As someone who has lived with cerebral palsy since birth, I know one thing: disability costs. If you won’t take my word for it, take the word of Scope, which set up the Extra Costs Commission to look into the extra costs disabled people face in daily life. The report found that on average, disabled people spend an extra £212 billion per year on disability-related expenditure alone. To put that in perspective for the individual, that equates to £550 per month.
Personally speaking, utilities are a high area of expenditure for me. Electricity is vital as it operates all my disability-related equipment, not least my wheelchair, my electric bed and hoist to lift me out of bed. Extra laundry costs are often incurred, and heating during the winter. That is without even mentioning care charges imposed by local councils.
I am lucky that I receive a wheelchair from the NHS, but without it I would be bedbound. As I look over my computer keyboard, I see an invoice from my local council for my contributions to my care. The figures are eye-watering - but I manage, because being disabled is not a choice.
More on this:
Unfit for purpose: Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms of disability benefits go too far
People choose to be poor and disabled – this is the logic behind the Tories' £12bn of welfare cuts
So imagine my reaction when I heard "John", featured in the first of these clips from the radio station LBC, describe those with disabilities as “malingerers.” Supposedly representative of everyday Britons, John is convinced that the disabled are secretly swindling him out of millions with their unwillingness to work.
In John’s eyes, I am a malingerer and a nuisance. I have been assessed as being unable to work, and I have, as he suggests, received help through the full range of disability benefits from the government including housing benefit. As I am unable to complete any activities of daily living without help, I also receive 24-hour personal care from an agency, 365 days a year. Without it, I simply couldn’t survive. I would be compromised in terms of hydration, nutrition and hygiene. I am quadriplegic and lack movement in all four limbs. When you’re in my position, you need support just to stay alive.
John’s fury toward those receiving benefits such as mine went so far as to provoke him to say that he wished he would get cancer in his leg so he could live with the perks. I don’t need to point out that this sort of assertion is as naive as it is vile. But the idea that if he had an injury or illness – or, indeed, if he was good at playing the system – he’d be able to live the high life is hopelessly out of touch with the truth.
According to 2014 figures, actual benefit-related fraud is very low. A piece published by Left Foot Forward found that the percentage stood at 0.7 per cent of total welfare expenditure. Peter Grigg of Who Benefits notes that the vast majority of claimants claim correctly and for the right reasons. More worrying, however, was Grigg’s revelation that public perception of benefit fraud is 34 times higher than the actual published figures. So in a sense we have come full circle. The media is aiding and abetting perceptions like John’s.
We in the media have a responsibility to practice honesty, to represent the political sphere and the world as it truly is to the best of our knowledge, and not to fuel erroneous perceptions like John’s. It’s worth pointing out that he was robustly challenged by presenter Tom Swarbrick, but his words have stayed with me as a reminder of what too many in the British public still believe. Would John really take the chance to change places with me? Somehow, I very much doubt it.