Politics and the Paralympics: Voters are against cuts to disability benefits

Coalition praises athletes but overlooks others, says survey

Four in 10 people believe the Government is not doing enough to support people with disabilities, as ministers face charges of hypocrisy for talking up the Paralympic Games at the same time as implementing sweeping changes to the welfare state.

Three-quarters of people think that people with disabilities often experience prejudice or discrimination in society, wihile almost the same proportion think disabled people are invisible in the media outside the Paralympics.

But it is the suggestion, by 41 per cent of people, that the Government could do more to help that will reverberate in Westminster at a time when the public has been gripped by the spectacle of the Paralympics. The pollsters ComRes were commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation to conduct the survey before the Games, with the expectation that the public would demand better support for the disabled as the gold medal rush continues.

Ministers insist reforms are designed to help more people with disabilities into work, ensure only those who need help get it, and end benefits dependency. But critics are concerned that the sight of elite Paralympic athletes on the world stage will put pressure on all disabled people to defend themselves against charges of being "scroungers".

There are also fears that spending cuts across Whitehall and town halls are hitting disability charities, which would otherwise be able to provide help if state assistance is cut. Almost three in four people said it is important to donate to charities that support people with disabilities, while 44 per cent say the Paralympic Games will make them more likely to give to good causes.

John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said: "The Paralympic effect is already helping to change attitudes and make people think more positively about disabled people. That is great news. They are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to celebrate and get behind elite disabled athletes on British soil – surely this will change the way we think and cause us to reappraise how we can give our time and money to support the causes we care about."

The Government has heaped praise on the Paralympics, hailing them as even more impressive and inspirational than the Olympics. But with reforms aimed at savings billions of pounds from the bill for disability allowances, ministers know they could come under pressure to do more for the athletes they have been applauding.

David Cameron hinted at this unease in interviews before the Paralympics last week. "There's always more we can do," he said. "And I'm sure there will be plenty of requests this week and the next for more. I think we can be proud of our record. But, more than any funding can do, I think the Paralympics will really demonstrate to people some things about disability, some things about what these incredible people can achieve which can change their views and inspire a whole generation of people."

But writing today in The Independent on Sunday, comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy, said his remarks were "pure hypocrisy" at a time when the Government "carefully erodes the welfare system that helped many of the same athletes to achieve their dreams".

The list of changes to funding support for people with disabilities is long. Replacing disability living allowance with the personal independence payment (PIP) is expected to save £1bn a year from 2014, by reassessing claimants and focusing on those with the greatest need. Ministers estimate that £600m a year is paid out to people who no longer qualify. Half a million fewer people are expected to receive help as a result of the switch to PIP, while a further 1.5m people claiming incapacity benefit are to be reassessed to see if they are fit for work.

The new employment and support allowance, which covers 700,000 claimants, will be paid for a limited time – 12 months – saving £1.7bn. The move to a new universal credit, replacing a raft of state support, will mean claimants with severe disabilities will receive more help, while others will lose out.

Liam Byrne, Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "Labour had a bold vision in office, which was to deliver equality for disabled people by 2025. We remain more determined than ever to make rights a reality for disabled people, and the Paralympics are an incredible inspiration for that cause."

On Friday, activists protested at the Department for Work and Pensions against Atos, the IT firm and sponsor of the Paralympics which is carrying out the Government's "fit for work" assessments. Opponents claim that these assessments are "damaging and distressing".

Defending the changes, Maria Miller, the minister for disability, told the BBC: "We have been working hard to make sure that we get the changes in the assessment right and, most importantly of all, making sure that this benefit is all about helping individuals live an independent life, not simply categorising them based on their impairment."

Tales of heroism, courage – and cuts

The Paralympics hopefully will challenge negative stereotypes. Until now, coverage of disability has either painted negative scroungers or cited triumph-over-adversity-heroism stories, which are both too extreme. Neither is helpful.

Guy Parckar; Head of policy and campaigns, Leonard Cheshire Disability

The Government is riding on the sunshine of this, and not answering questions about cuts to disability living allowance. I have no doubt that next year some athletes will have their achievements used against them when it comes to DLA reassessment.

Shannon Murray; Trainee lawyer, the world's first disabled model and a television actress

Disabled people are experiencing a reduction in support – with further government reductions due in 2013. Paralympians have described the difference such support has made: there is a real risk of disability rights slipping dramatically backwards.

Neil Coyle; Director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK

Once the Paralympic circus leaves town, things will go back to pretty much normal. The same government with the same zeal towards reforming benefits will still be in power. Many of us will continue to live in relative poverty.

Ian Macrae; Editor, Disability Now

The impact on the lives of non-sporting disabled people will be dependent on whether attitudes are changed by the achievements of those competing. My hope is that this will be the lasting legacy, and it will transform both social lives and employment prospects.

David Blunkett; Former Labour cabinet minister

Once personal independent payments replaces disability living allowance, don't expect the right to live independently any more. Local authority care packages are being slashed. Many of us fear being up a certain creek... What kind of Paralympic legacy is that?

Sophie Partridge; Disabled writer, actress, workshop artist, who took part in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony

The public puts disabled people into one of two categories: great sportsman, or victim, please donate now. Perceptions are changing, but we're moving two steps back: how is anybody with long-term severe disability meant to contribute if they don't have the money to exist?

Mark Beer; UK's first disabled television presenter and actor, who has cerebral palsy

Despite 40 years of change, many disabled people still can't get on a local bus or into gyms, mainstream schools and universities aren't always accessible. The worry would be that people see disabled people winning medals and then think that it is possible for all disabled people when it isn't.

Rhian Davies; Chief executive, Disability Wales

I think [the impact] has been overblown. One of my worst problems is attitudes: a woman came over in a restaurant and, without asking, kissed my cheek and said 'Isn't it amazing that she's out?'. Funding is also becoming a real problem.

Dr Christine Barton MBE, 67, from Sheffield is a wheelchair user with MS

A significant proportion of elite athletes are people who've acquired disabilities, and that's a really important distinction. People with disabilities aren't just you and me without limbs.

Dr Graham Jowett; Spokesman, Treloar Trust

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