In my second year at university, I volunteered to help at the 2010 Special Olympic Games in Warsaw (Poland), the largest sporting competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Unfortunately, the Special Olympics are held in the shadow of the more famous Paralympic Games which come immediately after the Olympics. Nevertheless I was surprised and moved to find the Special Olympics athletes so vigorous and high-spirited that I would never have thought they had mental disabilities in the first place. This experience showed me in no uncertain terms that if we create a society of support and care for those who need it, everyone will benefit tremendously in all sorts of ways.
Such thinking is conspicuously absent in the British government’s pursuit of economic growth. The British economy went into recession in 2008 and pulled out of it one year later, but ever since then economic growth has been sluggish. The government believes that budget cuts will stimulate the economy. The proposed cuts mean many losers as they are regarded as the most severe cuts in any developed Western nation so far. The Institute of Fiscal Studies says that they are ‘the longest, deepest, most sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since the Second World War.
Disability must no longer be life-long pain and suffering if a nurturing and supportive environment is provided. Unfortunately, Britain will provide it no more. Credit: Rolstoel (CC0 1.0)
The biggest cuts are in the welfare budget. In 2010 this part of budget was reduced by £18 billion with a further £11 billion per year scheduled to be cut by 2014. Another of the reforms is the introduction of the ‘universal credit’, which will replace existing schemes such as the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support, Allowance (ESA) and Housing Benefits (HB). In the end each household will only be entitled to £ 28,000 of state support. This is a radical shift not only in terms of cuts to allowances. It’s also a radical mental shift which releases the state from its previous obligations to help citizens.
Now every country has a right to manage its fiscal policy according to its economic policies and values. But I find nothing more appalling that making cuts in services dedicated to people in severe need. Disabled people include all sorts of people with physical and mental disabilities, inherited in the genes, caused by accidents like car crashes or developed in old age. But whatever cause they have, there is a fundamental consensus that disabled people want to live a productive and dignified life and that state support should help them be an active part of the society they live in.
According to the Children’s Society and Citizens Advice and Disability Rights UK, up to half a million disabled people and their families stand to lose out under the government’s proposed Universal Credit. They also point out that about 230,000 severely disabled people who have no adult to support them will receive between £28 and £58 less in benefits every week. There are fears that the drop in support will translate into cuts in food and shelter. In my opinion, this should not be a choice facing citizens living in developed, high income countries.
But not only that: arguing for the rights of the disabled will be difficult with the sets of stereotypes currently paraded in the media. In times of austerity, the money spent on disabled people is seen as spending taxes on benefit scroungers. A study by Disability Rights UK shows that over 76% of disabled people feel that there is now more hostility to them and more negative media perceptions about them. This is not a good environment where all voices to be heard in the reform of the welfare system. After all, no one wants to listen to someone who sees the welfare system as a ‘cash cow’ for those too lazy to work. As such, I think that we are slowly but steadily creating an exclusionary and unequal society.
In my last job I helped disabled university students take academic notes and study materials. Such help was not seen as giving them an extra advantage over their peers but rather as helping them fulfill their academic potential. And I felt that this is true – these students don’t skip classes and with our help they had their academic notes and books to write their assignments and essays. I know that they will complete their academic degrees because they were given proper support to realize their potential.
This year the United Nations committee called on the UK government to assess the impact of its austerity measures on disabled people. At the moment the full impact of budget cuts on the disabled is unknown. But it is already clear enough that we are moving towards an unequal and discriminatory society where many groups will fall behind into the poverty trap. In ten years’ time, Britain will most likely never be same again for far too many people.