We Must Protect the Welfare of the Disabled

Paul Hindley 

Image © helen.2006

Over the past week, Britain, and indeed the rest of the World, have seen the very best disabled athletes on display in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. This celebration of the sporting achievements of disabled people has lead to many commentators stating that the phrase dis-ability has become redundant. However, away from the lights of the Olympic Stadium, hundreds of thousands of disabled people around the country are afraid that their disability benefits may be cut. These fears come at a time when the British government and governments around the world are pursuing a strategy of austerity. Austerity has led to the British government taking a hammer to the welfare state in an attempt to balance its books. However, these cuts to the welfare state, especially to the benefits received by the disabled, are in the long run short sighted and will seriously undermine those struggling with disability.

The Coalition government will over the next few years enact reforms to disability living allowance (DLA) changing this benefit into personal independence payments (PIP). As part of these reforms, thousands of disabled people will have to be reassessed in order to receive the new payment. However, many fear that they may lose their benefits or have them reduced as part of the government’s austerity drive. Only last week there was a scandal involving Atos a private company that is sponsoring the Paralympic games. Atos profits from carrying out government assessments on those disabled people who are out of work and claiming welfare such as the employment and support allowance (ESA). Many disabled people feel victimised and unfairly targeted by these reassessments and this has led to many anti-cuts protests during the Paralympics. 

I personally am no stranger to disability. I have a moderate form of cerebral palsy. Throughout my life I keep hearing the same word repeated to me over and over again by physiotherapists and school support staff. That word is “independence.” The reason why disability welfare exists is to give disabled people as much independence and confidence to live their lives as possible. The government is aware of this fact, hence the callous piece of political spin in naming the replacement of DLA, personal independence payments. However the PIPs far from ensuring the independence of disabled people may very well undermine it. The belief within government is that PIPs will significantly reduce the welfare budget as part of the austerity strategy; this will lead to some people losing the very welfare that they require in-order to remain independent.

An example of such independence can be seen in the Mobility scheme. Mobility enables disabled people to have access to adapted cars in exchange for their higher rate mobility component of DLA. Without such cars, disabled people may end up being prisoners in their own homes. Furthermore their adapted cars may be the only means that they have in order to travel and to get to their place of work. Should disabled people lose their entitlement to Mobility cars; this will dramatically hamper their ability to remain physically independent.

Ever since the welfare state was created by William Beveridge in the 1940s, it has existed to help people develop without the barriers created by social and economic inequalities. It is the hallmark of social justice and indeed perhaps the hallmark of a civilised society. While slashing such an institution in a time of austerity will inevitably further impoverish the poor, it will also make the vulnerable more vulnerable. It is certainly the case that the one group in society who are the most deserving of the support of the welfare state are the disabled. Any economic strategy that seeks to balance the books on the back of social security risks fundamentally undermining the most vulnerable members of society, especially the disabled.

The Paralympic games have clearly shown the ability of the athletes to conquer their disabilities. We must ensure that all disabled people have the opportunity to conquer the difficulties they face. Cuts to disability benefits will only further entrench those difficulties. We must not lose the sense of altruism and compassion that embodies the welfare state. Those disabled people who receive disability benefits should not be vilified by the media nor used as the targets of government cutbacks. They should be the object of our compassion and the focus of our social justice. At a time when the gap between the richest and poorest is getting wider and there is increasing hostility towards the poor we cannot let the disabled suffer. The creation of a socially unjust society is no remedy for our economic crisis, and we must not make the fundamental mistake of allowing one to be created through the misguided economics of right wing austerity.

  • Paul Hindley is a party member of the Liberal Democrats. 
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