By Anne Begg MP
For a couple of years disabled people have been reporting increased levels of both verbal and physical abuse from members of the public. This has been confirmed this week in the results published by the charity Scope from a survey of 500 disabled people and their carers across the country. The research showed that 46% of those polled said that attitudes towards them had worsened over the past year.
Why should this be? With the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics taking place, and particularly Channel 4 rebranded as Paralympics broadcaster, has been full of positive images of disabled people, some doing remarkable things. I think the Channel 4 advert for the Paralympics (below) is fantastic and get a lump in my throat every time I see it.
However, for a longer time there have been a large number of very different stories about people who receive disability and sickness benefits in the press. In the government’s attempt to show it is getting tough on benefit fraudsters and the work shy the print media have been very willing to run stories on every release of statistics which they say show that most people who claim sickness benefits are perfectly capable of work, statistics which in reality show no such thing.
A study “Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability” by Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit found that there had been an increase in the number of disability related stories in the press with a decrease in those presenting a more sympathetic view. There had also been an increase in the use of words such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” all adding to an impression that disabled people were “underserving”.
So who are the targets for this abuse? Is it the benefits cheats featured in the various stories about “sick note Britain”? Is it the man who claimed to be too ill to cut his own food caught on camera playing golf or the man who claimed to need a wheelchair filmed Jiving? Of course not. Their friends, far less passersby, will have no idea what income or benefits they receive and certainly won’t know what they said on an application form and pretended in an interview. Who would believe they would have such a brass neck? No it is not the real fraudsters, estimated to be less than 1% of benefit claimants, who are the target for the abuse, it is those with an obvious physical or learning disability. That’s why some of the irresponsible reporting has been so dangerous. It is the person who clearly has a disability, who may actually be in work, who is having to suffer the taunts, the name calling and being spat on.
Those with genuine disabilities were told there was nothing to fear from the new Work Capability Assessment for people who are unable to work due to sickness or disability. It was being introduced, we were told, to weed out the scroungers and work shy but those with the greatest disability would get more help and support. However, two television programmes this week, Channel 4’s Dispatches “Britain on the Sick” and BBC Panorama “Disabled or Faking It?” have given the lie to this. Something which many people who have been through the new system already knew.
Rather than showing that those with severe disabilities had nothing to fear from the new assessment, Panorama found a number who were being found fit for work, such as the man with severe emphysema who keeps having to take his case to appeal as he scores no points every time he goes through the assessment.
The Dispatches programme showed that the WCA was declaring people fit if they could work from a wheelchair even if they don’t use a wheelchair. Are wheelchair services across the country ready for the influx of applications? And what happens if the wheelchair assessment says the person doesn’t qualify for one on the NHS?
But most worrying was a woman who featured in the Panorama programme who, among other things, could not go to the toilet on her own. Yet she was put in the Work Related Activity Group. There must be something seriously wrong with a system which makes that kind of mistake. I wasn’t allowed home from hospital recently until I could safely toilet myself.
These were not isolated examples. I received an e-mail this week from a man who was highly anxious because he had just been called for this third WCA in three years. It is not surprising he was feeling persecuted as he had had to give up work as he has the particularly cruel degenerative Huntington’s disease.
Much of the misleading press coverage blames the victim of the system for the failings of the system. So someone who begins a claim for ESA because their Statutory Sick Pay has run out but returns to work before their ESA claim has been determined is counted as someone swinging the lead. Nor is the WCA very good at dealing with people with progressive diseases. It doesn’t make any acknowledgement that people with MS or Parkinson’s or Huntington’s have probably just lost their job precisely because they have a degenerative disease so their employability will not improve no matter how many reassessments they go through.
One thing about disability worth bearing in mind is that in a blink of an eye it could be you. An accident or a diagnosis can change your life for ever. At the very time you want to be wrapped in the care of the NHS and supported by the welfare state is the very time when a complete stranger in the street might spit the word “scrounger” at you.
Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of Work and Pensions Select Committee, MP for Aberdeen South
H-t: David Kirkham, Sheffield Uncut