Disabled by society

By Nicola Sleap
11 Feb 2011

Now is a time when Jesus’ call to stand alongside the socially excluded cannot be ignored. Government cuts threaten to impact severely upon such groups. Disabled people stand to lose much and gain little in the current reforms. Cuts to overtly disability-related spending such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) will alone cause profound damage.

Social care cuts and reform will compound this and further reduce independence and reverse progress in the struggle for equality between disabled and non-disabled people. These cuts are even more regressive in light of thought on disability rights and the social model of disability.

The social model of disability contends that disabled people are largely "disabled" by the actions of society. It is these actions and society’s inability to recognise and meet disabled people’s access needs, rather than their impairment itself, which is the most significant limiting factor in their lives.

"Disabled" therefore becomes a label under which many with a great variety of impairments can come together. Dyslexics are often disabled by the lack of resource provisions in colours other than black text on a white background. Deaf people might be disabled by a lack of textphone facilities. Wheelchair users are disabled by physically inaccessible buildings such as those with steps at the entrance. Those with mental health impairments are often disabled by society’s inability to recognise and attempt to understand their impairment.

This highlights the broad range of impairments that can lead to disability. The disability rights movement could certainly benefit from all disabled people, both invisibly and visibly impaired, standing as one.

As Christians, we should interpret Jesus’ call to his apostles to heal as a call to us to heal a society which continues to marginalise the disabled. This should guide us in the consequent action that we take.

Discrimination in the mass media built up over decades against those on benefits has only furthered this need to heal our society. However, it has been encouraging to see people such as Riven Vincent who speak out about the broken social care system given space in the mass media in recent months. The government dismissing social care issues as local makes instances such as this all the more saddening. Disabled people and those close to them should not have to dwell on the negatives in their lives and induce pity in order to receive such attention.

Under the proposals for the reform of DLA, people with impairments face increased disability. For instance, the mobility component will no longer be assessed on a person’s ability to walk. Their ability to "get around more generally" with aids and adaptations will instead form the basis of assessment. This seems to imply that with the use of wheelchairs the mobility-impaired person can achieve equality with the non-mobility-impaired. Whilst there are inaccessible buildings and rooms this remains untrue.

Furthermore, many wheelchair users face issues with transferring their wheelchair into and out of vehicles, accessing various means of transport, and with carrying and moving things. DLA also secures access to bus passes and blue badges. The benefit should therefore remain in place for such wheelchair users, to secure this access and to cover their increased transport and equipment costs.

Other proposed changes such as assessment by an "independent healthcare professional" will have potentially devastating effects on many. Such a professional will have little if any idea as to the day-to-day life of a disabled person from meeting them briefly. Through reducing the number of possible care levels from three to two, the new benefit will be even less capable of reflecting complex and varying needs.

These proposed changes in assessment should be seen in light of the government aim of cutting DLA by 20 per cent. Add further the DWP’s own estimate of a fraud rate at 0.5 per cent, and it seems unlikely that many who have considerable need will be considered to be amongst "those with the greatest need" and remain in receipt of the benefit.

Disabled people should lead the disability rights movement. In ways, such as through the internet and as is seen at http://onemonthbeforeheartbreak.blogspot.com/, they are currently. However in the case of DLA reform and other cuts many disabled people cannot attend protests due to their impairments.

This is perhaps where Christians, disabled or not, could take a stand on disability rights, ideally through engaging with and enabling disabled members of their community. This could be done through planning, organisation, and provision of transport to organised protest. Some disabled people may want to be represented by others where they cannot attend protest in person.

Impairment, especially in terms of chronic illness (such as cancer, MS, strokes, chronic fatigue syndrome), could cause any of us at any given time to be disabled. This disabling of our communities through cuts is not an issue from which the non-disabled should distance themselves. Disability will soon be increased through government actions. Surely Jesus would have hoped that Christians would act to counter such disablement.

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(c) Nicola Sleap is studying for a PhD in Theology and is a disability rights campaigner.

The public consultation on reform of Disability Living Allowance ends on 18 February (the date had originally been set as 14 February, but has been extended).

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