Thursday 27 October 2011

The Hardest Hit Protest, Leeds

Last Saturday thousands of ill and disabled people, their carers and supporters took to the streets in cities across the UK to protest against the cuts that are unfairly targeting them. This unprecedented event was The Hardest Hit October Action.

It takes a lot to make the disabled community take to the streets, mainly because its so difficult for us. If you had eavesdropped my twitter feed last week you would have seen my conversations and musings dominated by The Hardest Hit as we all shared protest survival strategies. We knew there would be a price to pay in our health for attending but as one of my friends put it, "protesting will hurt me but not protesting will hurt me more". 

For every one of us attending an event there were hundreds who were unable to go because they were too ill or disabled, too poor, too busy caring for someone or just couldn't use our inaccessible public transport. They sent messages of support, they were with us in spirit. 

I'm not an activist or a disability campaigner, I'm just an ordinary person struggling with some pretty serious mental health problems. I am, like most other ill and disabled people, one of the hardest hit by the cuts.
I travelled to Leeds to join the Hardest Hit protest because this Government wants to stop my benefits, remove my services, call me a scrounger and force me from my home. For many of us this protest is personal, we're not just fighting for fairness - we're fighting for survival. 

Over two hundred of us gathered in the sun in Leeds. We marched along The Headrow bringing the city centre to a standstill. Shoppers stood and watched as we marched with our wheelchairs, our Assistance Dogs, our mobility scooters, our carers, our children, our friends and our banners. Speeches were made by disability activists, charity sector workers, trade union members, NUS members, a local MP and ordinary people facing huge challenges. The message from all of them and the people listening was clear - these cuts are unfair, we are afraid and we are angry. 

There is a 'perfect storm' facing ill and disabled people. We are already struggling to survive from day to day. Our NHS services are being cut and the voluntary sector agencies who would offer us support are losing their funding. The benefits of those of us who cannot work are being cut or removed and those of us who do work are losing the practical and financial support necessary to make working possible. The additional cuts proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill will leave us and our carers more impoverished, isolated and vulnerable. On top of this, ill and disabled people are being labelled as scroungers and benefit cheats, vilefied by the media and treated with suspicion by the public. Disability hate crime is increasing, people are facing abuse and harassment on a daily basis and many are afraid to leave their homes. 

This Government has promised to support disabled people who are in genuine need - but only if THEY can define 'support', 'disabled', 'genuine' and 'need'. This is a cynical disability denying ploy to remove support from the people who need it. This Government is merely transferring funds from ill and disabled people and carers to private companies making millions from 'welfare reform'. 

One of the most disturbing things is how badly informed most people still are about this. The public still think that disability benefits are a 'lifestyle choice' and believe we are all driving around in BMWs. Sadly many disabled people and their carers are still unaware of quite how badly the cuts will affect them. The media is not listening to the disabled community, some of the Hardest Hit events attracted over a thousand protesters but there was barely any BBC television or radio coverage. The future for society's most vulnerable is bleak. We are 'all in it together' its just that some of us are deeper in it than others. 

Attending the protest left me with mixed feelings. I was proud to stand in solidarity with the hundreds on the streets of Leeds, the thousands in cities across the UK and the tens of thousands who were there in spirit. 

But I was also sad and angry that this country should need an event like The Hardest Hit at all.

Guest post by Vanessa Teal

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