Peter Stanford: David Cameron, disability, and the nasty party

There is an enduring stereotype, firmly rooted in the British psyche, that holds that disabled people are basically trying it on. Think the Little Britain character Andy, a wheelchair-user only when it enables him to exploit his carer, Lou, and the rest of society. As a child with a disabled mother, I lost count of the number of people who made clear by their remarks that they assumed she could walk if only she tried a bit harder.

One of the achievements of recent years has been the nurturing of a more realistic view of disability. Issues like access to buildings have been tackled. But then along came David Cameron yesterday with plans to address what he calls the "something for nothing" culture. Simple. Force all 2.64 million recipients of incapacity benefit to prove that they are really disabled. At least 200,000 of them he says on who knows what basis are trying it on.

Now this is an approach that will play well with his core Tory audience. It reminds me of Peter Lilley's Mikado pastiche, at the party conference of 1992, when he was cheered for singing "I've Got A Little List" of "welfare scroungers". But isn't Cameron meant to have changed all that nastiness?

For the past 15 years I have been chair of Aspire, the national spinal injuries charity, and have met hundreds of men and women on incapacity benefit who are desperate to get off it and into work. They have no absence of willpower, and certainly don't want to live out their days on the pittance that is incapacity benefit.

The real problem is that too many disabled people struggle to find employers willing to make the adjustments needed to working practices necessary for them to achieve their full potential. At our Aspire offices around the country, we have done jsut that because we appoint the best candidate for the job, regardless of their physical abilities/disabilities, with significant benefits to our business.

To be practical, many young, talented men and women with spinal cord injuries especially higher-level ones that not only paralyse their legs, but impact on their hand and arm movements and deprive them of full bladder and bowel control will struggle to get up, get ready and get to work by 9am. Many of them manage to. But for some, what takes the rest of us 10 minutes can necessitate several hours and the help of a carer/personal assistant. Likewise, however willing and able they are mentally, they may not be up to the physical demands of a full-time job, so will require flexible, part-time arrangements.

No wonder a report just out from Leonard Cheshire Disability shows that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as the non-disabled. And even if a disabled person finds a decent employer, they then have to face educating their colleagues. We are slowly laying to rest many of the "does-he-take-sugar" type myths, but there remains a long, long way to go.

What's particularly troubling about Cameron's intervention is that he is supposed to have special insight into all this. Since before he became the Tory leader he has made repeated references to how having a disabled son had opened his eyes to prejudices.

Yet, back in October, there he was telling an Arts Council lunch that he would be axing grants to "one-legged Lithuanian dance troupes". He subsequently apologised to the Lithuanians, but not to those like Welly O'Brien, a 28-year performer with the integrated (and Arts Council funded) dance company, CandoCo, who lost a leg in a rail accident when she was a teenager. CandoCo even wrote to Cameron, offering to show him how those with disabilities can dance at the highest level. They are still waiting for a reply.

In which context, I suppose, there is nothing surprising about Cameron's enthusiasm for putting almost 3 million disabled people on notice that they may lose their benefits on the basis of what can only be an arbitrary assessment for a doctor (conditions like MS, which my mother had, produce different symptoms, and none, from day to day). There are, undoubtedly, a few who exploit the system, but Cameron's tactic is that of the teacher keeping in the whole school to catch one miscreant. Disabled people are not children and shouldn't be treated as such.

Perhaps this self-styled "compassionate Conservative" might have considered giving employers greater encouragement/incentives to accommodate the flexible working practices that would undoubtedly usher more disabled people off benefit and into the workplace. Or he could use his own first-hand experience to spearhead a campaign to tackle those residual prejudices that make people laugh knowingly at Little Britain's Andy.

Instead, for all the window dressing, Cameron reveals himself as nothing more or less than a Thatcherite. Given the choice between confronting employers, appealing to society's better side, or punishing the needy, he instinctively targets the vulnerable. Shame on him.