Lessons from the past and present lead Peter White to the conclusion that disabled people need a louder voice to secure the future.
Three recent experiences in my job have brought home to me afresh that disabled people need a louder voice.
BBC Radio Four’s series The Reunion brings together major players in news stories of the past, and as a not particularly major player I was invited with some bigger hitters to recall the fight for anti-discrimination legislation back in the nineties. And it was a fight too, with replica buses tossed off Westminster Bridge as a symbol of non-accessible transport, and Parliament Square gridlocked by wheelchairs to give MPs a taste of what it felt like to have your free movement restricted. What struck me most forcefully during that programme was that at a time 20 years on when most disabled people you talk to feel that many of those hard-won rights are now being worn away, or rendered ineffective, where are the equivalent big-hitters and powerful political gestures?
It’s ironic that the recent U-turn on benefit cuts was caused not by benefit forms being hurled into the Thames, or demonstrators abseiling into the Department of Work and Pensions, but by a squabble to the death between two government ministers who apparently can’t stand each other, and government-supporting MPs who realised that juxtaposing cuts to disabled people with tax breaks for the rich was unbelievably politically inept, and liable to be electorally damaging.
I thought I got a bit of a clue to this situation with my second experience. A group of disability charities got together to stage a question-and-answer session between disabled Londoners and four of the mayoral candidates. They asked me to chair it. But, at the risk of biting the hand that fed me (transparency demands me to admit I got paid for the gig), where were the big beasts? Where was the real challenge to the candidates? If that had happened 20 years ago I would, quite rightly, have had a very uncomfortable afternoon. I can think of a dozen people without pausing who would have turned that event into a very challenging hustings indeed. But this, save for a little ineffectual heckling, was stage-managed. Questions were pre-ordained, and the opportunities for spontaneity were scant.
The charities have cleverly manoeuvred themselves back into the position of “spokespeople”, and governments have been happy to let them, until they get too bolshie, that is. In a nineties hustings like that, “permission to speak” would not have been asked for: it would have been demanded, and seized.
Finally, and most significantly, I went to see a woman who is terrified she’s about to lose her 24-hour care package: this, despite the fact that she has very little independent movement, is totally blind and has a substantial hearing loss. She is caught in a pincer movement between a Social Services department that has belatedly realised the implications of the new minimum wage on its ability to pay for a full night-time care and a tax regime that says that even if a carer is prepared to be regarded as self-employed to make themselves affordable, that’s not an option, as they don’t fulfil the self-employment criteria. If Social Services, Department of Health and HMRC can’t sort that out, her only option is to sell her house and pay the cost of 24-hour care until the money runs out, which would be in about three to four years; and then back into institutional care, something she’s been resisting all her life.
If the fifth richest economy in the world can’t sort that out while big companies continue to hide their money overseas, there’s certainly the need for some loud disability voices – more need, even, than 20 years ago.