First posted May 1st 2008
1997 was the first election I was eligible to vote in. As a young student I attended an election night party and cheered along with everyone else when Michael Portillo lost his seat. Oh the irony. That was the moment we all truly felt things had changed, and like the song said, could only get better. Like many, the only government I could remember was a Tory one and how they were hated. At that time, fit and active despite various health problems caused by a condition I didn't know I had, access meant nothing more to me than the ridiculously steep ramp being built outside my university building.
11 years later times have changed. Radically so. 1998 was the year in which I first had personal internet access, a present from an incredibly thoughtful friend to keep me entertained whilst recovering from the first of many surgeries. A mobile phone was still a year away, my own pc further still, consumer goods being proportionally so much more expensive than today.
Ironically, as I saw my own world shrink through increasing disability, the wider world became smaller and more accessible via developing technology. I found information, support and in time whole communities of people just like myself. The disabled community is diverse and to attempt to view us as all the same would be as ridiculous as the suggestion that all football fans are hooligans.
It is not just technology which has altered over the past 11 years. I do not remember ever hearing the term benefit scrounger when I was at university. I do remember the first time I was given that label though. A family member who was struggling to find work after university would regularly inform me that I was scum. Benefit scrounging scum. It was people like me who were preventing him from gaining employment. Don't ask me how that illogical thought process was supposed to work, but as an unemployed graduate no different to any other, this person had bought in to the belief that if one did as they were told and went to university a well paid and interesting job would fall into their lap. Obviously without having to go through the hassle of applying for one. When it became clear that wouldn't happen, unable to find anyone else to hold responsible, they blamed me, held up to represent all those 'nasty benefit scroungers' so bemoaned for a whole variety of wider social problems.
The current climate is one where many disabled people are afraid. The Disability Discrimination Act is toothless, hate crimes against disabled people are on the rise yet not given the recognition or status of other hate crimes, access to services is routinely denied by local authorities, and the vital financial support provided in the form of benefits is being attacked by a government determined to demonise the most vulnerable as they turn their backs on the true issues facing the welfare state.
There is just one major commonality I've found within the disabled community. Political engagement. So many aspects of our lives are affected by even the most minor political changes that without exception the disabled people and their carers whom I have met have all had strong political opinions. Voting is important to this group.
So, just who will disabled people be voting for today? Those with learning difficulties are likely to be ruled out by the inaccessibility of the process and lack of suitable information. Those with physical disabilities are also subject to access issues. In the last general election access to my local polling station was via a muddy track. I collapsed when I arrived, had to be given a chair, water and assisted back out. Those helping me told me that earlier that day they had carried someone from the car to the booths as it was impossible for a wheelchair to access. When I arrived to vote today I was, laughingly, informed I was late. The men who register the votes had expected me earlier in the afternoon. Amongst what they expected to be around a 25% turnout some of us are more noticeable than others. Not necessarily for the right reasons. Postal voting has helped, but for those who have issues with their signature it can be a complicated process, and many, like myself want to feel engaged with the process by physically going to register their vote.
I have no idea who the disabled vote will go to. I just know this. I cannot bring myself to vote for a party so desperate to label the most vulnerable as scum. True equality seems very distant today.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day. Click here to view the other posts.