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Crawling off a train: disability in the UK in 2012

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Jane Osmond
WVoN co-editor

Some years ago I had an operation on my knee which left me in plaster for 6 weeks and on a stick for three months.  Since then I have needed to use my stick when my knee is having a bad day and I routinely watch how I walk in case I trip over bumps in the pavement.  As for running?  Forget it.

Having a hidden disability can be problematic in that people automatically assume that you do not have one and so I don’t feel comfortable sitting in the seats on public transport that are assigned to those who have a more visible disability.  But I count myself lucky that although standing for a period of time may be uncomfortable, I can cope with it.

Now, witness the treatment that Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who has spina bifida, experienced when recently trying to depart a train journey at midnight.

Grey-Thompson, whose Paralympic career boasts numerous gold, silver and bronze medals and who is now a life peer in the House of Lords, found herself having to throw her wheelchair onto a station platform and crawl after it – yes that’s right, CRAWL AFTER IT – when she reached her destination station, because there was no-one to help her off the train.

It’s bad enough that there was no help waiting for her on the platform, but worse still were the comments in reaction to this story being made public, which were compiled on a blog post by Dawn Foster (which is well worth a read just for the sheer sarcastic take down).

The original story appeared in the Daily Mail in March, and sprinkled through some very sympathetic comments, were some of the most appalling comments I have ever seen.  This in particular offended me to my very core:

‘It may not be PC but the railways and the underground are not a taxi service. The staff when available are always unfailingly considering of disabled people but they cannot be expected to provide a continuous butler service to everybody who travels.

‘If we equipped all trains to cope with someone with Ms G-T’s disabilities why should it end there? What about people who cannot even move at all? or speak or live without apparatus? The sad fact of life is you can only go so far to accommodate diabilities. You cannot put an escalator up Everest.- Andy, Portsmouth, 26/3/2012 12:28’

Indeed Andy, why should we, as a supposedly caring society, bother to make sure that all our citizens have access to the routine day-to-day experiences in the same way as abled bodied people? After all (the hidden subtext says) it is obviously their fault that they have a disability, is it not?

Well, no Andy it isn’t.

I asked Philippa from feminist blogging site The F-Word, whether people who make comments like this suffer from a lack of imagination in that they cannot imagine that any kind of disability would ever happen to them. Philippa, who has a disability that has demanded the use of a walking crutch for the past four years, commented:

‘In my case I had lots of disabled people in my life and so I never thought ‘why me?’ because I have always known that it is one of those things that just happen. Complete strangers will say to me “oh if I became disabled I would kill myself” and I am like “what?”

‘So people are not only imagining that it can’t happen to them but if it does, it is worse than death – it is the worst possible thing that can happen.’

On the negative comments that the article about Grey-Thompson attracted, Philippa went on to say that there seems to be a perception that disabled people are somehow ‘using up a lot of resources’ and so people see them as a drain on the benefits and healthcare system.

Certainly in the push to save money in the benefit system, this government appears to have targeted disabled people as ‘benefit scroungers’ and I am sure we have all seen the TV programmes where the crew will follow someone to an allotment or finds them playing golf whilst on benefits and ‘out’ them as scroungers.

But as Philippa points out, disabled people are often advised by medical professionals to get out in the open air for exercise as it may help their condition.  Horribly, because of the public perception of disability and scrounging, she says that some people now will not do this:”I know people who have been told that things like swimming and going to the gym will help their condition but they are scared to do it: they won’t because they are scared that someone will report them for cheating.’

Philippa also makes the point that claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA), contrary to media opinion, is very hard and involves filling out 28 pages of A4 sheets, which ask questions about every aspect of your life, including how you go to the toilet.

‘The impression from certain papers is that you just ring up and they give  [DLA] to you for the rest of your life,’ says Philippa.

Contrary to the negative comments following the Mail article, it seems to me that disabled people are having a rougher time in this recession than most of us.  Take the infamous ATOS test, designed ‘to judge whether benefit claimants are genuinely sick or merely skiving’, which according to the Guardian, is routinely striking people off benefits:

‘Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously, people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems.

‘A revised, even more stringent version introduced this month means that blind and deaf people will no longer automatically receive sickness benefit, and are unlikely to qualify for extra help finding work.’

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau also finds the test so problematic that it states:

‘Many of these people are too ill to sign on for jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) – they are left with no money to live on and are unable to seek work.’

No money left to live on?  What?  Are we or are we not a civilised society?  Oh no, I forgot, we have a government that is hell-bound on destroying the welfare state at any cost.

The ATOS test appears to be deliberately structured as to automatically strike people off benefit – to the extent that they might as well not bother inviting people to take it. Surely it would be much easier just to stop the benefits from the ATOS offices?

At least this would save disabled people, who are faced with disability-unfriendly public transport, no disabled parking and ATOS offices with steps to be negotiated, the trouble of actually turning up for the interview.

But what this government and those negative commentators seem to forget is that the welfare state is YOU and ME – it is not an abstract concept that sucks money out of the economy.  And, by the way, that is my money we are talking about, money I give – or used to give – with thanks, for the most respected welfare and health system in the world.

And YOU and ME need to shout loudly about the injustices that are experienced by anyone who is disadvantaged in our society – the old, the disabled, the sick – because, as the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken foe of Hitler says:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Over to Phillipa for the last word, which perhaps the government and the media could bear in mind:

‘I think we (disabled people) almost need to be re-humanised a bit really.’

Shame on us all that this needs to be said in 2012.

  1. Jane Osmond says:

    Another public transport disgrace in Isle of Wight: shame on South West Trains: http://geoffholt.com/2012/04/south-west-trains-disability-discrimination-shame/

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