"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has"
What does 'disabled' mean? Is it all about wheelchairs and white sticks as so often the public perceive or is that perception fed by the history of the disability rights movement, which was dominated by physically disabled, educated, white, middle class men? Asking around my friends, I get all kinds of interesting answers. Most disability campaigners would agree that 'disabled' covers a multitude of life affecting conditions, whether they be conditions from birth such as spina bifida or a learning disability, accidents later in life, chronic illness and mental health conditions. But when I ask my not yet disabled friends they give very different answers. Commenting on the recent Channel 4 show, The Undateables, my friends told me how inappropriate they thought it was to include Carolynne, an attractive blonde lady who happens to use a wheelchair alongside those with profound facial disfigurements or learning disabilties. There was no suggestion that Carolynne wasn't disabled, but a very clear recognition from the 'not yet disabled' world that the challenges she faces as a result of her disability have marked differences from other groups of disabled people.
This leads me to wonder, perhaps the 'not yet disabled' world have a much better grasp of the vastness of disability than we disableds give them credit for, perhaps more so than we disableds appear to be demonstrating at the moment to ourselves and the wider world via the very public platforms of social media.
It's a frightening and stressful time for disabled people as benefit cuts begin to bite and disability hate crime rises. Frequently demonised by both the media and politicians, for many of us isolated from the mainstream world by ill health or lack of equipment and support, social media is our only option for making friends and forming support networks. Fear and stress create a toxic environment, which often bubbles over into online spats which spiral rapidly out of control.
For ALL disabled people the next few years will be challenging, as we will be the first to be forced through Cameron's Big Society experiment, to rely more upon our communities and less upon the state, regardless of the appropriateness or safety of that community support, if it can even be found. Ironically, it's been disabled people who've demonstrated that ability to build community support over the past two years, coming together to campaign on shared issues, whilst putting aside our differences. That's what any government most fears - a cohesive protest movement who are capable of agreeing to disagree to form a strong coalition of opposition.
That will be our most pressing challenge over the next few years, to find the wisdom and maturity to learn from our mistakes, and those of others and apply those lessons to our own situation. We know that early disability rights campaigners made the mistake of distancing themselves from those with learning disability or mental health problems. We are able to understand the reasons which led those early campaigners to choose that path, and with hindsight we have benefits of judgement they did not, as will future campaigners from our misjudgements. For contemporary disabled people, we know our biggest chance of success in the continued struggle for full equality is to unite all disabled people, there are at least 10 million of us in the UK alone. Most of those people will not be entitled to benefits, but they are entitled to protection under the law as disabled people, whether that be in challenging physical or attitudinal barriers.
We can celebrate the diversity of our disabled movement and culture, learn to use our skills to support each other practically and emotionally, but most importantly we must be able to disagree constructively and respectfully. The recent Remploy closures highlight this potential division - charities and organisations which act for, not on behalf of disabled people argue that this is a neccessary step towards progress, whilst distraught workers weep at being sacrificied on an altar of an ideal world. Grassroots disabled campaigners have shown a maturity of judgement by expressing their preference towards mainstream employment at the same time as supporting those who make another choice for themselves.
Choice is at the heart of this issue. All disabled people, whatever the reason they are disabled want freedom of choice to live our own lives as we decide. Disabled people are more aware than any other group what it is like to be told what is best for us by people without direct experience of disability. We hate and resent it, but then all too often go on to apply that 'what is best for you' attitude to other disabled people.
The biggest choice we have to make at the moment is whether as a civil rights movement we are able to set aside our differences, to recognise the dangers inherent in labelling one person as more or less disabled than another and to continue to band together as the strong, powerful force we have shown we can be.
Our choice is simple;
"Alone we whisper" or "Together we shout"
This is a really encouraging post reminding us all of why we came together in the first place. It is enough already that the Government has chosen to allow untrained DWP and ATOS staff to determine how 'disabled' people are, and in turn how deserving they are of welfare benefits, and to define work and capability. As a campaigning movement we can't afford to be seen to be divided.
In just one week I have learned of the devastating effects of both welfare benefit changes and mental illness on two people who live close to me: A mentally ill lady who learned that her Disability Living Allowance assessment had resulted in her being removed from the benefit, which meant her income support was stopped, and in turn her housing benefit, She's unwell, and in complete panic simply left her rented accommodation. She's now homeless. The other a 'working' man in his thirties, who had struggled with depression took his own life, leaving behind a heartbroken young family.
There are many similar tragic stories which involve people whose disabilities are not evident to the eye, but for whom the struggle to manage their lives is equally, if different, to cope with than people with a physical illness. It's also important to remind each other that the mind and body are connected, and in for many individuals with a physical illness or disability, mental health difficulties become something else they have to manage; instances of depression rate highly, especially in the elderly and recently disabled.
Let's wear our Spartacus ribbons with pride and as a movement united in smashing prejudice, and continuing to prove that 'disabled' does not mean 'disenfranchised'.
As mental health campaigner Shaun Johnson said last night:
" I missed the bit in the film 'Spartacus' where someone says "I'm more Spartacus than he is!" and then they all have a punch-up about who is the most Spartacus whilst the Romans carry on crucifying people...."