Paralympians speak out about disability benefit cuts

Several British medallists could lose much-needed financial support when Iain Duncan Smith's Personal Independence Payment replaces Disability Living Allowance on 8 April.

Only six months ago, in a period of gold-tinted optimism for disability, British Paralympians were heralded as heroes. From 8 April (pdf), Disability Living Allowance, or DLA – the benefit which helps many pay for care and mobility costs – is being scrapped and, along with more than two million other disabled people, many Paralympians now facing losing the support they rely on.

DLA’s replacement – Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – is designed to cut £2.24bn annually from the welfare budget by 2015-16. The number eligible for the new award will be smaller and the assessment criteria are narrower. According to the Government’s own estimate, the changes will see 500,000 people lose their benefit.

So what do our Paralympian heroes (copyright all papers) make of the changes? Sophie Christiansen who won three gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics in dressage, tells me that receiving Disability Living Allowance enabled her to compete in the Games.  

She has cerebral palsy and relies on the benefit to pay for the extra care support she needs when she goes away to competitions, as well as the wheelchair and scooter she uses to get around venues.

She can’t walk long distances or use public transport very easily on her own and DLA paid for the car she needs to drive herself to training.  

 

Sophie Christiansen. Photo: Getty

The Paralympians might have been sold as "superhumans" during the Games, but the reality is that many of them have extra financial needs because of their disabilities. Christiansen tells me it can be a struggle to meet them financially.

“The Paralympics were just the glamorous end product . . .” Christiansen says. “I get the same amount of funding as Olympians and they don't have to cover disability-related costs with that money.”

Natasha Baker, a para-equestrian who won two gold medals at the London Games, says she also owes her success to receiving Disability Living Allowance. As a child, it funded her riding lessons as a therapeutic sport. She now relies on it for transport, using the Mobility scheme within DLA to lease a car. 

She tells me she’s concerned that once PIP is introduced, she will no longer be eligible for support. Her disability – a neurological disorder that causes severe muscle weakness – leaves her needing help with care and mobility but it can vary from day to day.

“If I have the assessment on a day I’m feeling good . . .” she says. “I’m just really worried.”

To be awarded PIP, claimants will have to score a certain number of points in relation to 12 activities, such as washing and bathing or moving around. Recent concessions to guidance mean that assessors will be required by law to consider whether claimants can perform tasks repeatedly, safely and reliably but there remains concern that the criteria are too tight and the assessment style is too restrictive. For example, Natasha Baker stresses that her mobility can depend on anything from time of day to the surface or angle of what she’s walking on. 

Baker, who was awarded an MBE this year, now finds herself worrying whether the Government will stop the money she relies on. 

She tells me she’d like those in charge of the benefit changes to spend a week in a wheelchair to see how difficult it is to get around. “There are other ways of cutting and saving money in this country,” she adds. “I don’t see why they have to target people who are vulnerable.”

 

Natasha Baker. Photo: Getty

Tara Flood, a retired Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and world record holder, says the removal of DLA is “a government attack on disabled people’s lives”. She is angry that people like her are seen as “easy targets” and tells me she’s “extremely worried” about being assessed.

It’s a concern that has only been exacerbated by the knowledge that Atos, the private healthcare company behind the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment, will be carrying out the majority of PIP assessments, having been given more than £400m worth of contracts. Last summer, Flood took part in a protest against Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics and tells me she thinks their role in determining who will receive the new benefit is “disgusting.”

“The PIP process is fundamentally flawed. I can’t imagine anyone delivering it in a way that isn’t dehumanising,” she says. “The impact will be so shocking. Twenty per cent of disabled people who receive this support are going to lose it . . . I’m terrified.”

Like Sophie Christiansen and Natasha Baker, Tara relies on her mobility allowance to help pay for an adapted car. She now faces the fear of losing it as DLA is removed and assessments for PIP begin.

Under the new rules, claimants must be unable to walk more than 20 metres to receive the enhanced mobility component of PIP - and without this, they will not qualify for the Motability scheme. The narrower eligibility criteria mean it is feared that many people with significant mobility impairments will be denied the vehicle they currently rely on for independence. The Department of Work and Pension’s own estimate is that over the next five years some 428,000 people will lose their eligibility. Disability campaigners are currently working to mount a judicial review on what was a last minute and controversial change to the assessment criteria.

Tara Flood tells me that losing her car would damage every aspect of her life. “I would effectively be isolated in my own home,” she says. “I’d lose my job, my connection to my community, my family.”

She’s clearly angry at the benefit changes but also what she sees as the accompanying, ever prevalent, idea that disabled people are asking too much. “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being,” she stresses. “That isn’t unreasonable.”

Flood tells me she thinks back on her hope that Great Britain’s Paralympics triumphs would have a positive effect on the lives of disabled people in this country. As she and others face the imminent removal of support they rely on, it seems a cruel irony.

“When I hear ministers talk about the legacy of the Paralympics, saying how good things are . . . What planet are they living on?” she says. “In fact, things have got worse.”

Sophie Christiansen after being awarded her Paralympic gold medal last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge