The culture of hatred for the disabled comes from the top
The shocking hostility to the sick and disabled in our society is seen just as clearly in official attitudes
The Guardian, Friday 16 September 2011
There is little doubt that disability hate crime is on the rise. A recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report concluded that “people with disabilities in the UK face harassment, insult and attack almost as a matter of routine, while a collective denial’ among police, government and other public bodies means little is done to challenge the situation”.
This is strong language. It seems so shocking that we might decide that it cannot possibly be true. Turn then to the Mencap study that found police were consistently failing the victims of disability hate crime, or to the Scope report that concluded that “widespread casual and institutional disablism in Britain creates the conditions where disability hate crime can flourish without being recognised or challenged”.
According to a ComRes, some 47% of disabled people surveyed said that attitudes towards them have worsened over the past year while 66% claimed that they had experienced “aggression, hostility or name-calling”. Taken to its extreme, this bullying leads to the tragic deaths of people such as Fiona Pilkington and Francecca Hardwick, Gemma Hayter and Keith Philpott.
But while the causes of hate crime are hard to fathom, we should look first to the attitudes of those who govern and inform us. A recent select committee report criticised both the press and the department of work and pensions over the way in which the media covers statistics on sickness benefits. Articles referring to “the shirking classes”, “scroungers” and “skivers” led the chair of the committee, Dame Anne Begg, to write to the DWP urging staff to be careful how they present statistics.
This is not just a problem in the UK, or even a recent problem caused by any one political party, but one faced by disabled people in France, Italy, Australia and elsewhere, as governments attempt to reduce the number of people claiming benefits by taking a “tough line”. Is it any surprise that our neighbours feel less supportive if they are asked on a monthly basis to believe that most disabled people are simply “lazy”, “fraudulent”, “feckless” and “workshy”?
When the employment and support allowance was introduced in 2008 to replace incapacity benefit, horrifying stories soon appeared of those with terminal cancer found fit for work, claimants dropping dead days after being assessed as fit, and up to 70% of decisions being overturned on appeal.
At their annual conference , Liberal Democrats will be debating ESA and the work capability assessments used to determine eligibility. Delegates will hear how the assessments have been found “unfit for purpose”, how they don’t fairly assess those with fluctuating conditions, mental illness or learning disabilities. They will hear how just 7% of new claims are now offered long-term financial support and how claimants are treated carelessly or with a degree of contempt more suitable to the hate-crime stories mentioned above. Most important, they will hear that no matter how sick or disabled you are, whether your condition has improved or not, after one year you will no longer qualify for any ESA at all.
If you worked hard and paid into a national insurance system you hoped you would never need, that insurance no longer covers you. If you have a partner who earns £7,500 or more you will lose the right to any independent income at all, unless you are among the 7% who qualify for long-term support. Time-limiting ESA will mean that people in the UK must not dare to get a long-term or chronic illness. If they do, the state will not support them.
Perhaps if we assessed claimants fairly and treated them with respect, we would go some way towards reducing ignorance in the wider community. If our media started to report the achievements and successes of sick and disabled people, rather than inciting criticism, we would find disability hate crime started to fall.
Liberal Democrats have a chance to be the first party to stand up for the sick and disabled, to listen to their genuine fear and anxiety and to oppose a system that is causing abject poverty and suffering. Britain’s 2.5 million sick and disabled people will be hoping that they do.