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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.