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The conclusions made on how the UK’s austerity measures have affected disabled people is a grim dose of reality for the world’s fifth-ranked economy - but one the government has chosen to ignore, with work and pensions secretary Damian Green dismissing the report as “patronising and offensive”.
The reason the government feels confident enough to brush aside such a devastating analysis? The affected group is already physically and socially marginalised, and increasingly made invisible by cuts to their funding which may leave them house - or even bed-bound.
The impacts of austerity cuts on disabled people cannot be downplayed - and yet somehow they have been. Just some of the points made in the UN report concluded that cuts to the Personal Independence Payment scheme and the Independent Living Fund have led to the regression of ‘[disabled people’s] right to live independently’, making them more reliant on family and institutional care, while cuts to housing support have caused disabled residents ‘high levels of stress, anxiety and depression’.
Furthermore, so-called ‘functional assessments’ made by officials under the ‘fit-for-work’ scheme and in line with social security assessments were concluded to be experiences in which individuals were ‘merely processed rather than being listened to or understood’.
Perhaps most significantly, the UN report noted an unsavoury attitude towards disabled people in which investigators concluded that they were portrayed as ‘lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers’. As a result, the group experienced ‘increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity’.
Quite simply, not only are disabled people’s standards of living being reduced but so is their ability to be seen and heard - an experience it is easy to take for granted when you are non-disabled.
Gillie Howarth, who began volunteering with Disabled People Against Cuts after the abolition of the Independent Living Fund, agrees with the findings: “The government is saying that it wants a welfare system that is fairer to taxpayers and that implies that all people on benefits are scroungers. So there’s a culture of suspicion of anybody who’s on benefits and that’s really unpleasant, challenging and wrong. We have to challenge this."
She has also been shocked by the lack of government acknowledgement of the increased financial challenges faced by disabled individuals, explaining: “I have a mildly disabled son myself and so I can see it. I can’t imagine the stress, the frustration and the real misery for people who are more severely disabled, with low incomes and without the resources they need. Disability costs in all sorts of ways. My son has to buy more shoes because his shoes wear thin on one side. That just gives me one tiny taste of what it’s like.”
“I feel that David Cameron knew painfully what it was in his own household to have a disabled child, and I think he should have seen what the government should be doing for people without the means to care for them. I also couldn’t believe that Theresa May should have her first budget and not take this group into consideration at all.”
She points to recent research showing that 47% of families with at least one disabled person in the bottom fifth of the income distribution were materially deprived between 2009 to 2010 and 2010 to 2011. “Local funding has been hit terribly. Some people are waiting for over three years to even be assessed let alone have any provision. That’s just inconceivable. And of course, in the meantime, people die which is horribly convenient for the government.
“There are so many carers doing hours and hours of unpaid care, but it’s not fair and the government can’t rely on that. And, of course, many people haven’t got a family or their family is far away. Disabled people will be even more invisible now, if, for example, they have their mobility allowance taken away or carers can’t come because they won’t be able to get out and will be trapped in their homes.”
Gillie explains that volunteering with Disabled People Against Cuts - the organisation that instigated the investigation from the UN - has proved inspirational: “The group is made up of voluntary, activists who campaign and lobby. Most of them are disabled themselves and there’s not a single paid person in the group. These are nice, ordinary people trying to do their best and they’ve been hit in this awful way.”
Raising awareness, she says, must be the first step in challenging this assault on disabled people’s human rights. “Media coverage is really important because then we give people knowledge. A lot of people simply don’t know what’s happening to disabled people. I think that if you are non-disabled that it is very difficult to even imagine what it is like to be severely disabled.”