It’s often said that the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens in times of austerity. And in the past week, Britain has had not one but two damning judgments – the first from a committee room in Geneva, the second in a courtroom in London.
Last Thursday a United Nations inquiry into disability rights in the UK ruled that the government is failing in its duties in everything from education, work and housing to health, transport and social security. Presented with overwhelming evidence of a range of regressive policies and multibillion-pound cuts to disability services, it described the treatment of disabled people in this country as a “human catastrophe”.
Less than 24 hours later, Luke Davey lost his appeal against his local council cutting his care package almost in half. I wrote about Luke in the Guardian last year, just as the then-39-year-old started his court battle. Luke is quadriplegic, has cerebral palsy and is registered blind. But in this climate of cuts to disability services, after 23 years of 24/7 support, his care hours have been suddenly gutted. Without enough funding for full-time personal assistants, his mother, Jasmine, is forced to fill in the gaps: sitting in the bungalow to ensure he’s not alone, and lifting her 14-stone son into a hoist. Jasmine, it’s worth noting, is 75 and has cancer.
This is grotesque, but it becomes more grotesque still when we consider this situation is not rare. By this financial year, around 200,000 disabled people will have lost between £15,000 and £18,000 in income through a combination of cuts, from the bedroom tax to the abolition of disability living allowance. Meanwhile, 1 million disabled people now have to live without the social care they need to wash, cook, or leave the house.
I am struck daily by the number of readers who tell me what’s being done to them by this government, simply because they have the nerve to be disabled and, often, poor. Grandmothers falling into depression and anxiety waiting to hear whether they’ll be deemed “fit for work”. Middle-aged men with arthritis sitting in a coat in their living room because they can’t afford to put the heating on. Young disabled women turning to sex work after having their Disability Living Allowance removed, and having no other way to pay the bills.
Bit by bit, the abuse of disabled people in Britain is being normalised. This isn’t simply the result of newspapers and politicians dehumanising the “scrounging” disabled. It’s that the hardship being witnessed is now so common, so widespread, it’s as if it’s beyond comprehension.
Resisting this becomes almost an act of defiance: to say that it’s not normal for a self-proclaimed global leader of disability rights to have to be shamed publicly by the United Nations over its treatment of disabled citizens; that it’s not economically necessary for one of the wealthiest nations on Earth to cut benefits and social care so deeply that disabled people are housebound, hungry, or suicidal.
When the “most vulnerable citizens” line is used by well-meaning voices, there’s a secret second sentence that’s rarely uttered: disabled people, truth be told, do not need to be vulnerable. Contrary to the myth sold by years of austerity, to be afraid, desperate or isolated is not a normal state of affairs for people with disabilities. No. Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives – knowing full well the misery it will cause.
“I’m nervous, really nervous,” Luke had told me last year when I asked how he was feeling about his court battle. “But I have to do it. If I don’t, God knows what will happen to me or my mum.”
This was the week this country lost the right to call itself civilised. If that doesn’t shame politicians to address its treatment of disabled citizens, surely nothing will.