A human catastrophe for disabled people, a scandal for our country

By Bernadette Meaden
August 25, 2017

For over seven years, disabled people in the UK have endured an onslaught from government which has caused immense suffering, and which some have not survived.

The combination of welfare reforms, based on the assumption that every disabled person was a possible fraudster who had to prove their innocence, and austerity, which targeted them disproportionately for cuts, has systematically stripped many of the support they need to lead a dignified life and the means to keep body and soul together.

When they protested they were said to be scaremongering, when they spoke of deaths they were said to be shroud waving, and in a debate in the House of Commons they were labelled ‘extremists’ by a Conservative MP. And of course, many couldn’t protest. They have simply suffered in silence, with some at the end of their lives being made to feel like a criminal or an unwanted burden, all peace of mind and security lost.

Throughout all this suffering the government, and the Department for Work and Pensions which has overseen and administered the suffering, maintained the fantasy of a caring government ‘looking after the most vulnerable’. It hid the truth behind a smokescreen of evasion, manipulation, and deceit. It replied to almost every challenge by either asserting that it was a ‘world leader’ in the field of disability, or by citing the amount of money spent on disabled people, as if they were not taxpayers and valued compatriots but simply a drain on the economy who should be grateful for the government’s largesse.

Repeatedly, the government has denied and hidden the truth about what its policies were doing to disabled people; the letters from Coroners linking suicides to benefit changes, and warning that more deaths would occur; the assessments which could find people close to death fit for work; the sanctions sending disabled people to foodbanks; the removal of social care which forced some to use incontinence pads simply because they had no assistance to get to the toilet. The litany of hardship, suffering and indignity is long, grim, and shameful. It should, in a decent country, have been a national scandal, with outrage sufficient to cause a complete change of course.

The fact that this hasn’t happened is an indictment of our society and our media. An indictment of our society because there has been some information available about what was happening, and people didn’t respond in sufficient numbers or with sufficient anger and conviction to make the government pause for thought.

But apart from some very honourable exceptions, our media, and particularly our national public service broadcaster, has really failed us.

Disabled People’s Organisations, individuals, and John Pring’s outstanding Disability News Service have worked with great skill, intelligence and determination to reveal the truth and expose the government’s lies – the information was all there if the BBC or others had cared to use it. But instead, more often than not they have covered the issue as a series of isolated cases, giving the government the last word by reading out a formulaic statement.

Even when, in November 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said that the government had committed ‘grave and systematic violations’ of the rights of disabled people, it was not headline news, there was no scandal.

At times it felt that the issue would have received more attention if it had been happening in another country, as journalists would be more comfortable criticising a foreign government.

In Geneva yesterday (24 August 2017) the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had no such reticence. One Committee member echoed the experience of all who have critically engaged with our government on these issues when he said that dealing with it was ‘the most challenging exercise in the history of the Committee’.

But unlike most of the British media, the Committee was undeterred. Chairperson Theresia Degener said that government policies and cuts have led to a ‘human catastrophe’ for disabled people in the UK. The government was unceremoniously told by vice-chair Coomaravel Pyaneandee that, as a matter of fact, it’s not a world leader in disability issues, but ‘disabled people’s organisations…are in fact the world leaders in your country.’

A decent government would be so shamed by this verdict on the international stage that it would immediately signal its intention to change course, and with some humility accept and act upon the recommendations of the Committee. If it really wants to be a world-leader on disability issues, then it has world-class teachers in the form of our own disabled people’s organisations.

How the government will respond remains to be seen. But one thing is certain – there is no longer any excuse for any of our media to be complicit in maintaining the government’s illusions, or ignoring the truth of a human catastrophe.  


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden




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