By Debbie Jolly
The Paralympics Opening Ceremony appeared to develop a colourful theme of transcendence and overcoming. The 2012 Paralympics showcases the talents and efforts of disabled people who have trained and worked to become the sporting elite.
Yet TV news headlines such as 'people with disabilities overcome their disabilities' are unhelpful –disabled people can 'overcome' impairments or disabilities no more than people can overcome their ethnicity. Some things remain fixed.
A wheelchair user without the use of their legs doesn't immediately rise up and walk because they become a Paralympian, someone with a lifelong health condition doesn’t suddenly lose it. The paralympians, like the olympians are a group of people who represent sporting excellence - but we do not see headlines declaring that olympians have transcended their ‘everydayness’. Non-disabled people are not urged to go out and ‘overcome’, to become olympians with a ‘can do’ attitude - so why are disabled people?
The answer is political and attitudinal. Disabled people have been at the heart of the cuts by the Cameron-led government from the moment the coalition came to power.
Speaking to Channel 4, at the opening of the Paralympics, Cameron said: "It’s about the inspiration and it will change people’s minds and that’s what matters. It’ll teach people about what they can do, rather than what they can’t do."
A very similar line is being used to target disabled people as welfare ‘scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’ by the government and by companies reassessing disability support, such as Atos. This is despite the government’s own rates of 0.05% fraud, which also includes administrative error.
Atos are one of the leading sponsors of the Olympics and Paralympics. The company also receives £100 million per year from the government to push people off disability benefits by declaring them ‘fit for work’ whether they are or not - and in most cases they are not.
The much maligned work capability assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos has been ‘showcased’ on Dispatches and Panorama. The programmes exposed a system designed to remove over a million disabled people from welfare support that has caused misery, anxiety and the premature deaths and suicides of an estimated 32 people a week.
The WCA – a revolving door of Atos assessment, appeal, tribunal, and reassessment - has produced horror stories of inhuman proportions. In one of the programmes an Atos ‘assessor’ asked someone who had taken several overdoses why they weren’t dead yet. There are stories of people being forced to walk until they collapse and being declared ‘fit for work’, people blacking out and being declared 'fit for work' and those that Atos has signed off as unfit for work on employee schemes being declared 'fit to work’ on the state schemes of cuts under the WCA. One man who was blind and deaf, tube fed and needing 24 hour support was also declared fit for work by Atos assessors. It is the ultimate irony that Atos sponsor the Paralympics - no doubt this guy will be doing somersaults and soaring into the air in no time, if he could only change his thinking and develop a ‘can do’ attitude.
In the last week we have seen a UK uprising from disabled people against the government policies of cuts, called by Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC) and UKUncut.
Lydia Foxton, a spokesperson from DPAC said: "We have been targeting Atos, but they are just doing the government’s dirty work. Cutting welfare is devastating people’s lives and removing dignity, security and independence from thousands of sick and disabled people across the country. At the same time, David Cameron and his government are using the Paralympics to show themselves to be champions of disabled people, it’s a disgrace."
Andrew Cox, a spokesperson from UK Uncut said: "The government have been making huge cuts to welfare provision, even though their own research shows that less than 0.5% of welfare claims are fraudulent. They are making disabled people a scapegoat for the economic crisis – they are being punished with welfare cuts, while the banks and the big businesses are getting off scot-free. The government could clamp down on tax avoidance and get back billions, the savings they will make from cutting welfare do not even come close, and they are devastating people’s lives."
The government have developed a 'can’t do' approach to supporting disabled people. In spite of the fact that most disabled people have worked all their lives and paid tax and national insurance we have a situation where individuals with cancer can be limited to financial support from the state for just 12 months before they are left without any income at all.
As Cameron and his minister friends applaud the Paralympians they are in the process of removing even more support from disabled people by reassessing all on disability living allowance. The target is to remove half a million off this payment, before they even begin the assessments - a payment originally set up to pay for the extra costs of disability. Those very same Paralympians Cameron and all applaud say they would not have been the athletes they are without that support.
And guess who has got a couple of contracts worth £400 million to carry these cuts out? Atos: the 'can do' company.
Debbie Jolly is a co-founder of DPAC.
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