A conversation with a colleague earlier this week made me think about what’s really wrong with this Government’s disability policy. I know disabled people are set up to fail by the actions of DWP and JobCentre Plus, that the Work Capability Assessment is a disaster, that many disabled people will have their independence compromised by the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment, that “protection” of the “most vulnerable” (whoever they are!) from cuts is merely a rhetorical illusion, that cuts in funding to local authorities and the closure of the Independent Living Fund are undermining social care – to list just a few aspects of this Government’s lamentable record. It’s a depressing litany of failure…
But can we re-frame the issues to come up with a radical, new approach to disability policy? I believe we can, but politicians will need courage if they’re to take policy in a radically new direction. In my view, an ideal world would look at bit like this:
- Disabled people supported and empowered to have choices equal to others, to participate in family life, to enjoy fulfilling friendships and to be part of their community.
- Disabled people working full or part time (if they can; I understand many can’t) in fulfilling jobs, with job security, sufficient pay to support an adequate standard of living and fair working conditions.
I actually believe that, in theory at least, the Government wants these outcomes too. However, with policies founded on discrimination and a deep mistrust of anyone who needs support, they have achieved, and will continue to achieve the opposite. This Government, and the Coalition Government before it, have successfully stamped out aspiration for huge numbers of disabled people, and instead rendered them anxious, depressed and impoverished by policies that seek to penalise rather than empower. For many, “work” (or “work-related activity”) has come to be seen as some kind of punishment, meted out at random to unemployed or disabled people who have been unlucky enough to be caught in the Kafkaesque machinations of JobCentre Plus policies and processes.
But what’s the alternative? Empowerment and investment.
Empowerment would mean trusting disabled people and respecting their autonomy. Most want to work but they’re up against a discriminatory labour market, that’s too inflexible to take account of their particular needs, and many don’t have the skills to compete. Disabled people need to be empowered to take responsibility and make choices: What sort of job do I want? What skills will I need? Where can I get training? Who will help me negotiate reasonable adjustments with employers, to enable me to do the job?
Investment would mean providing disabled people with the support they need to participate and achieve, to implement their choices. We need investment in skills, not mandatory attendance at bog-standard CV preparation sessions. We need investment in support, not cuts to Disability Living Allowance and to the quantity and quality of social care services.
But aren’t these expensive? Yes, they are, but then real investment always is. It’s important to remember that, for example, eye-watering amounts of money are being pumped into a failing Work Programme, that the NHS has to pick up the pieces when social care doesn’t enable independence and participation, and that disabled people who work pay tax.
On Monday this week, Iain Duncan Smith, speaking at Reform, was hand-wringing over the number of disabled people and people with long term conditions who are still claiming Employment and Support Allowance (long term sickness benefit). What’s most worrying is that he was surprised! What does he expect, when his department refuses to trust disabled people and forces them onto pointless jobsearch courses, not personalised or adapted to their needs, rather than providing them with training, skills and support? If IDS and the Government in which he serves continue to view disabled people as a drain on the economy, this will continue to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – killing disabled people’s aspirations and inflicting untold damage on their life chances.