Jonathan Bartley: Disabled People Are Not Guilty Until Proven Innocent

6 February 2017

Asking for help is not something which a lot of people find easy. In reaching out we not only admit our needs but we acknowledge our interdependence with those around us. We all have to do it. And when we do, we say that, actually, we can’t overcome the many barriers and obstacles that are put in our way, alone.

For many of us the difficult task of asking for support is not something we have to do every single day. But for those who are sick or disabled, who face barriers and obstacles on a daily basis erected by a society geared up for and created by those who aren’t, it is something they are acutely aware of.

The mark of a civilised and fair society is that it recognises collective responsibility. That there are basic rights to which everyone is entitled. And that means we should create support networks for those who are unable to work because of sickness or disability, and help for everyone who wants to work.

But that is under great threat. Britain is becoming an increasingly frightening place to live if you are sick or disabled, a two tier society where the rights of many are being taken away. Today the Government’s shameful plans to drastically cut the benefits for people who have been found unfit to work were condemned by charities and politicians a like.

As the father of a disabled child they are concerning to me not only because of the reality that, if allowed to go ahead, they will plunge many into even greater poverty - which is tantamount to kicking people when they are down leaving many never be able to get up again.

But the plans also worry me because they speak volumes as to how Britain treats disabled people, fuelling the growing prejudice against them. Government policy is increasingly based on the false idea that the sick and disabled are guilty until proven innocent. The plans to cut the weekly employment and support allowance (ESA) payments people receive by £29.05 a week are, by the Government’s admission, designed to force people even it deems are not yet fit to work to go out and, well, find work.

The policy is based on the cruel and utterly unfounded premise that if disabled people can be beaten hard enough by a weaponised welfare state they will be forced to do something which is, for many, impossible. This kind of policy gives voice to the narrative that disabled people are to blame for the struggles they face, one which our Government should be fighting to eradicate entirely, not encourage.

The cuts are illogical, as disability charities warned today. Cutting a benefit designed to support sick and disabled people into employment is no way to help them find work - and the Government has provided no evidence to the contrary. If it is serious about helping disabled people find employment it should be focusing on removing the real barriers to finding work. This includes more support, not less, and working with employers to ensure that the world of work is accessible in every way through practices such as flexible working.

I’m realistic. I know my son may well struggle to find employment. In a two tier system which discourages the aspiration of disabled people, at 14-years-old we are encouraging him to think about the future and what he wants out of life. He wants a job, just like most others. He wants to do something he loves, and enjoys, and is passionate about - he would like to do something in music production or radio. And why shouldn’t he?

Cutting his support won’t help him do that. It will make it harder. We live in a world where transport to the workplace is already inaccessible, where choices are already limited, and where everywhere you turn there are physical and social barriers - whether they be the built environment or attitudes.

So the question I keep asking myself is this - what kind of Britain do we want to live in? How, as a nation, can we feel proud of our country if we are stripping support from those who need it the most? The answer is surely that we can’t. I hope very much that when my son grows up it is in a nation where he is valued for what he can contribute, not blamed for that which he can’t. But if we want to live in a compassionate and just country which works for everyone we must stand up against policies which harm the sick and disabled. If we want to live in a country we are proud of we must fight for it.

 

Orignially published in the Huffington Post. 






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