Guest post from: Valen Cook
For all their talk of solidarity, following Labour’s disastrous General Election defeat last month, the Left have happily started saying in a loud voice that various communities shouldn’t be left behind in their attempts to rebuild what they lost. ‘We mustn’t leave behind the Jewish community, the BAME community or the LGBTQ+ community (or whatever additional letters and symbols might have been added to the acronym for community representing the various sexualities by the time this is published)’, they say trying to capture all the headline minority groups in one fell swoop along with the traditional ‘working class voters who lost faith with us’ but the Left seem to be almost hauntingly silent about one minority group, the sick and disabled, as if they aren’t worth the effort of appealing to. However, the sick and disabled community is the only community that has suffered early deaths, suicides and an exponential increase in stress-related mental health issues as a direct result of Conservative policies. Oh, there have been other casualties over the last near-decade of Tory rule such as the victims of knife crime and hate crime but there are other factors that provided the circumstances in which such violence has flourished but the body count in the sick and disabled community, which some say is upwards of 100,000 people, has only one direct cause – Conservative policy, the so-called welfare ‘reforms’.
Where is the solidarity for the sick and disabled? Nowhere apparently. Not if the Left-wing commentators public call to arms are to be believed. If you’re Jewish, the Left are ready to fall over themselves to win back your trust and, more importantly, your vote and quite right too. If you’re a member of the BAME community, the Left will grovel to get your trust and your vote and, again, quite right too. If you’re in the LGBTQ+ community, the Left will do whatever it takes and, yet again, quite right too because all three communities are valuable and precious to UK society. The young, the working class and the elderly, hardly minority communities, are also essential for a vibrant society so going after their votes and trust is a given. But the sick and disabled are also valuable members of society with a wealth of experience and knowledge that only a sick or disabled person can truly understand or impart so why aren’t their trust and votes deemed worthy enough to chase?
The problem is that, even before the Conservatives took power in 2010, the sick and disabled community started being demonised by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, backed by a media onslaught that only increased after the installation of David Cameron’s administration. Disabled people were branded as “shirkers” and “scroungers” and, because the media took great pleasure in highlighting extreme cases of benefit claimants who really were playing the system, the great British public lapped up the anti-disabled propaganda to such a degree that people stopped caring about the most vulnerable people in society. ‘They’re all scroungers and fraudsters’ became the common exhortation when referring to the sick and disabled so no one cared when such vulnerable people were subjected to regular Work Capability Assessments and health assessments for Personal Independence Payments, most of which weren’t fit-for-purpose and conducted by ‘medical professionals’ who may have no experience or knowledge of the conditions they were meant to be assessing. ‘Medical professionals’ who were working for a private company that had no medical background and was working on targets to get vulnerable people heaved off benefits with a financial inducement for each such abandoned person. Disabled people were the problem people were led to believe and so no one cared that the thresholds for qualifying for a particular disability benefit were lowered to the point that many deserving people lost their income and plunged into despair, poverty and, in some cases, early death or suicide.
Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, had damning words to say about the Conservative government’s treatment of the disabled but they were ignored by the vast majority of the public and laughed at by the Conservatives. Alston stated that the UK’s welfare safety net had been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”, and that austerity policies “continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences”. He also stated that he was told by many disabled people of “benefits assessments that were superficial and dismissive, and that led to findings that contradicted the advice of their doctor” and that he heard “story after story” of people who had considered or attempted suicide.
Where was the public outrage at the treatment of the disabled? Nowhere to be found although there were people who cared but their voices were not heard out of apathy or media collusion with the demonising of vulnerable people and the hiding of anything that may counter the anti-disabled community narrative.
Now that the far-Right has a foothold in power thanks to the Johnson Conservative administration, it is important for people to start to show solidarity with the sick and disabled, for the voices of those who do care in wider society to rise up and demand better treatment of the most vulnerable in society, the people whom, through no fault of their own, were born with physical disabilities and sensory or learning impairments or acquired them in later life or those struck down with mental ill-health they would gladly give up in a heartbeat but affect their day-to-day lives as serious as any physical or sensory impairment does.
The Left needs to remember that the sick and disabled members of society vote too and need to have their trust in politicians rebuilt after the years of demonisation they have faced at the hands of the uncaring Conservative administrations since 2010.
Disability campaign groups need to know that they also have their own prejudices to overcome, screaming as they do in the disabled community’s own echo chamber, unwilling to reach out to the non-disabled community for support in getting their voice heard on the wider arena of public discourse. ‘We can stand on our own’, they say, completely oblivious of the fact that disability rights have gone backwards in the last decade, not forwards and they have had little effect on the number of welfare ‘reform’-related deaths. There is a need not just for solidarity with the non-disabled community to effect real change but also solidarity within the disabled community between the physically and sensory impaired community and the mental health community whom are seen by some physically disabled as less disabled than them as well as solidarity between the seasoned campaigners and newcomers who may have a fresh perspective to give that is currently being ignored.
The disabled community’s voice needs to be heard loud and clear and it is not a sin to reach out to the non-disabled community for support, in fact, it is essential to counter the anti-disability propaganda that has broken the disabled community’s link with the wider society in which we live. Disabled people can stand on their own, that much is certain, but they shouldn’t dismiss a helping hand from anyone based on their prejudices otherwise they are simply ostracising themselves from the wider society of which they can be a valuable part.