How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen Sherlock faced endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms - all as she battled to survive.

I’m a disability campaigner. I’m not sure I ever set out to be – indeed that anyone does – but that is what I became.

You may have read some of the reasons here. Perhaps you’ve skimmed a few articles on ESA - the Employment & Support Allowance - tutted a shocked tut at cancer patients on chemotherapy sent to the job centre to find work. Perhaps you’ve sat open mouthed at the idea of one of the richest nations on earth arguing over just how terminally ill you need to be to get the gracious sum of £96 per week to survive with at least some dignity.

Maybe you heard that this government believes that for almost all conditions, one year is now considered enough to find work. You may have heard Chris Grayling, the Work and Pensions minister, tell you that it doesn’t matter whether people are better, or if they have found work, we simply can’t afford them any more. Their benefits will be stopped if they have a partner who earns just £7,500 a year or more.

You may have heard of this blind, deaf, tube-fed, non verbal, disabled man deemed fit for work by the DWP, or Jan Morgan, unable to look after herself after a severe stroke yet also told she must seek work. You may have heard of very many others. You may even have found these stories hard to believe. I’m not sure that I would blame you. For if we believe these stories, where do they leave us? Where do they leave claims that we are “protecting the most vulnerable”?

But today, I want to tell you about Karen Sherlock, because she was my friend.

Karen was extremely unwell. Here, in Karen’s own words are her medical conditions:

DIABETIC AUTONOMIC NEUROPATHY (GASTRIC, CAUSING UNPREDICTABLE AND SEVERE DIARRHOEA)

GASTROPAERESIS (CAUSING UNPREDICTABLE AND SEVERE BOUTS OF VOMITING)

DIABETIC RETINOPATHY, PARTIALLY SIGHTED (LOSS OF PERIPHERAL VISION IN BOTH EYES AND SOME CENTRAL VISION IN LEFT EYE)

HEART CONDITION, CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE, VITAMIN B12 DEFICIENCY, ANAEMIA, HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, HIGH CHOLESTEROL, UNDERACTIVE THYROID, CHRONIC TIREDNESS DUE TO COMBINATION OF MULTIPLE MEDICAL CONDITIONS, ASTHMA

I urge you all to read this post, written by Karen just two months ago. It details a process many of us who are sick or disabled know all too well. Apply for ESA, get “assessed” by Atos, the private company charged with making these life or death decisions, get turned down for ESA, found “fit for work” or put in the wrong group, appeal decision, win tribunal, get a new letter demanding you attend another assessment, repeat the entire process until you despair, ground down by the misery.

My ESA is being stopped……………

Now, I have turned over in my mind how they can do this to me. 

Where it is going to leave us money-wise and what we can do about it? The answer is;  I don’t know. 

I am not entitled to a penny more due to having a husband that works too many hours and brings in too much money. I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.

Karen faced all of this as she battled just to survive. Endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms. She was one of those who’s ESA was time-limited - and what’s more, it was limited retrospectively, leaving her with just a few months to appeal for long term support.

What I want to tell you today is that she was frightened. Terrified in fact. She was terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.

She was scared for her future, scared for her family. She had no idea how they would survive when she lost the little support they relied on. Her husband works, cares for a sick wife and they had “done the right thing”. Do you hear me Ian Duncan Smith? David Cameron? Nick Clegg? Ed Miliband? Her family had done the “right thing”, at least in your narrow world of workers and shirkers.

Despite her own terror, she tried to tell her country, her peers, her friends - even journalists - what was happening to her and thousands like her, but shocked tuts didn’t save her. Open mouths and disgust didn’t save Karen; they didn’t save my friend. Perhaps no one could have, but those who hold and abuse power could have eased her fear or reassured her that they would act.

Karen died on June 8 from a suspected heart attack. I’ll leave you with her own words, from the end of her final post on April 29:

“We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights, and if we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.  If nothing else, we do still have hope and our rights on our side.”

Will we listen? Will Karen’s story be the one to convince us that enough is enough? Or will we turn a blind eye, continue to look away?

I hope not. There are dangerous historical precedents.

Sue Marsh is a writer and disability campaigner. She blogs at DiaryOfABenefitScrounger.blogspot.co.uk

Karen Sherlock's Twitter page.
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism