When David Cameron attends next week's Paralympics, no doubt smugly grinning from ear to ear as he celebrates this showcasing of disabled athletic talent, he deserves to be met with cries of "shame". He leads a government that is systematically attacking the rights of the sick and disabled. Their financial support is being confiscated; their ability to lead independent lives attacked; they are subjected to humiliating tests; they are demonised as "scroungers" and drains on the public purse; and abuse towards them is soaring. Keith Robertson, from the Scottish Disability Equality Forum, is warning that so-called welfare reform is leaving disabled people feeling "suicidal".
It looks like a crude attempt at dark humour, but this year's Paralympics are sponsored by Atos, a corporation charged with driving disabled people off benefits. Using the points-based work capability assessment, Atos examine those with disabilities or illnesses: those who receive less than 15 points are deemed "fit for work" and lose their Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Not only is it an often degrading process – the charity Mind describe the assessments as "unfit for purpose" and having "a detrimental impact on people with mental health problems" – but many seriously ill people are being judged able to work. As gold medal-winning Paralympian Tara Flood puts it: "It is a shocking irony that Atos is a main sponsor of London 2012 while destroying disabled people's lives on behalf of the government."
Activists from Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut will drive the point home during the opening ceremony. They have gathered 85 pages worth of stories about how sick and disabled people have been treated. "The stories are disgusting, really harrowing," says DPAC's Linda Burnip. "They are people who are really, really seriously ill who couldn't possibly be expected to work – and yet they're being found capable." Disabled people are being driven to "suicide and death", she says. The stories will be placed in a coffin and delivered to Atos's headquarters.
Do you think a coffin is overdoing it a little? A Freedom of Information request in April found that 32 people were dying a week after failing the work capability assessment. In the first eight months of last year, 1,100 claimants died after being put in the "work-related activity group", meaning that they had been found capable of some work, reducing their benefits and time-limiting them to a year.
Statistics are often difficult to connect with, so let me offer a human being. Karen Sherlock had her ESA stopped by what she described as "this inhumane government". Her twitter account – @pusscat01 – remains, where her biography reads: "Preparing for dialysis. Each day is tough xx". Her kidneys were failing, but she had been found capable of some work and placed in an activity group with time-limited benefits. She died in June. As disability rights campaigner Sue Marsh put it: "Now she's dead and she died in fear because the system failed her, because cruel men refused to listen and powerful men refused to act."
Of hundreds of thousands who have appealed decisions to strip them of benefits, nearly 40 per cent have won – but not before going through an incredibly stressful experience. Politicians and journalists alike will laud Paralympians as they win gold medals, but some of these will have their benefits stripped too – by the very sponsor of the Games. No wonder GPs in May unanimously called for the work capability assessment to be scrapped, arguing it had "little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons".
And the Government is determined to drive half a million people off the Disability Living Allowance, which is not means-tested and is estimated by the Government to have a fraud rate of less than 0.5 per cent. "People think it's an out-of-work benefit, but it isn't," says Sue Marsh. "It's a working benefit that helps disabled people to achieve what they want to achieve." Many Paralympians will have qualified for it, allowing them to get to training sessions, have extra transport, and so on. In short, the means for disabled people to have an independent, dignified life is being trashed.
Then there's the supporting 21,000 severely disabled people, which will be closed by 2015. "It allows them to go to university, go places with friends and family, do things others take for granted," says Ms Burnip. Her own son is a recipient, and it allows him to work: "I don't know what his future is, if he has any." In Worcestershire, the county council is considering plans to scrap support for at-home care. Across the country, disabled people face being driven into care homes, ending their independent existence.
Human need has nothing to do with these decisions. Compare arbitrary targets to slash welfare spending by a fifth to the Govern-ment's estimates of overall disability benefit fraud, which is less than 1 per cent. In Cameron's Britain, support for the disabled is a luxury no longer affordable.
Human empathy is strong, and attacking society's most vulnerable can only be achieved through a campaign of demonisation. Benefits fraud may be extremely low, but "scroungers" are portrayed by the media as the norm. The Sun has launched what it calls a "crusade to end the scandalous benefits fraud crippling the country", cynically attempting to divert anger away from those who caused the economic crisis.
This has consequences for real people. Last month, 46 per cent of respondents to a survey by the charity, Scope, reported that attitudes towards the disabled had worsened over the year. "It's telling these figures come as the Government continues to put weeding illegitimate claimants at the heart of its welfare rhetoric," says its chief executive Richard Hawkes. The media attacks have left the disabled and their families "feeling very demoralised and depressed", says Emily Holzhausen of Carers UK.
So, by all means, let us celebrate the Paralympics. But don't let this Government capitalise on it. They are leaving sick and disabled people frightened, impoverished, stripped of dignity, independence and hope. Not that they are taking it lying down. Disabled activists will stage actions throughout the Games, demanding to be heard, and I hope many of you will support and join them. Cameron will hope that the victims of his policies will suffer silently: but, if they don't, these devastating policies can be defeated – and the struggle for dignity, security and independence can be won.
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