One in seven families with disabled children are going without meals. Photo: Getty
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Indignation at stories of “rejected” disabled children masks the harm done by government cuts

Cases like that of “Baby Gammy” or the adoptive mother who allegedly turned down a baby because it was born with a disability are welcome distractions from the bigger, deeper problems faced by parents and disabled children under austerity.

The would-be mum of twins carried by a surrogate has “rejected” one of the babies because it was born with a disability, the Telegraph reported today.  The non-disabled boy was adopted as planned but his disabled twin sister, who has a severe muscular condition, has stayed with her birth mother after the adopting-mum refused to take her. (It’s unclear what the would-be father has done in all this. He either was never involved or the reporting has chosen to put responsibility solely on the woman.)

“She'd be a fucking dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her?” the prospective mum allegedly told the surrogate; both of them British. “No one would want to adopt a disabled child'.”

Well, quite. I enjoy a bit of casual judgement as much as the next person and this woman seems a suitably terrible (wonderful) candidate. “A fucking dribbling cabbage.” Find her, bring back the stocks, and see how she likes scraps of cabbage as they’re thrown at her (probably hard) face.

Today’s is the latest in a growing line of “Won’t someone think of the disabled children?” stories – each depressing and tragic and greeted with customary indignation. The case of “Baby Gammy”, who was left with his Thai surrogate mother by an Australian couple because he had Down's Syndrome, gained international coverage. Even Richard Dawkins has got involved with his “best abort a foetus with Down's Syndrome and try again” tweets last week. Abort, don’t abort. Adopt, don’t adopt. It’s difficult to keep track of just what exactly women should be doing when they find out their child will be disabled, but the media and the public’s role is very clear: pass judgment whilst offering no constructive help whatsoever.

Women, as ever, are the ones on the receiving end of this judgement. The men – or 50 per cent of the genetic material – are presumably mute and locked in a cupboard somewhere. Women are who nature left to grow the child and whom society has chosen, long after nine months, to take the cultural brunt of them. We’re also largely the ones left to take on 24/7 caring responsibilities – an impact particularly heavy when the child has a disability. Almost three quarters of mums with disabled children are forced to give up their careers, or at best limit them, due to lack of affordable or suitable childcare for disabled children.  (Families with disabled children pay eight times more towards childcare costs than parents of non-disabled children.)

What are we doing for them? Other than offering judgement or praise, I mean – which, as yet, hasn’t been proven to care for a screaming child at 3am or pay the electricity bill.

As a country, we’re doing really well at hurting them. One in seven families with disabled children are going without meals and one in six can’t afford to heat their homes. For those where parents aren’t in work because of their caring responsibilities, things are inevitably even worse. This was before the full impact of benefit cuts hit. (Guess what things are like now.)

The social security and tax changes have had more of a negative effect on families that include at least one disabled person, particularly a child (and especially for those with already low-incomes). Poor families that have a disabled child – or adult – have lost what’s estimated to be five times as much proportionally as better-off non-disabled families. Let’s say that again. Our government’s response to the difficulty of raising a disabled child, particularly with low-income, has been to make it more difficult. It’s funny how little we hear about that. It’s as if headlines about lazy adoptive mothers are easier to get our moral heads around.

Stories like “Baby Gammy” or the British surrogate are welcome distractions from the bigger, deeper problems of parents and disabled children. They let us simultaneously cast judgement on a woman’s reproductive choices whilst convincing ourselves her individual prejudice and selfishness is in such contrast to the rest of society. Failing to look after a child with a disability? What kind of monster would do that? Our government – and the cash strapped councils sitting in every part of this country.  

Almost two thirds of English local authorities had reduced their expenditure on short breaks for families with a disabled child after two years of coalition government, according to disability charity Mencap (pdf). Play services to youth clubs, babysitters, overnight care and residential stays are disappearing – cast out as not a “legal necessity” and therefore just more luxuries we can do without.

Perhaps we could ask the parents currently looking after their disabled children if a bit of help is a luxury – if they have the money to drive to the next hospital appointment, the energy for getting up tonight without a break. I would but I’m busy finding old veg to throw at the latest useless adoptive mother.

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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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