Disabled people in Britain are facing increasing hostility, a survey revealed in May 2011. The poll was carried out by ComRes for the charity Scope. 56 per cent of the disabled people surveyed said they had experienced hostility, aggression or violence from a stranger because of their condition or impairment, and 58 per cent thought others did not believe that they were disabled. 37 per cent said people’s attitudes towards them have got worse over the past year, while just 15 per cent felt that attitudes had improved.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband – under pressure to bolster the Labour Party’s popularity and his own position – tapped into this prejudice in a speech on 13 June 2011. He claimed:
“While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade.
“He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job. It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children.But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do.
“And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by.”
According to Miliband: “The gap grows every wider between the rewards for those at the top and the squeeze on the living standards of everyone else.
“And they still have to pay taxes to fund the bankers and to fund some people on benefits who aren’t bothering to work.
“People who act responsibly - people who do their duty - are getting angry. And I understand why.”
Of course many disabled people are in paid work, and some of those who are not could do more to try to get a job. However, successfully applying for disability benefits generally requires strong medical evidence, sometimes not just from one’s own GP but from a specialist or occupational health doctor. Many impairments, even if invisible or fluctuating, can affect the ability to work, and many employers would anyway favour non-disabled candidates. In addition, paid work usually brings in a great deal more money than welfare benefits.
I do not know the man whom Miliband met while campaigning, or details of his condition. But I am aware that injuries do not always heal fully, and sometimes lead to additional health problems such as arthritis or clinical depression. Survivors may put a brave face on things, especially in public, but spend much time in pain or distress or have to struggle with everyday tasks. A variety of professionals may get involved, from hospital consultants to radiographers and occupational therapists.
Yet, remarkably, from a quick glance and the exchange of a few words, Miliband felt qualified to second-guess the health professionals who had concluded that the injured man would find it hard to get and hold down a job. Without conducting any tests or, as far as I know, any particular expertise in musculoskeletal disorders or another branch of medicine, the Labour Party leader was apparently confident that he could tell what was and was not wrong with this man.
If this is true, Miliband has a remarkable gift which is wasted in politics: he could save the NHS a fortune. However, if he is exploiting prejudice against the vulnerable for political purposes, his performance is less than impressive.
* Also on Ekklesia: 'Betraying disabled people and welfare' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14675 
© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.