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22 January 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 1:49pm

“Degrading” disability benefits system impacts society’s attitudes, warns Paralympian

Amid online abuse and a harsher benefits system, the gold medal-winning swimmer Liz Johnson urges the government and businesses to hire more people with disabilities.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Real humans walk on two legs.” This is just one example of a torrent of abuse the actor Samantha Renke has received on social media relating to her disability. She has brittle bone disease, and opened up on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning about the impact that online vitriol towards her condition has had on her mental health.

Renke is not alone. The model and reality TV personality Katie Price, whose son Harvey has disabilities, has long been calling for new laws to prevent online abuse of disabled people. Her petition, fighting to make “online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders”, was signed by over 221,000 people – and today received backing by MPs on the Petitions Committee.

The Committee’s report on “online abuse and the experience of disabled people” agrees with Price’s petition that the laws regarding online abuse aren’t fit for purpose.

“There is no excuse for the continued failure to make online platforms as safe for disabled people as non-disabled people,” said its chair Helen Jones MP. “Self-regulation has failed disabled people and the law must change to ensure more lives are not destroyed.”

While this report is being hailed as a victory for Price, “Harvey’s Law”, and people with disabilities who have faced abuse on social media, both stricter self-regulation from social media companies and specific legislation has yet to be forthcoming.

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This is in the context of a heightened hostile environment for people with disabilities or long-term illness in the benefits system.

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Under Universal Credit, disability premiums (which are supposed to cover the costs of living alone with a disability and without a carer) have disappeared, and the new welfare system perpetuates the benefits cap on the Employment and Support Allowance disability benefit. Personal Independence Payments (PIP), brought in to replace the Disability Living Allowance in 2013, are notorious for removing support for people who need it – with 63 per cent of PIP decisions overturned by appeals since 2013.

“Even in the 21st century, the population of people with disabilities are vulnerable,” says Liz Johnson, a former Paralympic gold medal-winning swimmer. “They’ve never had the outlet to be themselves, protect themselves. They do need protecting, but they also need opportunities.”

Johnson, who has cerebral palsy, says while she hasn’t received straightforward abuse, she has been told “but you’re so clever for a disabled person” and “at least you’re pretty”.

“It’s really insulting, it’s really rude,” she tells me. “Expectations of people with disabilities are low.”

Following her 20-year career as a professional athlete, she has decided to try and change these attitudes by setting up a recruitment consultancy staffed entirely by people with disabilities.

The Ability People, set up last year, has 12 workers and has already placed candidates at high-profile workplaces like Diageo, The AA and Heathrow Airport. They all work remotely and don’t have set hours – a practice that makes it easier for people with certain disabilities to work.

The current disability employment gap is 30 per cent, and has remained stubborn over the past decade. Johnson wants to change both employers’ attitudes and working environments to overcome this.

“Standardised environments just don’t work for a lot of people,” she says. “Take me, for example. I always thought I’d be an accountant, and there’s no reason why I couldn’t be a brilliant accountant. But to live and compete in London or Bristol or a big city, the logistics – even getting on the Tube – would be difficult.”

Because of her physical impairment, Johnson says she would have to get up and go to bed impossibly early to get to work and back every day in that environment. This would mean missing out on evening activities. “Why should you forgo all that life has to offer?” she asks. “You know people would be judging you.”

She believes the government has a “duty” to suggest changes to workplaces, beyond simply giving companies “tick-box” diversity exercises. She also condemns what she sees as a “degrading” benefits system for having a “huge impact on the disabled population”.

“The forms are so degrading,” she says about claiming Personal Independent Payment. “It’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever filled in in my entire life. I had to take a break. Because I was like, ‘Am I really this bad at things?’”

Johnson takes issue with the “appalling” questions asked of claimants on the forms and during assessments, like “do I do something normally?” – “you have to compare yourself to the ‘normal’ way of doing it, and that’s horrible; of course I do it ‘normally’ for me!”

“I think the way they do it is not helpful at all to anybody,” she tells me, calling on the government to put people on the panels or helping with forms “who actually live with the impairment or the issue, because when somebody able-bodied comes into your house trying to assess how much help you need, or whether you’re doing something correctly, they don’t know.

“I’d never tell somebody with two arms that work how to use a knife and fork, because I’ve never used a knife and fork with two hands… So it’s very difficult for somebody who has got two arms to judge whether you’re doing something incorrectly with one.”

She argues that this attitude has to change throughout society. “Whether you’re talking about the workplace, benefits, life generally, we want to get to a point in the world where inclusion is everywhere.”

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