In 2017, the United Nations declared that the conditions for disabled people in Britain were tantamount to a ‘human catastrophe’ and things haven’t got better since. In this post, I want to give a brief overview of what life is like for disabled people in Britain today.
Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic is further erasing our rights and quality of life, I want to focus here on the pre-coronavirus situation.
The United Nations report drew attention to the high levels of poverty experienced by disabled people and the insufficient resources available to support disabled people to live independently in the community. Further, it found that:
“Most of the breaches – which were all under articles 19 (independent living), article 27 (work and employment) and article 28 (adequate standard of living and social protection) of the convention – were caused by policies introduced by Conservative ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) between 2010 and 2015.”
– Disability News Service
Austerity and Cuts
“From its election as part of a coalition government in 2010, the British Conservative Party under David Cameron oversaw a programme of cuts not seen since the 1920s.”
– Frances Ryan, Crippled
In 2013, the Centre for Welfare Reform established that disabled people would feel the government spending cuts more significantly than non disabled people:
“The cuts are not fair. They target the very groups that a decent society would protect:
People in poverty (1 in 5 of us) bear 39% of all the cuts
Disabled people (1 in 13 of us) bear 29% of all the cuts
People with severe disabilities (1 in 50 of us) bear 15% of all the cuts”
Disabled people as lazy benefit scroungers
In order to get away with this unequal allocation of the burden, it was necessary to cast those affected as liars and cheats and lazy benefit scroungers. The government vilified us, cast us as fakers and frauds. We have been treated with contempt, suspicion and generally treated as less than human.
There has been an increase in hate crimes, fuelled by resentment as the wider public are led to believe that disabled people are handed everything on a silver platter. The government has been emphasising the idea of disabled people as lazy, wanting to get something from nothing and being a burden. People are treated cruelly and it’s often assumed we are faking or exaggerating our disability for the benefits, the blue badge and so on. You feel the need to prove, over and over again – to the government and the public – that you really are in pain or really are disabled or really do warrant that blue badge or seat on the bus.
“The level of scrutiny all benefits claimants feel under is so brutal that it is no surprise that supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has a policy to share CCTV “where we are asked to do so by a public or regulatory authority such as the police or the Department for Work and Pensions”. Gym memberships, airport footage and surveillance video from public buildings are now used to build cases against claimants, with posts from social media used to suggest people are lying about their disabilities. More and more private companies are being asked to send in footage. The atmosphere is one of pervasive suspicion, fuelled by TV programmes such as Benefits Street… The number of benefits investigators has increased substantially in recent years, from 2,600 to 3,700 from 2015 to 2016, while only 700 people investigate the super-rich. This is despite the fact benefits fraud costs the government around £1.3bn a year compared to around £34bn for tax evasion.”
– The Guardian
The reality of benefits
In reality however, being disabled is hard work, frustrating and expensive. It costs more to be disabled, both financially and emotionally.
On average, a disabled person faces additional costs of £583 a month compared to a non disabled person and one in five disabled people face costs in excess of £1,000 a month. It’s been calculated that it’s 43% more expensive for families to raise a disabled child compared to a non disabled child.
Then there is the idea that we are all faking our disabilities which comes with a high emotional toll and doesn’t have any statistics to back up the idea. It was estimated that Disability Living Allowance had a fraud rate of just 0.5% and yet the government still felt it necessary to replace it with Personal Independence Payment.
Further, the government’s propaganda has led to people believing that 24% of benefits claims are fraudulent when the reality is an estimated 0.7% of claims.
And if that emotional toll is not enough, living on benefits is difficult. If you receive Employment and Support Allowance you could be getting as little as £70 a week. If you get ‘lucky’ and receive £100, that works out to be the equivalent of being paid £2.70 per hour for a 37 hour week. It’s £14 a day. To cover groceries, utility bills, any rent or mortgage payments, phone bills, transport costs and more.
In 2018, Joseph Rowntree Foundation found over a third of all adults living in poverty are disabled. Scope, in 2017 found one in 5 disabled people were living in food poverty; routinely skipping meals and missing vital nutrients which in turn is likely to have health consequences of its own.
Measures introduced since 2010 include the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax support, changes to the benefits system which reduce how much disabled people receive as well as the number of people eligible and the introduction of Universal Credit.
“As of 2017, new recipients of one category of ESA have seen the benefit shrink by almost a third – down to seventy-three pounds a week – with half a million people who are too disabled or sick to work set to lose over £1,500 a year each.”
– Frances Ryan
A key way the government was planning on saving money was by reducing the number of people getting disability benefits, meaning they went into the changes with targets. Specifically, ministers were estimating that 500,000 fewer sick and disabled working age people would be eligible. This of course meant tightening up the criteria and refusing people who were eligible. So many denied applications have been approved at appeal – 71% of welfare benefit appeals overall had the initial decision revised in favour of the claimant which reflects shockingly on the quality of the initial assessment and decision making process. It’s almost as though they are hoping people don’t have the energy to appeal…
Another way the government is able to save money is through sanctions; withholding benefits because the claimant has done something ‘wrong’ such as not turning up for a review because they were in hospital.
“Between 2013 and 2014, sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people rose by 580 per cent.”
Going through the benefits system has an impact on both physical and mental health and at the same time as the government is making it harder to get benefits, it is also cutting the support available to help disabled people in the workplace. Access to Work is a scheme which pays for things like equipment, computer software and interpreters to help disabled people at work. Cutting the funds available mean less work opportunities and hence less income and more reliance on benefits.
Even if you are in work, as a disabled person you are more likely to be in an insecure, low wage job and in 2017 it was reported that the pay gap between disabled and non disabled people was 13.6%.
Social care is yet another way that disabled people have been hit by cuts. Billions of pounds of money has been slashed since 2010, money that helps disabled adults as well as older people to live at home.
So often this is portrayed as being about older people but disabled adults, including disabled adults in work, are a significant chunk of social care packages. This means that money spent on social care helps to keep people in employment – if you haven’t got the help you need to get out of bed or get dressed, then you aren’t going to be able to go to work.
A study by Scope in 2015 found that 8 out of 10 disabled people don’t have enough social care hours. The reality of this is people waiting hours to go to the toilet, not getting washed or changed daily and not being able to cook or eat. If you do have the hours you need, they may well not be at a time you need. I was regularly put to bed at 5.30pm, despite being in my 20s.
Funding for social care is mostly discussed in terms of older people being forced to sell their homes but there are many disabled adults who are forced to pay a contribution towards their care. Whilst this is couched in terms of a proportionate amount, the reality is they take any income above the amount that you would receive in benefits.
Research from 2016 found that 1.8 million disabled people were struggling to find accessible housing. Further, one in six disabled adults and half of all disabled children live in housing that is not suitable for their needs.
This goes beyond just being frustrating and is actually dangerous, as well as expensive. Poor housing costs the health service £600 million every year, such as falls, poor mental health because of the housing situation, people being unable to get to the bathroom to shower etc. It also impacts on the health and wellbeing of anyone carrying out a caring role, whether paid or voluntary. I’m thinking of things like my carers having to lift my very heavy electric wheelchair up a step to get it into my old flat. There was no ability to add a ramp and they could easily have hurt themselves doing it.
Not having accessible homes also means disabled people may be unable to leave to go to work. If I hadn’t had care for other reasons, I wouldn’t have been able to leave my flat on my own and wouldn’t have been able to go to work.
But even if you have a home that you can get into, you likely need additional adaptations and right now, there can be a wait of over two years for help with that…
“67% of councils report disabled people not having crucial home adaptations completed within the 12-month deadline. 23% of councils report disabled people waiting over two years for completion of works.”
– Leonard Cheshire