AS disabled campaigners claim the Paralympics are being used to justify benefits cuts, Dani Garavelli reports on a propaganda war
MOMENTS before the cauldron was lit at the dazzling Paralympics opening ceremony last week, disabled actress Nicola Miles-Wildin who, as Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest was sent on a journey of enlightenment, smashed a walking cane through a glass ceiling. The symbolism was clear: with perseverance and courage – and despite the limits society seeks to impose upon them – there is little disabled people can’t do.
Watching the Paralympians perform physical feats most able-bodied people couldn’t begin to match, that message appears to be borne out. In the first days we’ve seen Sarah Storey – a woman born without a functioning left hand – who is such an amazing cyclist she only just missed out on competing in the Olympics themselves, winning GB’s first gold. And Jonathan Fox – who has cerebral palsy – taking swimming gold (where Team GB Olympians failed) in the 100-metres backstroke. Who could fail to be inspired by these stories of triumph over adversity?
On one level you’d imagine, such stories would provide the best PR possible for the disabled movement. At a time when hate crimes against disabled people are at an all-time high (65,000 last year alone) they show how much those with additional physical challenges can contribute to society.
But is there a more sinister counter-narrative to all the hype surrounding the Paralympics? Many disabled people – including writer and comedienne Liz Carr – believe that by providing image after image of disabled people “overcoming” their physical disabilities, the games create a divide between the “good cripple” and the “bad cripple”, and help those engaged in “disability denial”.
More than that, the Scottish Black Triangle Campaign Group (which takes its name from the symbol used by the Nazis to denote the “workshy”) claims the Paralympics feed into the government’s agenda to portray those with disabilities who aren’t working or who require large care packages, as “scroungers” and “malingerers” and slash spending on benefits for disabled people by 20 per cent.
In particular, they say, the fanfare which has heralded the Games is being used to validate the assessment process being implemented by French firm Atos, which has seen tens of thousands of disabled people who once qualified for incapacity benefit being declared fit for work and denied the new Employment Support Allowance (Esa). “Look,” the Paralympics could be interpreted as saying, “disabled people can dance, swim, lift weights – why can’t they hold down a job or look after themselves?”
To add insult to injury, Atos – which currently receives £100 million a year for carrying out the Esa assessments – is one of the main Paralympic sponsors, prompting disabled campaigners to mount protests outside its offices across the country.
“David Cameron was interviewed at the stadium and he was asked what the Paralympics meant to him. He said: ‘They will teach people about what they [the disabled] can do, rather than what they can’t.’ Well, that’s the language which was being used about the Atos reassessments,” says John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish Black Triangle Campaign, launched in the wake of the death of Edinburgh writer Paul Reekie, who killed himself after his incapacity and housing benefits were stopped. “We’re in absolutely no doubt they’re using these Games as propaganda to justify unconscionable cuts to disabled people’s benefits.”
Referring to C4’s Meet The Superhumans film, which showcased the achievements of a number of British Paralympians and was dubbed “inspiration porn” by some critics, McArdle adds: “These people are extraordinary, but most disabled people aren’t superhuman.They couldn’t win gold medals for swimming any more than most [able-bodied people] could be divers like Tom Daley. Disabled people have many different impairments and the types of people getting their benefits cut are often suffering from degenerative or even terminal diseases.”
To Richard Hamer, director of external affairs at Capability Scotland, the Paralympics represent both an opportunity and a potential threat. “We don’t want to be negative about this incredible spectacle of athleticism. A number of people who have used our services in the past have taken part in the Paralympics and overall I think it’s a very positive thing,” he says. “It’s about the public differentiating between the message being that disabled people can overcome their disabilities and the message that disabled people can achieve huge things with a disability. [The danger is] that simply because a Paralympic champion can overcome their disability, people might come to believe that those with severe, chronic conditions, who require a large amount of care, if they just tried hard enough, could overcome that – and clearly they can’t.”
Also being overlooked in the debate over benefits and services is the fact that many of those now competing at the highest level could not have reached the games without the very services and benefits that are now being axed.
Paralympian swimmer Tara Flood, who is soon to be assessed, insists she could not have achieved her world record for the 50-metre breaststroke without state support and now fears she will lose the benefits which allow her to be independent as the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which includes a care and mobility component, changes to Personal Independence Payments (Pips) in just seven months’ time.
Her situation is far from unique. Indeed, it is clear that away from the bright lights of the Paralympics, disabled people feel under attack as never before. With the cost of care rising, tens of thousands affected by the Atos reassessments, funding for further education courses and support to help find employment being withdrawn and the transition to Pips expected to see more than 70,000 disabled people lose their benefits entirely, they fear their standard of living is about to take an almighty pounding.
Fiona Thwaites, 50, worked in housing services with a local authority until her multiple sclerosis progressed to the point where she was forced to take early retirement. Because she received a lump sum as part of her pension package, she has to pay for the 45 minutes of care she receives every morning to help her get up.
With her partner away for weeks at a time in the Merchant Navy, she could do with more assistance to help her get out and about more during the day, but she cannot afford the £100 a week it would cost. And she is worried that changes in DLA will see her lose the wheelchair-accessible vehicle which is her lifeline when her partner is home.
Michael, 41, from Glasgow, who also has MS and lives alone, has already been told his care package is likely to be cut, which would make it difficult for him to get out of the house during the day. “The charges have been increasing every year – my contribution has gone up from £165 a month to £270 a month since 2007 – then recently I was told my care package was to be reduced, although that hasn’t happened yet.
“At the moment I get 188 hours a month. If they cut my care in the morning from two to one hours I am going to be rushed getting washed, trying to get dressed, I sometimes struggle to feed myself. Also I would have to cut my social hours – going to Revive MS [support group], going to church, it would affect my life,” he says.
The government claims its welfare reforms are being carried out not to cut costs but because two million people who are fit to work are currently receiving incapacity/Esa and because the number of people claiming DLA has risen from 2.5 million to 3.2 million in eight years, with £600m a year being paid out to people who are no longer eligible for that level of support.
Last week, Minister for the Disabled Maria Miller said: “It is important, particularly at a time when we have the Paralympics in London, that we have a benefits system that’s there to support people not potentially leave them trapped in welfare dependency.”
Yet in a C4 Dispatches documentary, a GP who went undercover to Atos was told his results should mirror “statistical norms”, suggesting some sort of target is in place and it is well-known the changes to DLA are expected to shave 20 per cent off the current £13 billion spend.
Furthermore, of the assessments carried out so far, 40 per cent are being appealed and, of those being appealed, 40 per cent are successful. Unfortunately, once an appeal has been won, the applicant may be sent back for reassessment and found fit to work once again, and so the cycle continues.
Tom Greatrex, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, who has been campaigning against Atos, says he has no problem with the principle of assessments but insists the current system is not sophisticated enough to deal with severe, chronic and often complex conditions.
“Like many MPs, I have constituents who have not worked for many, many years, who, with the right support, have been helped back to work and that has made a massive improvement to their lives both materially, and also in terms of their health and well-being,” he says.
“My concern is that the process that is being used isn’t good enough to ensure we are helping the people who need help and not hounding those who are the least able to cope with it.
“I have constituents, with Parkinson’s disease, for example, who are not going to get better – they may have good days and bad days, but they are never going to be well – they are getting caught in an endless cycle of reassessments, which causes a huge amount of anxiety.”
Since the appeals process costs a further £60m, it’s not much good for the taxpayer either. But there are deeper worries too. Despite concerns over its performance, Atos has been handed two five-year contracts worth £400m to carry out Pip assessments in Scotland and much of England. Some people believe medical information used in the Esa assessment will be passed on for the Pip, meaning that if you were declared fit to work you might lose your DLA payment too. Since receiving DLA also opens up the door to other “passported” benefits – such as free bus travel and the blue disabled badge – this could have a huge impact on disabled people’s lives.
Over the 12 days of the Games, it has been pointed out, we are likely to see more positive images of disabled people than in the whole of the past 12 years. We will marvel at the ability of the Paralympians and rejoice in their successes.
But for all the feel-good factor the Paralympics appear to be generating, there is no escaping the political implications of an event which trumpets the achievements of disabled people, just as the services that allow them to live fulfilling lives come under threat. Even those competing have become embroiled – it was suggested many of them hid the logos on their accredited lanyards during the opening ceremony (although officials claim they merely tucked them into their jackets to stop them blowing about in the wind). On Friday, ten wheelchair-using protesters from Disabled People Against the Cuts invaded the Atos offices, with a 200-strong blockade outside causing staff to use the side exit. As they attempted to highlight the disjunction between the public feting of the Paralympians and the private humiliation of those subjected to endless reassessment, the campaigners demonstrated that it’s not only in the field of sport that disabled people can prove a force to be reckoned with. «