Disabled people fighting for our rights
My experience has been a humiliating financial nightmare
Disability benefit claimant
I first tried to claim disability benefits in the 1990s. It was the most humiliating experience.
I filled in a form detailing when the problems had started, but they clearly didn’t want to cough up the back pay. I was given an interview appointment, and interrogated by a doctor there.
He didn’t stop to give me a chance to answer the questions, trying to keep me off balance, switching the subject in the hope of catching me out. I left in tears. I rang up to complain, but his report had me so far from meeting the criteria that I just felt hopeless and gave up.
My phone interview with Capita last October wasn’t much different. They really take the piss.
The assessment centre is on the fourth floor, and the lift doesn’t always work. There are double yellow lines outside, and the nearest car park is further than their walking distance limit for you to qualify as unable to work!
I refused to attend in person, but they would repeatedly cancel my home appointments and reschedule for the centre. The whole process took six months.
Having to continually revisit all the pain and trauma is so harrowing and upsetting. I emotionally dread completing those applications. When I have asked to see my records, they include errors and things I would never have said – like being able to stand on my tiptoes.
I was given a lifetime award on Disability Living Allowance. But when it changed to Personal Independence Payment, I had to start all over again.
The level I qualified for was reduced twice. It was a massive financial blow. I lost the motability allowance towards an adapted car, which has been key to me maintaining a degree of independence.
The struggle for a wheelchair was also fraught. The ones available on the NHS are either too heavy or painful to sit in. If you want something that actually meets your needs, you inevitably have to pay out of your own pocket.
During the Covid pandemic, the usual support I would receive has not been available. Due to NHS cuts, the staffing and resources are not there to cope with the crisis.
The lockdown has shown the possibilities for flexible working. Yet I can feel so isolated and useless sometimes.
When I did my Open University degree, I could take breaks when I needed. They even sent an invigilator out so that I could take the exams at home, with a lie-down part way through.
But the flexibility of working in this way has never been an option from employers. I had to accept that I would be unable to contribute income to our household or have financial independence.
When you are a disabled woman, with little income, you need a will of steel to keep fighting and not be fobbed off. But it does wear you down.
You feel like you cannot complain or disagree with official opinion because it will count against you. It shouldn’t have to be this hard. I just want to get off the roundabout.
West Sussex Tories want to cut adult services by half
Sarah Welch, Portsmouth Socialist Party
Tory West Sussex County Council is proposing to cut adult services by 50%, from £10 million to £5 million. It says that these cuts will not take place until 2022-23, but many community projects have already had their funding cut. This will be the third round of cuts to adult services since 2011.
It is proposing that all adults living in residential places or supported living will no longer have access to day care. This will mean that many people in supported living will just stay in their homes, with carers coming in a few times a day.
For the remainder of the day, they will be left on their own. This will severely impact on their mental health, as they will become extremely isolated and bored.
These are the most vulnerable people in our community. As carers, we fear for their safety.
Adults living at home, with family, will have priority for day care services. However, they will be restricted to three days a week, rather than four or five.
They will only be able to access one provider. This doesn’t just limit their choice, but providers do not have many spaces. It is unlikely that they would be able to provide three days a week. What happens during the rest of the week? What about carers who have work responsibilities?
To add insult to injury, since 2018 there has been a nationwide charge called the ‘client contribution’ or Minimum Income Guarantee. The local authority decides how much a person needs to live on, generally less than a £100 a week! Anything that you receive on top, other benefits for example, is taken to ‘pay’ for your care.
West Sussex council is reassessing everyone without notifying carers. My son was paying out £37.70 a week, but now has to pay £77 a week.
The legality of this tax is being questioned. Norfolk County Council was taken to the High Court about the client contribution and lost.
The campaign against these cuts has been difficult, mainly because of Covid rules. The council has used this to its advantage.
Council meetings have been secret, and not open to the public. We have tried to obtain minutes and recordings.
But they send documents that are clearly not minutes, and tell us meetings have not been recorded or they have had technical problems.
The council says there will be a consultation about the cuts. But it will not tell us when, how and where the consultation will take place.
We know cuts have been made already. Many providers had their budgets cut by 20% at the end of last year, and are now unable to provide many of the activities that people enjoyed. People who are about to go into supported living have been told that they will not be able to access day care.
Many people have been fobbed off by councillors and MPs. The media have taken some interest, but articles in the press and programmes like South Today have been weak, and have not got our message across. We started the campaign with a petition, which got a really good response.
Anger at the client contribution, or ‘disability tax’ as we call it, is rising. Many people are so incensed by the huge increases only to have a lesser service. The idea of mass non-payment of this tax is becoming increasingly popular.
We will continue to fight these cuts. We will always fight for vulnerable people who are continually attacked by a system that sees them as surplus to requirement.
Capitalism discriminates against us
David Maples, Merton Unison, chair (personal capacity)
The recent, rather brief, disabled workers’ conference for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), with just three hours of debate, gave a sharp focus to the experiences of disabled workers during the pandemic.
Six in ten of all Covid deaths are from disabled people. If you are disabled and male, you are 6.5 times more likely to die from Covid than a non-disabled man. For disabled women, it’s 11.3 times more likely than non-disabled women.
In the 2008-09 recession, disabled workers were more likely than non-disabled workers to experience negative changes to our terms and conditions and working practices, such as wage freezes, reduced overtime and the reorganisation of work. Research has revealed that during economic upturns disabled workers are the last to gain employment, and during downturns we are first to lose our jobs.
Office for National Statistics data shows that redundancy rates are 62% higher for disabled than non-disabled workers. In 2015, the Tory manifesto pledged to halve the gap between the employment rates for disabled and non-disabled people. At the time it was 34%. It is still almost 30%.
Disabled workers face double discrimination. Not only are we less likely to be in work, but when we are, we are paid less than non-disabled workers. TUC research shows that disabled workers face 20% lower pay. This is equivalent to earning £2.10 less an hour. The TUC is calling for mandatory disability pay gap reporting.
40% of employers say that they are discouraged from hiring disabled job applicants, because of concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic. 20% admitted they would be less likely overall to hire someone with a disability. 71% of disabled workers were affected by the pandemic, either through a loss of income, being put on furlough or having been made redundant.
Until the pandemic, most employers were reluctant to allow homeworking. But a Unison survey found that 73% of disabled workers were more productive or just as productive when working from home.
It reduced pain and fatigue, due to less commuting and the ability to work more flexibly, with additional breaks or a later starting time. The survey found fewer disabled workers took sickness absence, as they were able to manage their condition better.
Mandatory homeworking has had a negative impact on some disabled workers. However, homeworking should be the worker’s choice, not something imposed.
Changes to the welfare system over the past ten years have left disabled adult claimants four times worse off financially than non-disabled adult claimants according to Disability Benefits Consortium. TUC research found that disabled people were more than three times as likely to use food banks as non-disabled people. Nearly half of people in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families which include a disabled person.
Sanctions do not move disabled workers closer to paid work. Instead, they often worsen many disabled workers’ existing illnesses and conditions, particularly mental health conditions.
The pandemic has worsened accessibility, isolation and barriers to disability rights. Disabled women were already twice as likely as other women to experience domestic abuse.
New coronavirus rules effectively free local authorities of some of their duties to provide social care under the Care Act 2014, and reduce protections enshrined in the Mental Health Act, so it takes fewer medical professionals to detain someone.
Between 2014 and 2016 over half of union reps reported that they had dealt with disability-related issues. In a recent survey by public sector union Unison, half of respondents said they face barriers to doing their job that could be removed through adjustments.
Over two thirds who requested reasonable adjustments had some or all refused. 23% who requested adjustments waited a year or more to receive what they needed.
In 2019, the TUC found that one in ten disabled workers, 391,000 people, had dropped out of work over the previous 12 months. Government research found that disabled workers are twice as likely to fall out of work as non-disabled workers. Figures like this point to one of the reasons that the disability employment rate continues to persist at around 30%.
The TUC is calling on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to improve its employment code of practice which provides a detailed explanation of the Equality Act 2010. This could be useful as long as it is accompanied by trade unions encouraging disabled workers to get organised and enhanced training for union reps on disability issues.
However, the EHRC has most recently shown itself as a body to put the boot into Corbynism, with false allegations of antisemitism, rather than a campaigning body to improve conditions in capitalist society.
The TUC approach is largely limited to lobbying government and the employers. The TUC disabled workers’ committee comments that it will campaign to amend the Equality Act 2010 “when it has confidence a government will reform the Equality Act to make the positive changes requested.” This raises the question, will a Labour government be better than the Tories?
Labour didn’t repeal the Tory anti-trade union laws. As often with TUC conferences, it was left to the transport union RMT to point out that Britain’s anti-union laws – restricting strike action to narrowly defined ‘trade disputes’ and barring strikes against wider issues that affect disabled people – hamper disabled workers in fighting for our rights.
Disabled workers need strong workplace organisation. They cannot rely on lobbying a hostile government. The struggle for LGBT+ rights was driven forward by mass action like the Stonewall protests.
The Tory-Lib Dem coalition government from 2010 saw disabled people as a soft target. A strategy of whipping up prejudice against benefit claimants was designed to create a favourable climate for attacking the benefits disabled people, and others, need for a reasonable standard of living.
But large campaigns by disabled activists, especially against the Welfare Reform Act, helped to counter this. George Osborne, the then Tory chancellor, was famously booed by 80,000 people when presenting medals at the Paralympics in 2012.
Disabled people will return to the methods of protest. We have more than enough to protest about.
- This article deals with some of the issues facing disabled workers. The Socialist would welcome more contributions on this subject – [email protected]
The Socialist Party demands:
- Trade union control over health and safety and the ‘access to work’ service
- ‘Reasonable adjustments’ should be a collective issue
- A supportive benefits system based on the real cost of disability, extra support for higher costs during the pandemic, and compensation for restricted employment opportunities
- Trade union control over the benefit system to make it supportive rather than punitive
- Full pensions with no reductions because of lower pay or a shorter working lifetime