Tuesday 31 July 2012

Fear, Loathing and Disability in the Torygraph

It turns out yesterday's attacks on us in the Mail and Express were not the DWP's only pre-emptive strike against the disastrous revelations of Dispatches and Panorama. The DWP puppetmasters also convinced the Daily Telegraph to launch an attack on disabled people, this time with a rehashed version of a Christina Odone blog (apparently the Telegraph were too lazy even to write an original piece).

This being the Torygraph, the primal hate of the Mail and Express would not suit their house style, so the article is framed to claim that the 'disability rights lobby' (a term she uses repeatedly, apparently in an attempt to paint us as no different to any corporate lobby group, rather than as an actively disparaged minority subject to spiralling levels of hate crime) are attempting to have their cake and eat it, by demanding both the right to work, and the right to have out of work benefits on demand. She even drags in the Paralympics, writing:

Aren't the Paralympics proof that even the most physically challenged can achieve awesome feats? Their disabilities did not prevent Nelson, Byron, FDR, JFK from achieving their goals.

Apparently if we aren't winning gold medals or becoming living legends, then Ms Odone considers we are letting the side down. She is actually articulating a view many of us have been afraid of, the use of the Paralympics as a tool to beat us with, rather than to celebrate our achievements, while her selection of disabled heroes make an interesting choice: Nelson who was already marked for high office (and had patrons to ensure that) before he ever became disabled; Byron, whose club foot did little to limit his poetry (but which does demonstrate the psychological damage caused by negative views of disability); FDR, who was again a major figure prior to disability, and who did everything in his power to hide his disability, to the extent that most Americans did not realise they had a disabled president, and JFK, whose political career was the vehicle of his media magnate father, and who suffered from the back pain she goes on to deride later. There is much to celebrate in all four of these disabled lives, but also much to be critical of in the light of contemporary views of disability, and all four had assets and influence operating on their behalf that are available to very few people in our society, disabled or otherwise.

But it is in her final paragraph that Ms Odone's mask slips and she descends to the level of the Mail and the Express, proclaiming:

A man who claims to suffer from a debilitating but unprovable backache, an alcoholic who refuses to tackle her addiction: they may be considered "disabled" but should they receive benefits? When they do, the truly incapacitated feel cheated. As do the rest of us.

As someone who actually has a 'debilitating but unprovable backache,' I had just finished speaking on Radio London about disability hate crime and the irresponsibility of vile tabloids like the Mail and Express in whipping up ignorant hatred against disabled people by teaching the mob that common disabilities are not real and that we are all 'fakes' and 'frauds' and legitimate targets for their hatred when I came across Ms Odone's article. To find the same hate-filled line being repeated in the Telegraph, supposedly a 'quality' broadsheet was utterly depressing.

My 'debilitating but unprovable backache' manifests itself as pain across the entire lower surface of my body if I sit at a desk. Imagine feeling like you have a burn across everything from knees to buttocks, and feeling that every day across 20-odd years of disability. I worked for most of that, but every other day would see me curled up on the office floor, in so much pain that I couldn't string two coherent thoughts together. It might not show on x-rays or MRIs, neuro-plasticity means that the only issue need be the internal wiring of the spinal cord, but multiple rheumatologists and my pain management specialist are in no doubt that my pain is very real, and utterly disabling. Yet apparently Ms Odone is medically qualified to the point of being able to dismiss them without even seeing me.

Forced out of work, even DWP accepted there was no hope of me finding work, but my WCA was a bitter farce that triggered a major flare-up in my disability which lasted months. Never mind the problems shown in last night's documentaries, the ATOS doctor was verbally aggressive from the outset, criticising me for my knowledge of the process, dismissing evidence later proved to be absolutely true as my condition worsened in front of him, and actively trying to prevent me giving the one piece of evidence that qualified me for ESA outright. My report of what happened now forms part of the Work And Pensions Select Committee report into the WCA.

And then last year, no doubt because of the encouragement of hate-filled articles like this, someone reported me to the Benefit Fraud Hotline as working full time. I rarely leave the house more than once a week for a couple of hours, my car sits on the drive in open view for all of that time, yet someone felt able to assure DWP I was a benefit fraudster, because they had been taught by the tabloids and by articles like this that all of us are. The DWP investigator may have dismissed the allegation before she was even through my front door, but the consequences for me were a massive flare-up, lasting months, leaving me barely able to snatch an hours' sleep at a time. And when it came time to renew my ESA claim at Christmas, I was simply unable to do it, every attempt triggering panic attacks. That is the reality that articles like this create for disabled people, that is the climate of hatred we live in. 

Monday 30 July 2012

Hatemongering at the DWP?

The press-officers and Special Advisers at the Department of Work and Pensions must have been burning the midnight oil the last couple of days, searching the records of the DWP for benefit claimants they can spin as having unjustifiably claimed benefits for what they can try to convince people are minor injuries. And today they must have been patting themselves on the back as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express laid into disabled people for daring to claim when suffering such minor injuries as low back pain.

As it happens I have low back pain, it has dominated my life for twenty years, it led to the end of my career as an engineer developing flight control systems, on far too many days it has left me curled up on the office floor, in so much pain I can’t think straight, as sensation tries to convince me I have burns across the entire lower surface of my body. So forgive me if I disagree that this is a minor disability.

As I read that article in the Mail, I didn’t share its outrage. What I felt was fear, the fear of being targeted for the baying mob as a ‘fraud’ and a ‘scrounger’. The Mail is teaching everyone who reads that article that people who have low back pain, people who have any little understood disability, ultimately all disabled people, are ‘frauds’ and ‘scroungers’, and suitable targets for their hatred as the economy tanks. Is it any wonder disabled people see terrifying parallels to the similar campaign in Nazi Germany.

Incitement to Disability Hate Crimes dressed up as socially responsible reporting by the Hate Mail and the Vexpress, this is nothing new, but the interesting question is why today?

The answer can be found in the TV schedules. At 8 PM on Channel 4, Dispatches will be ripping open the repellent truth of ATOS and the WCA, with a doctor going undercover and being told by his ATOS trainers that the point of the WCA is to get people off benefits and that if they don’t hit the targets and put sufficient people off benefits they will be sanctioned (the targets the DWP swears blind do not exist). Then at 8:30PM on BBC 2, Panorama does exactly the same thing, with Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the WCA saying that there are areas where it is clearly failing disabled people.

The DWP are desperate to do whatever they can to prevent the truth of their disablist behaviour and that of their contractors becoming more widely known, and as they have done on previous occasions, they have tried to launch a pre-emptive strike through their glove-puppets in the right-wing press. We may not see their hand directly, but only the DWP is in a position to dredge up the figures quoted in both articles.

IDS may proclaim himself perplexed at the way the right-wing press turn DWP statements into vicious attacks on disabled people, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing a deliberate campaign of vilification orchestrated from within the DWP. If they want the results to be different, they have had years to change their behaviour, but there has been no such change. Instead we see the shameful sight of a government inciting hatred against its most vulnerable subjects.

And the effects of that campaign of hatred and incitement will be seen tomorrow when Scope publish the results of their latest survey, revealing that the rate of disability hate crime has doubled since 2008.

A Toxic Day for ATOS at the Olympics?

ATOS will no doubt have been hoping to milk their association with the Olympics and their partnership with the International Paralympic Committee over the next few weeks, but is the milk about to curdle, could the Olympics turn ATOS into a toxic brand?

Later tonight, at 8PM on Channel 4, and at 8:30PM on BBC2, both Dispatches  and Panorama will be running exposes of the ATOS WCA process. We’ve already seen hints of what is to come with leaks from Dispatches showing ATOS trainers telling doctors that if they pass more than the approved amount of disabled people they will be subject to sanctions, and a DWP spokesperson claiming it is nonsense to say there are targets. Meanwhile Panorama has Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the WCA process admitting that it is failing disabled people and is not good enough.

Worse, Steve Hill’s case, featured on Panorama, and summarized here by bendygirl, raises the disturbing possibility that the WCA may have directly contributed to his death, by convincing a man with chronic heart failure and waiting for surgery that he was actually fit for work. Steve Hill died of a heart attack after vacuuming his car, 39 days after an ATOS doctor told him he was fit for work.

Meanwhile, a Parliamentary Early Day Motion, laid down by the superb John McDonnell, MP, one of disabled people's true friends in the Lower House, castigates ATOS for their treatment of disabled people, and the International Paralympic Committee for associating themselves with an openly disablist company by naming it as a partner. Never mind the active mistreatment of disabled people, ATOS can’t even be bothered to make most of their assessment centres actually accessible to disabled people. The IPC’s attitude when disabled people write to complain (and I have done that myself and seen their reply) is essentially that they don’t care as it isn’t their problem – I am curious as to which part of the Olympic spirit is reflected in telling disabled people you don’t care about the way they are treated by the company you are allowing to wrap itself in your flag?

83 MPs covering just about every party, though no Tories yet (quel surprise), have signed the EDM so far. Just think about that, 83 MPs condemning the International Paralympic Committee and its partner company on the first full day of the Olympics for the way disabled people are treated by them.

My own experiences of ATOS can be found here, and the long term effects it has had on me are discussed here.

I am hoping for a wonderful Olympics and Paralympics, but for a disastrous one for ATOS. And as for the International Paralympic Committee, I am hoping that this will serve to remind them that they are supposed to represent everything that is best about disabled people, not defend their oppression. The Olympic Spirit is about being the best that we can be, not about providing corporate whitewashes.  

Saturday 28 July 2012

#OpeningCeremony Programme Image Transcript

Last night this image did the rounds on Twitter. It's a page from the opening ceremony programme in which Boyle explained his vision.

As the image is not accessible to screenreader users, and because of its reference to the welfare state, it seemed sensible to post a transcript here. Huge, huge thanks to @lilacwheelz who actually transcribed it.

‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises’

The Tempest, William Shakespeare

At some point in their histories, most nations experience a revolution that changes everything about them.

The United Kingdom had a revolution that changed the whole of human existence.

In 1709 Abraham Darby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham’s Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genus flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in.

In November 1990 another Briton sparked another revolution – equally far-reaching – a revolution we’re still experiencing. The digital revolution was sparked by Tim Berners-Lee’s amazing gift to the world – the World Wide Web. This, he said, is for everyone.

We welcome you to an Olympic Opening Ceremony for everyone. A ceremony that celebrates the creativity, eccentricity, daring and openness of the British genius by harnessing the genius, creativity, eccentricity, daring and openness of modern London.

You’ll hear the words of our great poets – Shakespeare, Blake and Milton. You’ll hear the glorious noise of our unrivalled pop culture. You’ll see the characters from our great children’s literature – Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Mary Poppins, Voldemort, Cruella de Vil. You’ll see ordinary families and extraordinary athletes. Dancing nurses, singing children and amazing special effects.

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem.

Monday 16 July 2012

Worcestershire County Council, Past Caring?

Austerity is hitting social care hard. More and more councils are changing their eligibility rules, directly affecting who qualifies for care. In turn, the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and the reduction of the care budget by local authorities, are antithetical to what the modern disability movement has been striving for in the last 40 years. As a result of this, the archaic model of residential care is threatening to make a comeback. Bringing with it a wholly paternalistic way of thinking: social services and those in positions of authority are restricting the freedom and responsibilities of people subordinate to them. 

Harsh wording perhaps, but this may be the reality for service users within Worcestershire County, as highlighted by the WeAreSpartacus report titled ‘’Past Caring’, released on the 12th of July, which served as a response to Worcestershire County Council’s Maximum Expenditure Policy. ‘Past Caring’, criticizes any impending policies that would impose a cap on care costs, meaning that anyone needing significant amounts of support may have to go into residential care. The initiation of such policies by WCC would only affect new service users, or those experiencing increased care needs. I suggest that this will result in a two tier system: service users with fixed care needs, already established within the system, will be temporarily safeguarded by such changes, however those with fluctuating or increased needs would be assessed under the strict eligibility requirements, and therefore be forced to make a fresh case for their right to live independently. The reality is that independent living in post-austerity Britain is under threat.

The 'Past caring' clearly state, there are three options: 1) Pay for the shortfall privately 2) Change the type or volume of care provided, or 3) Access community voluntary organisations and faith groups for additional care support. The proposed alternatives are unrealistic for those in long-term care. The first option is only available to a wealthy minority, or at best could be utilized as a stopgap measure for anyone until their savings run out. This contingency measure may well become a reality for some who are backed into a fiscal corner. However, WCC clearly states:

You (or a family member) could decide to make an additional financial contribution towards the care package (this would be in addition to any financial contribution you are required to make under the Council's Fairer Charging Policy) 

This suggests then, that a disabled person would not only have to continue paying for the council’s ‘Fairer Charges’, but also any additional care that isn’t covered by social services’ new policy. This begs the question, what has happened to the familiar phrasing found on most DWP letters, namely the fixed amount that you are legally entitled to live on - has this fallen by the wayside? Its absence under the new policy is palpable.

The second option, the reduction of hourly care, directly conflicts with the ethical and legal obligation of required social services. The ‘Past Caring’ report identifies that the number of care hours an assessment recommends would be fundamentally unmet after a reduction in “volume.” It’s important to note however, that once a person’s needs have been identified, then the state has a legal obligation to acknowledge their entitlement.

In turn, WCC have also suggested that the usage of adaptive technologies should be considered, which seems laughably absurdist. Cheaper alternatives, such as Direct Payment. have been identified by ‘Past Caring’ as not suitable for all, because many people cannot meet the demanding regime of paperwork, which is required from the service users themselves.

To my mind, the third option is equally as inadequate as the first two. The mere suggestion that disabled people can automatically access community voluntary organisations and faith groups, fails on many levels, not least because it places disabled people’s autonomy under pressure by forcing service users to seek charity, locating funding from sources whose social, political or religious leanings might not be in line with their own. Are we suggesting then, that people with disabilities are supposed to be grateful for help with the cost of personal assistance, wherever the source of this support comes from? This negates peoples rights to a personal social or political opinion, moving dangerously close to Cameron’s Big Society, which has shown to be unsuccessful and hardly sustainable as a long term solution.

Residential Care, a flawed alternative?

The report identifies the two groups at most risk, namely those with significant disabilities and care needs that will exceed the capped cost under the new guidelines of such policy. Thus the Maximum Expenditure Policy will undoubtedly lead to the routine institutionalisation of entire user groups, who will be shunted off to care homes for the rest of their lives. In the event that such suitable accommodation can be found, it is furthermore highly unlikely to be local due to its scarcity. This would lead to uprooting the service user, severing local ties to family and community, resulting in the loss of a broad social network. Depending on the location of the residential home, it may be extremely difficult for friends and family to visit regularly, leading in turn to extreme isolation and the deterioration of existing relationships.

The second group are those who are approaching the financial ceiling of the cap. Such service users, in order to avoid residential care, are likely to make detrimental life decisions in order to keep costs low. For example, skipping certain meals or utility costs to curb spending in their own care package. As a result, and as ‘Past Caring’ puts it, ‘the quality of life and safety of this user group is highly likely to be compromised by the Maximum Expenditure Policy’.

To sum up the main points made by ‘Past Caring’, firstly and most importantly, WCC service users are faced with the possibility of being forced to choose between home and the daunting possibility of residential care. The policy’s three suggested alternatives highlight the extent of WCC’s capabilities. WCC’s failure to provide an accessible consultation with service users opens the council up for legal scrutiny. Therefore, this report provides evidence that the only other valid option they are offering is that of being placed in a residential care home.

It has been suggested that the White Paper will put an end to the postcode lottery, delivering equality of care wherever one might live. Yet, the adoption of WCC's policy directly contravenes this. The action taken by WCC reveals certainly that, within the near future, there will be a clear disparity between provision for those who live in different counties. The bureaucratic mess gives counties a window of opportunity to exploit the weaknesses of Welfare Reform, meaning that unfortunate individuals will fall between the cracks of the system; becoming increasingly unheard and unaccountable. The impending changes greatly undermine lifestyle choices and the ability for people with disabilities to imagine a long-term future within Worcestershire County. ‘Past Caring’ states: 

...Moving into residential care for purely economic reasons will lead to curtailing of independence, curtailing of freedom, loss of income, loss of social ties, loss of community ties, loss of daily social activities, potential job losses and perhaps most shockingly family break up. 

The loss of community is a loss of social network, which I would define as a supportive component of independent living. Yet, questions have to be asked, does the introduction of such policy reflect a fair ratio of cuts, or are these burdens falling squarely on disabled people? Will there be additional financial burden from living within residential care, such as curtailed employment prospects due to prohibitively high costs? Let it be stated that freedom is under threat here and social isolation is the likely result. Therefore, it’s important for all local disabled people, their families and allies alike, to speak up before consultation finishes at the end of July. For more information, visit We Are Spartacus.

Friday 13 July 2012

Guest Post: Supported Mortgage Interest and Welfare Reform

This is a guest post from @_louhicky.

A limited range of accessible housing restricts the lifestyle choices made by disabled people. There has been a lot of discussion about accessible housing in the media recently. Last week The Guardian published the article ‘Young disabled people failed by estate agents and property websites.’ The study ‘Locked Out’, recently compiled by The Trailblazers, a group of young disabled people, highlighted the common failure to understand the needs of wheelchair users; particularly with respect to what makes an accessible property. (NB: I know there is a glaring disability hierarchy at play here, for the sake of this blog I am going to put this argument aside. I’m taking note of it.)

The lack of social mobility is worth a mention here and the long-term implications of suffering restrictions within the housing market. In clarifying what I mean by social mobility: to many this signals the ability to move vertically or even horizontally within social classes. To progress, to study, to live independently, to obtain employment, to buy a car, maybe even an annual holiday, or simply to aspire to something. I’m not so interested in movement between social classes, but rather the importance of having choices - even if they are related to materialistic desires. One comment by user cycleloopy on The Guardian’s feature, states:

Estate agents want to do the least amount of work for the most return. Recognising the needs of people with disabilities sounds too much like hard work.

There is a stinging element of truth here, but let’s reframe this comment. Estate agents desire profit, this limits the housing stock or profile for those who seek accessible housing. The private rental market is not a realistic choice for people who require adaptations to be made. Again, the ‘Locked out’ report found that seven out of ten say they find it difficult to identify accommodation that is accessible to them, largely because estates agents have poor knowledge of adapted properties in their area.

The chances of successfully appealing a decision are quickly evaporating under the coalition government, leaving disabled people left without choices, trapped within their own circumstances. What’s next, the property ladder? Yet, the [Locked Out] report found that nine out of ten people say that they are just as keen to get onto the property ladder as their non-disabled peers.

Home Ownership schemes (which have been mainly brought about by the Labour government) such as HOLD (Home Ownership for Long term disabilities) increase the availability of accessible housing, especially if these free up local authority properties. Effectively, this creates a small-scale economy for people with disabilities, and, as a result, creates demand and opportunity for others. Ownership is currently, albeit rather precariously, available with the assistance of Supported Mortgage Interest (SMI), which has been extended under this year’s budget until January 2013. However, SMI is presently under review (the consultation period ended in February 2012), and it would seem that the coalition government is underestimating the power of ‘crip economy’ and its potential as a source of fiscal stimulus. The DWP’s SMI impact report shows that there were roughly 239,000 recipients benefiting from this scheme in 2011/12, at a cost of £400m.

Under welfare reform it has been suggested that SMI will be further incorporated into the Universal Credit system, however this complex process of streamlining benefits would undoubtedly mean that some people are likely to be left out. A Guardian feature from late last year, Disabled people pay price for cuts to mortgage relief revealed that regardless of these changes, SMI payments have become unpredictable, as they already have been subjected to cuts. When, for instance, average interest rates fell below 6.08% some people enjoyed a surplus on their payments, whilst when the rate was cut to 3.63%, others found their payments falling short of what was in fact owed. Under pressure, then, from both Welfare reforms and unpredictable SMI rates, disabled people are prevented from making the move onto the property market that they ostensibly desire, and as a result fully adapted homes are lying empty.

It is evident therefore that the long waiting list for accessible properties substantiates the idea that there is high demand and no supply. Indeed this is not helpful whilst transferring between local authorities with care packages. The ‘Locked Out’ report reveals that eight out of ten people are not confident that they would be able to access the same level of care and support if they moved out of their local authority. Similarly, relocation for a new job is almost impossible. As Channel 4’s No Go Britain highlighted in its interview with Hannah-Lou Blackall. No housing means no job.

A lack of housing options denies disabled people the basic right to make choices about their lifestyle. The ‘crip economy’ shows potential for growth, but the enforcers of housing policy need to ensure that local authorities are building all new housing options to the Lifetime Homes Standard, and even further that ten percent will be built to wheelchair standard design.
This post hasn’t even begun to tackle the adaptation of existing homes, or cooperation of private landlords within the letting market. In the United States, an accessible apartment is defined ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessible, clearly labeled, and clearly following the lines of the disability law - most importantly defining a standard within the marketplace. In order to be classified as ADA accessible, properties have to meet certain legal requirements: there is no room for subjective interpretation, or making do with already-existing properties and their flaws. If the British government adopted tougher measures, recognizing the value of choice, whilst sustaining the current growth of both social and private markets they could offer people the chance of taking their dream job, or ensuring that family growth and long term security is achievable, or even, quite simply, the chance to live with flat mates without complex bureaucracy.

More information: My safe Home - http://www.mysafehome.info/