I used to be scared of disabled people.
Not scared that they would bite, but terrified that they might talk to me. What if I can’t understand what they’re saying? What if I say the wrong thing?
Best to utter the usual platitudes of admiration and sympathy. And move on quickly.
That all changed the day I met Angela.
Angela has severe cerebral palsy. Physically, she is completely reliant upon the support of others. Emotionally and mentally, I have never met a stronger person in my life.
Above all Angela wants to work. Despite a glittering CV and multiple job applications, she has been unemployed for months now. Sadly I meet lots of people seeking work – but none with Angela’s absolute determination to find a job.
Which makes it all the more distasteful that the Government is trying to claim work incentives are the reason for its attack on disabled people.
The brutal Work Capability Tests represent the very worst of private outsourcing of sensitive public services. Disabled people feel bullied, tricked and demeaned. It is tragic, though not remotely surprising, that a study found 43% of the Tests to show “serious levels of inaccuracy”.
Meanwhile, the replacement of Disability Living Allowance is naked cost-cutting at its most obvious.
As with all financial transactions a small minority of disability claims will be fraudulent – but the majority of claimants are the most vulnerable members of our society. The Government is trying to crack a nut with a steam hammer; they need to act with much greater sensitivity.
But this is not a blog about public policy. This is a blog about public attitudes.
Talking with Angela, what really strikes me is the daily struggle of being a disabled person.
Angela is regularly refused access to buses. She struggles to get her broken wheelchair repaired. It takes almost a year for her Housing Association to repair her broken toilet.
Government policy towards the disabled is wrong and will make their lives much more difficult. But these daily struggles are not just the product of Government policy.
They are the product of our attitude to the disabled.
Why doesn’t the bus driver open the door to let Angela on? Why don’t the passengers clear the disabled space on the bus?
Maybe, like me, they are scared of the disabled and the awkwardness they make us feel?
Finally, and most challengingly for those of us on the left, these experiences also show up the failings of our public services. The frontline workers who support our disabled citizens are heroes and are sadly underpaid and undervalued.
Can we honestly say the same of some of our bureaucrats?
When Angela secured a voluntary work placement in the Midlands, she was told she would have to travel back to London to sign-on. No, she was not allowed to sign-on in Coventry. Angela receives direct payments to support her personal needs. One day the Council transferred these payments to a different provider without her consent. It took months to rectify the situation.
We must do better than this.
The heartless Government should be ashamed of itself for its approach to the disabled. But let’s all do our bit to make our society, and our services, a bit less of a struggle for those with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Angela has a job interview next week. Best of luck to all the interviewees – but it will take something very special to beat this remarkable woman.