I’m an ordinary person who happens to be ill, and like many others, I also happen to have a few strong principles, a strong sense of fairness, justice and I am clear on what’s decent, right and wrong. I don’t want to be a leader of any kind, nor do I see myself as an “expert” on disability issues. I don’t believe we should be looking to individuals for answers, to speak for us, or to take responsibility for us. One size does not fit all: our individual challenges vary greatly, and so, therefore, will our individual solutions.
So we need a broad variety of spokespersons to reflect a wide spectrum of needs within our community, and we ought to welcome such a pluralist approach and recognise our diversity as a great strength. Furthermore, much campaigning is about issues around social exclusion, we can only approach this effectively by making sure our own principles are inclusive.
Some campaigners are far from inclusive, however. My own experiences recently of online bullying and trolling have led me to conclude that some of the militant far left and some of the more nihilistic anarchists are as divisive and brutal as the right, and every bit as damaging to our unity, collective sense of purpose, and motivation. Furthermore, some of these are people claiming to be “real socialists” but I’ve yet to witness any genuine cooperative spirit amongst them. The same group of bullies tried their utmost to have me excluded from campaign groups on Facebook, they gossip-monger, tell whopping lies (apparently I’m a “snout” for the establishment, I work for British Intelligence Services) and troll my own groups, all of this is ultimately because I happen to support the Labour Party.
Two of the groups of people concerned are part of well-known, large campaigning organisational groups that claim to support people who are disabled, and speak out for our collective rights. That should never be conditional or contingent on specific political affiliations. One of these groups is simply a front for the Scottish National Party. Their hostility and bullying behaviour towards Labour supporting disabled people has earned them some notoriety.
The group of rather suspect hard-line Narxists have no inclusive principles, they don’t acknowledge diversity, there is no acceptance of alternative views to their own, no open-mindedness, or willingness and capacity for critical thinking. And since when was socialism hierarchical? Or about bullying, or being so exclusive? I seriously doubt if these people would recognise socialist principles, such as cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity, if these things democratically organised their underwear and socks for them. We must always be suspicious and wary of those that try to isolate and alienate others. That is very divisive authoritarian behaviour, usually reserved for the far right and has got nothing to do with socialism.
Recently, many campaigners supported a man who claimed he was on hunger strike because of his bitter and degrading experience of Atos – one so many of us are all too familiar with. We were to find out over time, however, that he had another agenda, which was more about self-publicity, the promotion of rather unpleasant views founded on misogyny and homophobia (under the guise of “Christianity”) and a variety of other extremely right wing inclinations and views. I witnessed fellow campaigners bullied and abused online by this previously apparently meek and mild character.
Though I had recognised early on that he did not like to acknowledge the work of fellow activists, and he seemed just a tad ego-bound, I said nothing, and watched, bemused, as he was pushed to the forefront of disability campaigning for a while. When people like this let themselves down, they tend to pull a lot of others with them, unfortunately.
A lesson to be learned, perhaps, is that we need to be wary of people that are not inclusive in their approach to campaigning. This man struggled with including a whole social group – women. This character also declared that he hates “lefties”. He ran a bit of an exclusive club for a while.
He also employed very divisive tactics: he exercised some expertise in setting up campaigners to squabble and fight with fellow campaigners. That’s a skill that the Tories have shown excellence in, too. The man’s behaviour online showed early signs that ought to have informed us to proceed with care. Nonetheless he had a huge following for a while. Not that I would ever endorse withdrawing support regarding his experiences with Atos on the grounds of his political inclinations, but we should not tolerate divisive individuals manipulating others for personal gain.
As activists, we can each help inspire others to feel strong, to participate in leading themselves, to become interested and responsible enough to want to join in a community and mutually champion and promote positive changes, based on an outward-looking collectivism. There’s a lot of value in group work, reciprocity, mutual support and the principle of cooperation.
None of us are alone.
It really struck me recently that being disabled doesn’t in itself necessarily engender compassion for others, or empathy: we don’t come especially designed with a philanthropic outlook on life or with a ready-made awareness of the issues others face with their own disabilities. Nor of how to fight for equality, or transcend stigma and prejudice.
We each face a combination of unique challenges and solutions, which are not easily compared and many of our solutions will need to be individually tailored. However, we also face commonly experienced social barriers to equality because of specific legislation (or a lack of it), many of the same prejudices and the same social, economic and political processes.
We currently have very justified anxieties regarding the marked increase in disability hate crime that the Tory-led propaganda campaign has resulted in, many sick and disabled people have also stated that they feel harassed and bullied by the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos. Many in our community talk of the dread they feel when they see the brown Atos envelope containing the ESA50 form arrive through the letter box. The strain of constantly fighting for ESA entitlement and perpetually having to prove that we are a “deserving” and “genuine” sick and disabled person is clearly taking a toll on so many people’s health and wellbeing.
Many families of those who have died have said that the constant strain, anxiety and stress of this revolving door process has contributed significantly to their loved ones’ decline in health and subsequent death. The figures from the DWP, and the marked contrast between the ESA and IB death statistics certainly substantiate these claims. But every medical professional knows that stress exacerbates chronic illness.
A FOI request to the Department for Work and Pensions showed that people having their claim for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) stopped, between October 2010 and November 2011, with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ceasing, who were until recently claiming Incapacity Benefit, totalled 310. Between January and November 2011, those having their ESA claim ended, with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ending totalled 10,600.
Bearing in mind that those who were successfully migrated to ESA from IB were assessed and deemed unfit for work, (under a different assessment process, originally) one would expect that the death rates would be similar to those who have only ever claimed ESA. This is very clearly not the case.
The unforgivable, substantial and significant quantifiable increase in deaths over this period coincides with the Government’s almost totalitarian styled rapid-fire legislation of the “Reforms”, in the face of protest, horror, disbelief, fear and mass opposition. The Tories cited “financial privilege” to trample over opposition, and drown out the voices of protest. Those protesting and challenging this Bill notably included many from the House of Lords.
Few activists would disagree that this sets the stark context of our current struggle.
Well, except for one activist, who says:
“I am tired of the way a minor [sic] of extremists who portray themselves as disability activists feel they can make libellous claims against ATOS without taking any accountability for their actions. They claim ATOS kills thousands of disabled people with no evidence, no formal investigation or logic. In fact, their lies are designed to cause panic and distress amongst real disabled people to the point they are pushed towards suicide, so the activists are in reality the killers.” Simon Stevens.
By “extremists”, this person is talking about the likes of me and Atos Miracles, who offer support and share information for sick and disabled people. The evidence of our “claim” comes from the Department for Work and Pensions – their own figures. Furthermore, we have demanded a formal investigation into the deaths, and so far the Government have refused, using arguments to justify that refusal which sound remarkably similar to the ones that this man is trotting out.
We need to ask ourselves why the Government won’t investigate the substantial increase of deaths of sick and disabled people, if this is all about “extremists” like us “scaremongering”. After all, you’d think they would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate any validity of their theory. Instead, the DWP are now refusing to release further information regarding the number of ESA-related deaths. I wonder why, anyone would think there is something to hide.
And “libellous claims”? More than 40 per cent of the reports carried out on disability benefit claimants by the back-to-work assessor Atos are flawed and unacceptable, according to an audit commissioned by the Government. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Atos contract was written by this Government, to include targets that direct the removal of benefit to sick and disable people, however. Atos are something of a facade, and the real problem is this Government’s policy and intention.
Following months of complaints about grossly unfair and nonchalantly slapdash decisions made by Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions audited around 400 of the company’s written reports on disability claimants, grading them A to C. Of these, 41 per cent came back with a C, meaning they were unacceptable and did not meet the required standard. Looks like the Government are buck-passing, to me.
“If I was the government, I would not tolerate these obsessive paranoid fuelled [sic] attacks and simply exclude the abusers from the benefit system, same with those who attack ILF, because why should they tolerate people’s anti-social and destructive behaviour because they are disabled and society fears making them accountable as equal citizens. No other group would be tolerated but disabled extremists are celebrated by the media despite the harm they do to real disabled people.
It is time the government got a backbone and protected real disabled people from the extremists who abuse the system in their name.” Simon Stevens
So, anyone questioning or challenging the Government (and this campaigner, for that matter) isn’t a “real” disabled person, and “paranoid and extremist”? Actually I work with others to support many people who are not activists, but are sick and disabled. Many are suicidal and terrified long before they speak to us. Why do so many people need support in the first place?
Furthermore, it is common knowledge through our shared experiences of assessment, and from information that Atos whistle-blowers have furnished us with that every single question asked by Atos is designed to justify ending our claim for ESA and passing us as “fit for work.” That is what Atos are contracted to do by the Government. This is not a genuine medical assessment, but rather, an opportunity for the DWP to take away the financial support that we are entitled to.
The person I quoted is a self-appointed “disability consultant” and advisor to Atos. However, he has learned that there are consequences for his appalling treatment of other genuine disability campaigners. He will no longer be sponsored by Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD) who had selected three disabled campaigners to attend this autumn’s Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative party conferences as part of a new scheme trialled last year by Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD). Many of us wrote to LCD to complain because of this campaigner’s abusive and incredibly far-right comments to other disabled people.
This campaigner, who recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post praising Atos while conveniently forgetting to mention that he worked for them – has been dropped by the charity after we complained he was abusive to people with illness and disabilities. Quite properly so.
This man does not reflect the diverse range of needs within our community, nor was he elected or chosen to represent us. And as a spokesperson for Atos, he has nothing to say about the systematic removal of our lifeline benefits by this Company, or the consequences of that. Those are our very real collective experiences, and this man is trying to invalidate those experiences.
Many of his messages have been aimed at campaigners protesting at the Government’s welfare cuts and “reforms”, particularly those angry at the standard of the work capability assessments (WCAs) carried out by Atos Healthcare.
He told one activist: “Get off your computer, how dare you use a computer and claim [you are] unable to work you fake git”.
And he told another: “I can guess you are either fat, abused alcohol or drugs with your many illnesses”.
And another: “How the fuck can I represent bitter and twisted miserable sub humans like you? Proof you exist”.
He has also asked:
“Why do we bother educating disabled people? So why do we not go a step further and use ATOS to assess people to see if they were worthy of an education if they will never be able to work? Using this logic, it means fair not to waste money educating people who will not benefit from it!”
He seems wilfully oblivious to the fact that Article 2 of the Protocols of the European Convention on Human Rights provides for the right not to be denied an education, regardless of anyone else’s toxic bigotry and prejudiced opinion on the matter. It’s also worth bearing in mind that equal opportunity principles and the core idea that we each have equal worth, regardless of ability, are fundamental to disability rights campaigning, and that there are laws in place that don’t permit the kind of spite and discrimination that he proposes, thankfully. Yet.
Education is not simply a vocational issue, either. There is no rule that says it has to be so.
This “campaigner” has been busy today emailing fellow campaigners who have challenged him and shamefully threatening them, he has claimed that when people are assessed by Atos he will ensure that their benefits are taken from them. This man is a deplorable bully.
I don’t think I have ever seen such an unlikely and dangerous “disability consultant”, or such a shamefully prejudiced
mole …self-appointed “spokesperson” for disabled people. I don’t think this man represented any of the wide array of needs and interests of the disabled community whatsoever, nor did he understand the experiences of other ill and disabled people, clearly. He displayed a remarkable lack of empathy and compassion for others. In fact he is downright callous.
And there’s a thought: we have no way of knowing how many other people within our community are plants, shills, moles, agents provocateurs and so forth. That there ARE such damaging tactics to disrupt campaigns and fragment our movement is well-established.
Remember how Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were desperate for victory against the miners? And prepared to go to any lengths. For the first time in a post-war national strike the police were openly used as a political weapon. Agents provocateurs and spies were deployed and the state benefits system used to try and starve the miners back.
Former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson subsequently admitted that preparations for the strike were, “just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s”. Evidence emerged – after the event – about the role of MI5, MI6, the CIA and ultra-right wingers like David Hart and Tim Bell, who advised Thatcher during the dispute.
The Tories used agents provocateurs following the Six Gagging Acts 1819, when “every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his Government”. They do have a lot of previous form.
The Act restricted the freedom of the legitimate press. Radical publications simply went “underground”.
The Tories historically fight dirty and have a history of devious tactics such as infiltrating the far left, to provoke and manufacture toxic divisions to fragment us and recently we have been witnessing such fragmentation within our community.
Anne Rae, chair of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said that the campaigners challenging Government policies had become “pretty fragmented”, so there was a need for a national organisation with the “confidence and credibility to speak for disabled people with a strong voice”.
Rae is a former member of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), which is often credited with giving birth to the social model of disability in the 1970s.
“There has got to be discussions about how we can form a national network, if not a national organisation, which has the confidence and credibility to speak for disabled people with a strong voice, because at the moment the voices against the Government are pretty fragmented. We need to have a recognisable voice.”
She also said that disabled people attacking the Government had to understand the need for a well-argued case against the oppression they were fighting against.
She said: “People will respect you if you have a reasoned, structured argument for what you are asking for.”
Rae said the disabled people’s movement had been weakened by funding cuts by local authorities, with the lack of “core funding” for disabled people’s organisations – rather than just project funding – a “big problem”.
But she said she also believed that the Government had “head-hunted” people from the movement, who had then been forced to “water down their radical views”.
“My view is everybody who is funded by the Government is going to protect their continuity and you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.”
She said that no organisation would “stand by their radical principles” in such a situation, because they knew their funding would stop.
Rae was speaking to Disability News Service at an event held to debate the future of the social model, organised as part of Reclaiming Our Futures, a week of action led by Disabled People Against Cuts.
She also said she was “very suspicious” of the Government’s Office for Disability Issues, which she said was “giving the impression of supporting disabled people” but was actually destroying people’s “radical mindset” and turning them into “effective speakers but empty speakers full of empty rhetoric”. (With thanks to John Pring, who spoke with Anna Rae.)
We do need to take care here, however, because not all campaigners can be described as “radical”, but that doesn’t make them “wrong” in any way. There’s a whole debate to be had, anyway, about the merits of amelioration versus revolution, about what is feasible, and about precisely how we may proceed with our attempts in making essential positive changes. We do have a political system and parliamentary processes that are simply not amenable to radicalism. Furthermore, we also have an authoritarian Government that does not tolerate even healthy debate and criticism, let alone revolutionary ideas.
There is certainly a need for some strategic thinking here to circumvent the Tory barriers to genuine political dialogue. Perhaps, therefore, one option we have when directly facing Government Ministers is to prioritise and take care assessing what is most likely to be a realistically achievable outcome. That approach doesn’t make a person unsympathetic to more radical aims at all, and the reality is that we need both approaches to fulfil what are essentially commonly shared ideals, aims and goals. We can endorse the credibility and value of both approaches within our community, because both are necessary, both have merit and ultimately share the same aim. We must do what we can do.
Again this is also about valuing inclusivity, pooling our resources and skills, valuing diversity, and about recognising the worth of every effort whilst being mindful of the Tories penchant for dirty tricks and manipulation.
These are extraordinary times. It’s truly incredible how circumstances may transform us. Three years ago the only articles I wrote were about philosophy, sociology, psychology and my various other interests. My own struggles were mostly about how to work, be there for my boys, care for my terminally poorly father, spend some quality time with him, and manage my illness, though I wasn’t as ill back then.
My father was a strong trade unionist, and staunch Labour supporter with an incredibly strong sense of social justice and fairness. In a way, I am glad he cannot see what is happening now to all of the civilised policies and supportive social structures people of his generation, and before him, fought so hard to establish, it would break his heart. He always did loathe the Tories, did my dad.
I used to use Facebook to talk psychology, philosophy, art, poetry and science, and to simply chat. Now it’s all about awareness-raising and sharing information about our dire situation here in the UK. We have an extremely corrupt and authoritarian Government, many are suffering extreme hardship, and many have died because of the imposed ideologically – driven austerity measures here in the UK.
I know I am not alone in that all of this has deeply affected me. Were I not sick and disabled, this would STILL affect me, because it is offensive to my own sense of decency, fairness and social justice. And I know that if one social group is persecuted, and is denied their rights, this affects US ALL. I am reminded once again of “First they came …” by Martin Niemöller
I’ve met some extraordinary people through our mutual struggle, though. Some bright beacons of strength and courage, both in real life, and on Facebook. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I have learned that resilience comes from finding the strength to face the despair of our circumstances.
My best satirical one-liners come from bitter responses, not that I’m particularly gifted that way, as others here are. The writing that I do springs from shock, indignation, anger, sorrow and pain – because of what is being done to my friends, to our people and OUR Country. I’m not a professional writer, (though I have had work published before,) but I do bear witness as best I can. As do so many others.
There are many of us doing what we can, when we can, in our own way. I respect and admire every one of you, and acknowledge your personal struggles in a bigger battle here.
Each contribution is equally valuable, precious, and I want to see people uniting more, supporting each other, and recognising the worth of each and every effort. That means putting aside those issues that have led to divisions amongst us, and weakened us in our opposition to this tyrannical Government of Bullingdon brats. Now is the time to be standing together, strong, not one for petty squabbles, interpersonal politics, or allowing others to create divisions.
So stop it.
Upwards and onwards. In unity, mutual respect, love and solidarity!
Many thanks to our Robert Livingstone for his outstanding work and brilliant art