You are not a scrounger: a letter to a disabled reader

A letter to a reader in crisis.

Dear M-, 

A few days ago you wrote to me and told me you were planning to take your own life. You told me that your reasons for this are: because you are frightened about what will happen to you when you lose the disability living allowance you rely on to live independently, and because you want to take a stand against the government’s assault on welfare. 

Since receiving your letter I’ve agonised over what sort of reply to send to you. I hope you found the strength to call one of the helplines I forwarded - Samaritans in particular are a life-saving service - but I felt that something longer was needed, is still needed. I’m writing to you now not as a journalist, but as a human being, a former carer and a person who has experienced depression to say: please, please don’t do this.

I’m writing like this, in public, in part because you spoke about taking your own life as a political statement. You asked if I, as a journalist you respected, would report on your suicide after the fact. I’ve been told by fellow campaigners in the disability rights movement that you’re not alone in thinking that harming yourself in that awful, final way is the only way you have left to make a difference. But that’s not the case. Not yet, not ever.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a physical disability. Having dear friends with physical disabilities only makes me more aware of how many parts of that experience I can’t fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be mobility impaired, or to have a body that seizes up with pain on a regular basis. Nor do I know what it’s like to wake up one morning and be told that, because you can’t hold down a regular 9-5 office job no matter how hard you try, because you can’t do that you are just a burden on the state.

To my mind, the most venal, wicked thing this Coalition government has done has been to rewrite the social script of this country so that some people feel that life isn’t worth living any more. They speak in their poisonous way about giving the unemployed and disabled people back a sense of dignity - but telling people that they’re worthless unless they hold down a job, telling people that they have no right to a decent standard of living unless they can find and keep work that lines the pockets of the super-rich, work that isn’t there anyway at the moment - that’s the opposite of arguing for dignity. That’s shame as a social manifesto.

If you hurt yourself now, if you give up right now, I’m sorry to say that it won’t change the minds of those who are currently making decisions about whether sick and mentally people ill live or die in this country. These people don’t give a damn - or at very least, they do a good job of acting like they don’t give a damn. If any person’s unnecessary death were enough to sway this government’s mind, it would have been swayed before now.

Even one death is too many. There are other, better ways to make a difference.

This is the point at which I’m supposed to give you the routine about how It Gets Better. But you and I both know that that would be a lie. We both know that right now, for anyone who is disabled, or mentally ill, or unemployed, or a single parent, or a young person, or a student, or simply poor and struggling, a lot of things are getting actively worse. So no - sometimes it doesn’t get better. What happens instead, as a friend of mine told me recently, is that you get stronger.

Choosing to live doesn’t have to mean choosing to accept the ugly reality that those in power are creating for us. By coming together and working to create change, by building each other up and getting smarter and more adept, you get stronger, we get stronger, people who care enough to resist and fight back and create a different reality get stronger together. You don’t need to be well to be involved in the fightback. The internet has enabled people with all kinds of different experiences of physical and mental health to make their voices heard and join in the struggle against shame and despair as public policy.

I know that right now you probably aren’t feeling very strong and powerful. That’s understandable. But please believe me: you are powerful, and important, and special, and stronger than you know. We’ve never shared a cup of tea together, or laughed together, or hugged each other. I don’t even know what you look like. But I feel like I know you, because I know you feel the same way I feel about what’s going on in this country right now. What I want you to try to understand, if you can just hold on to one thing, is this: you are not a burden. 

No human being is "just a burden". You are not a burden on the state, and you are not a burden on your family, who, much as you might find this hard to believe, would be devastated to lose you. Your presence makes this country and your family a better place.

I can’t promise you that after you make the choice to carry on living, life will get easier right away, this week, or this month. But I can promise you that one day you will feel stronger, and better able to navigate with the darker, more painful rapids of life. I believe that one day life in this country will be better than it is now, for every person who is disabled and unwell. And one thing I can tell you for sure is that the most important political statement you can make right now is to believe - even if it’s hard to hold on to - that you are not a burden, that you are a precious, unique human person who is valuable in and of himself. 

When society tells you that you are worth less because you are unwell, that’s society’s fault, not yours. They may be pursuing a doctrine of shame, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed. You have no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed. You are not a burden, and you are not a scrounger - you are just unwell.

As an unwell person, you have every right to support, from your family and from society. Please try to hold on to that belief, because right now that belief is the best weapon we have against the austerity consensus. You are not a burden. You are not a scrounger. You are valuable and important because you are human and alive. Believe it. Believe it because that belief is a torch in the darkness of an austerity winter. With love,

Your friend,

Laurie

Editor's note: You can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or through their website at samaritans.org. We consulted the Samaritans in the editing of this piece.

Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Matthew Lewis/Getty
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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.