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A year after the Paralympics, are things now getting worse for disabled people?

While we talk of "legacy", it’s starting to feel like what happened exactly a year ago this month not only hasn’t elevated disabled people, but is being used to trap.

Are you still patronised? I ask Sophie Christiansen, triple Gold medallist at London’s 2012 Paralympics, as we discuss how things are for disabled people in the country a year on. “All the time,” she says. “It’s a minority but yeah, that either talking really condescendingly or patronisingly.”

The last time was a couple of weeks ago, she says, when she gave a talk and in getting out of her wheelchair to move closer to the microphone, an audience member cried out “well done!” “You’ll laugh,” she smiles, “But it was at a [disability] conference.”

The pitying enthusiasm of the ignorant hasn’t noticeably lessened in the past year. The stares don’t go. The desire to avoid, as eyes switch to a nearby body – any nearby body – deemed normal, hasn’t gone either.

I don’t suppose anyone thought it would. Humans are difficult things and difference is terrifying. It takes more than two weeks of patriotism to chip at that.

It takes more than a few sound bites of ‘inspiration’ and desire for ‘change’ too. It requires not taking multiple deep, sweeping policy measures that actively makes things worse. And in doing so securing a sense that certain people – alien, needing, taking – deserve to have things no better. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps, if there are crumbs out there of something close to progress, amidst the rising poverty and separation, it all just looks like regression.

I talk to Dame Anne Begg MP, the first full-time wheelchair user in the House of Commons, about the burst of positivity that came with the Games, and she immediately points to the way disabled people were spoken about. It’s funny how things change.

“The positive thing that came out the Paralympics was the use of language and just being around disabled people,” Anne says. “But the bad thing is that afterwards came a huge amount of negative language used, particularly when it came to benefits. There was a huge contrast.”  

In the end, the Paralympics actually helped build “a false impression of disability”, Anne fears – one where if certain disabled people can do great things, any disabled person can, and judgment of why they’re not soon follows. It’s fed by a Government that has taken to blurring the lines, be it between disability and sickness, or need and laziness.

“The Government equates disability and ill health. The two words are used as if they’re interchangeable, when of course they’re not,” Anne, also Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, says. “A lot of disabled people are able to work. [But then you’ve got] the ‘scrounger’ agenda. It’s created a backlash against disabled people.”

London’s Paralympics was that rare event that’s both symbolic and real, something tangible and brief that contains within it almost an emotion that lasts. It seems predictable that the political class would pull on that, when it suits. The word that triggers a memory of equality and honesty, if we were being cynical, seems the perfect vehicle to mask the spread of inequality and myths.  

Dressed up in the bow of legacy, it’s starting to feel like what happened exactly a year ago this month not only hasn’t elevated disabled people, but is being used to trap.

“Esther McVey, the Minister for Disabled People, gushes at every opportunity that we must all build on the Paralympian legacy. But what does this mean?” Linda Burnip of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts, says. If it was about celebrating the rights and opportunities that enabled those Paralympians to shine, that would be one thing, she tells me. “But if it’s about the new corporatism of the welfare state and disability – the removal of equality, rights and opportunities from disabled people – we need to fight it with all our strength. Based on the evidence so far, fighting is our only option.”

‘The “evidence” is everywhere, if you want to see it. Most people, with at least a passing interest, will be aware of the list by now: abolishing Disability Living Allowance, time-limiting Employment and Support Allowance, closing the Independent Living Fund at the national level and slashing social care at the local level… And the ‘bedroom tax’, of course, much like the council tax changes; one of those cuts that doesn’t have disability in the title but happens to disproportionately hit the disabled. As if being disabled and being in poverty were somehow linked.

Disabled people have always been more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. More likely to be unemployed, not have an education, or to be isolated. No Government makes that happen, but in all the things they fail to do, they can allow it. Some Government’s, in the things they do, exacerbate it. Over the past year of benefit cuts, this Government’s ensured it.

Money is now being taken from the group that need it most. £28bn, in fact. This is what disadvantaging the disadvantaged looks like.

Anne McGuire, Shadow Minister for Disabled People, talks to me about the cycle this climate is creating: disabled people’s fear of “the cliff edge” of losing benefits, the negative media coverage that defines them as purely benefit recipients, the linking of disability as scroungers, and in turn the fear and reality “of harassment as a result” of such a focus.

“Over the past year, I’ve lost count of the number of disabled people who have told me that they feel as though they’ve gone back twenty years in terms of their quality of life,” she says.

You don’t need to have expected two weeks of sport to make things better for disabled people to feel the ache that in many ways, one year on, things are worse.

2013 has taught us that, contrary to popular belief, you can in fact put a price on dignity. It’s around how much it costs for a local authority to hire a PA to help someone to the toilet if they can’t get there themselves. Funding cuts mean these are calculations that are actually currently being made in this country.

I spoke to one disabled woman, who needs help with all aspects of daily living, who has just had her care package ‘re-assessed’ by Northampton council. She’s been told cuts mean she’ll have her support reduced by over 50 hours a week.

“I’ll be left isolated, housebound, at risk of malnutrition, and unsafe in my own home,” she tells me, under anonymity. “I’ll also be forced to wear incontinence pads at night instead of getting an on-call PA to help to go to the toilet.”

Under the proposed plans, she’s expected to manage on a care plan of three hours a day. That’s one hour to get up, half hour for lunch, half hour for dinner, and one hour for bed. She’ll get 9 hours ‘social hours’ a week, or more accurately, 9 hours to leave the house.  

Perhaps it seems quite normal for a disabled person to be shut in their home. Perhaps the action the Government has taken this year simply plays into the way enough people, and the structures they live within, think things should be. 

The big things join with the small things, after all, and the small things have always said ‘don’t ask for too much’. The step up to the restaurant, the dirty look, the public transport that it’s decided can run whilst excluding one part of the public… Or – as Tanni Grey-Thompson found on a train yet again last month – decides it can tell a certain sort of person it doesn’t need to provide a toilet. Taken apart, there is something telling about being used to watching your fluid intake when out because you know you live in a country where public places don’t have to meet your basic human needs.

“We don’t expect better service [than other people] and we all understand that it isn’t perfect,” Tanni tells me. “But we shouldn’t be treated like second class citizens.”  

“It can be the little things that wear you down,” she says. “How you get treated is so variable. It’s down to the person, not always the system (in the case of trains) and that’s what makes it so hard to sort out… you don’t always know what you’re fighting.”

If she was given the choice to change one thing between welfare cuts and the smaller things, Tanni isn’t sure what it would be. “Probably the low level discrimination,” she says. “I think this has a wider and continuing impact on the rest.”

It isn’t one thing that makes a person feel as if they’re a second class citizen in their own country. It isn’t one thing that makes them feel like they’ve gone back twenty years. The small things join with the big things, and for certain people, they’ve always made life a certain way. At this point, as that way of life for many is worsening still, two weeks last summer are starting to feel like a cruel tease. 

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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.