and so have to go to the library to access information that people reading this blog can probably find out sat in their pyjamas in their living room. And I think we've all experienced moving house and not being able to get the new broadband set up for a fortnight so we've had to go to the library in the interim period.

Then there's forests. I have to confess wandering around a forest of a Saturday afternoon doesn't hold much allure for me because such spaces are often not the most wheelchair accessible of places. But trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and I'm a big, big, fan of breathing. Certainly when I've had allergic reactions which have resulted in asthma attacks I've been quite distressed by not being able to breathe. So yay trees!

Despite my passion for libraries and my need for oxygen-producing trees I'm not sure I'd prioritise books and greenery over human lives. Yet that's what's currently happening in the anti-cuts movement. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support the closure of libraries or the sale of the forests. I am not suggesting that we close libraries and sell forests to save benefits. I am opposed to all the government's cuts.1

Loss of benefits kills people. People like Paul Reekie and Christelle Pardo. A blogger called Aliquant has expressed her plan to kill herself if her transition from IB to ESA doesn't go smoothly. Here on WtB we've had plenty of people express their intention to kill themselves if they lose their benefits. Some of the examples are here and here.

I've written in the past on my own blog about how disabled people are seen as the lowest of the low, and that's still going on. Last week Melanie Phillips wrote a homophobic article in the Daily Mail. There was an outcry. Her name was a trending topic on Twitter and I must've read several hundred "gay agenda" jokes at her expense. As a lesbian I was among the horrified many (though part of me was looking forward to homosexuality becoming mandatory as she promised; I might get laid occasionally...) and shared in the collective outrage.

The following day the Mail published this article full of inaccuracies about the number of Incapacity Benefit claimants found fit for work. The outrage was limited to a tiny handful of disabled people. There were no trending topics and no jokes at the expense of Gerri Peev (the article's author) for being a disablist arse. In fact because there's been such prevalence of these misleading articles a lot of people of an anti-cuts bent probably believed it to be true rather than accepting the reality that it's just designed to incite hatred against disabled people. (In case you're wondering the fraud rate for Incapacity Benefit - according to the DWP's own figures - is 1%. See the table on page 8 of this report.)

The contrast in response to these two articles in the space of two days really made me feel like less of a human being because no-one's willing to speak out against this disablist prejudice. I speak out against racism, plenty of heterosexuals spoke out against Melanie Phillips' homophobia, but where were the non-disabled people speaking out against this disablist bile?

The issue is on my mind today because today there has been a national day of action to save libraries. It's been all over the news and twitter. That we as a culture value books more than disabled people is clear when you contrast today to the day of action against benefits cuts a fortnight ago.

457,500 people signed the save forests petition. Only 4000 and change have signed the save DLA petition. Really puts into perspective how much the general public prefers trees to disabled people.

I realise that most people support causes they understand. The campaign to save libraries will attract high-profile figures like authors because libraries introduce readers to their books. So famous people offer their endorsement to the "save libraries" campaign which has a top down effect; their fans become involved in saving libraries, which means there's enough people campaigning to get the story in the news, which means even more people campaign.

The same goes for forests. Most people off the telly will have enjoyed a walk through some trees with their dog at some point. So they tweet their support for the "save forests" campaign. Their fans then sign petitions and spread the word, which again results in newsworthyness so the campaign spreads like headlice in Downing Street.

Between health problems and discrimination limiting career options there aren't that many famous disabled people to set the snowball rolling down the hill. I explained in this post how we need non-disabled people to stand beside us and why it's important insurance for their own futures to do so. But still non-disabled people choose to prioritise libraries and trees over their fellow human beings whose lives are at risk from benefits cuts.

First They Came - Pastor Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialist
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

It'd make me happy beyond anything if this post could be seen as a 'call to arms' (not least because if the anti-benefits-cuts movement gained momentum it might save some lives), so please pass it on. Don't just dismiss me as a moaning scrounger but remember I could be your neighbour, your sister's friend, the customer in your café, the person you smile at on the bus every morning: We are real people being attacked by these cuts with no-one standing up for us.

"A call to arms? What do you expect me to do?" The Broken of Britain always have campaigns on the go that you can participate in from your desk. They've currently got details of several motions you can ask your MP/MSP/AM to sign. Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) are where to look for information on getting out in the streets and protesting. Then there's us: We'll always have news and intelligent comment to keep you informed, and if you follow us on Twitter you'll be kept up to date on all news, petitions, protests and motions around disability benefits issues.

I want some outrage, dammit!

1 Retrospectively emboldened for emphasis because people were still accusing me of being in favour of closing libraries and selling forests to save benefits.


  1. Great piece. I am white and straight and take a great interest in anti-racism and Gay Rights, which seems to surprise people. The idea that humans are inherently selfish, however unscientific, is still thought of as hard fact. But I think those two causes attract me precisely *because* I'm not the one being victimised or denied equality. It's not "white guilt" or vicarious victimhood, I just want to make our society a better and more compassionate place for everyone, so any positive action will do and...

    It really is so so so so many times easier to stand up for someone else than it is to stand up for yourself. Of necessity I have had to prioritise Disabled Rights (or whatever it's called; do we even have a name?) of late, but it takes so much more to do the tiniest thing, because unlike the 2 causes above, it directly affects me; I have to live with the hatred, so every encounter with the subject is shot through with fear.

    It is so many more times more easy to stand up for someone else. Imagine if we all did that.

  2. I don't see the contradiction between resisting cuts to libraries and supporting disabled people. As you yourself have pointed out, libraries serve disabled people in important ways.

  3. That's nice, Anonymous really, as it has been mentioned, libraries, yay. Trees, yay! But the thing is that books and libraries don't pay for our treatment, or our mobility. They don't buy our expensive medical equipment. They don't pay our rent. They don't give us a bus pass so we can actually get out TO the library in the first place. They are a nice thing to have, but the vital stuff, the essential stuff which keeps us living and breathing and housed is being cut.

    I have been homeless before and the library was a great hangout for homeless people because it's warm and is open for a long time (you'd be amazed how many of the homeless are incredibly well read). That's possibly not the vision everyone has of libraries but I remember a library as shelter. And if the current cuts go through, it might have to be one again for me and my son.

    If the cuts to disabled go through I'll need libraries again - to hide in when it gets cold, to email in my 30 minute window to try and find a place to eat for the night, for the daily papers which I sneak out in my clothes to burn so I have a bit of warmth during the night, and for the ability to read about people in houses, with food, and jobs, and not a care in the world who are sitting all around me but never look me in the eyes.

    No, there shouldn't be a contradiction at all. And yet...there appears to be one, because the support isn't happening. It wouldn't be hard; sign a petition, raise a "No Cuts to DLA" placard at the Cuts protests...but it doesn't happen. No media coverage, no articles but a few things written in the Guardian Society pages.

    I despair.

  4. Divide and Rule. It means that people argue about which is more important: A forest moving in to private ownership, or a library being closed...a disabled person having a life, a Policeman having a job. When we all fight with each other, we ignore the real foe.

  5. @Anonymous: You seem to have missed the paragraph in which I said "I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support the closure of libraries or the sale of the forests. I am not suggesting that we close libraries and sell forests to save benefits. I am opposed to all the government's cuts."

  6. Oh dear, not another one against another problem, when the whole thing systemic. This is a great post, however - the cut of DLA and other benefits is really about throwing whole sections of society into a ditch.

    It has to be seen as all part of a larger problem, however. The banks steal our money through direct larceny (compound interest) or indirect (derivatives often fraudulently sold and now bailed out by our taxes). Now anything which doesn't have a monetised value within the banking system (public forests and libraries, the parts of the NHS left to be privatised, etc) and people seen to be a drain on taxes are under attack. Meanwhile the public debate is not about how to put the bankers in jail and make our monetary system work for the greater good, but about which things 'should' or should not be cut as though the cuts in public money/services are reasonable in response to a government deficit and it is just a matter of doing it 'fairly'.

    The fact is, though, that it is easier to get people mobilised around specific issues, and so far the tress and libraries are attracting the attention, perhaps because more people use them than get DLA (might be wrong because I don't have the figures). I do wish however that at least the tax-stealing banks were being occupied and shut down rather than mere tax-avoiders like vodaphone and topshop...

  7. "First they came"

    The truly scary thing about Niemoller's poem is that it used to have "the sick, the so-called incurables" as its second verse. One of the most famous pieces of anti-discrimination literature has eradicated us from its own history.

    As for 'anonymous', the contradiction is in supporting the enlightened society that sees libraries as a good thing, but not the other things that make us an enlightened society, such as protecting minorities.

  8. Just popping back in to say our efforts have got a nice wee write-up in the first-page editorial of Red Pepper, including a mention of the Atos protests (plus a "know your enemy" feature on the company on p13). Ok, it's hardly mainstream, and I do maintain that our struggle transcends the left-right spectrum to an extent, but it's very nice to have a physical publication sat in front of me that contains acknowledgement of the situation.

    Quote:"One important argument against the cuts centres on the distinction, so lucidly drawn by Tom Paine, between justice and charity. Benefit payments, state services and public goods exist because it is the duty of the state to ensure the rights of its citizens are respected."