It’s not the benefit fraudsters who are targeted in the media, it’s the disabled

Anne Begg MP

71957587 259x300 Its not the benefit fraudsters who are targeted in the media, its the disabledFor a couple of years disabled people have been reporting increased levels of both verbal and physical abuse from members of the public. This has been confirmed this week in the results published by the charity Scope from a survey of 500 disabled people and their carers across the country.  The research showed that 46% of those polled said that attitudes towards them had worsened over the past year.

Why should this be?  With the Paralympics coming to London in a few weeks the media, and particularly Channel 4 rebranded as the Paralympic broadcaster, has been full of positive images of disabled people, some doing remarkable things.  I think the Channel 4 advert for the Paralympics is fantastic and get a lump in my throat every time I see it.

However, for a longer time there have been a large number of very different stories about people who receive disability and sickness benefits in the press.  In the government’s attempt to show it is getting tough on benefit fraudsters and the work shy the print media have been very willing to run stories on every release of statistics which they say show that most people who claim sickness benefits are perfectly capable of work, statistics which in reality show no such thing.

A study “Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability” by Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit found that there had been an increase in the number of disability related stories in the press with a decrease in those presenting a more sympathetic view. There had also been an increase in the use of words such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” all adding to an impression that disabled people were “underserving”.

So who are the targets for this abuse?  Is it the benefits cheats featured in the various stories about “sick note Britain”?  Is it the man who claimed to be too ill to cut his own food caught on camera playing golf or the man who claimed to need a wheelchair filmed Jiving?  Of course not.  Their friends, far less passersby, will have no idea what income or benefits they receive and certainly won’t know what they said on an application form and pretended in an interview. Who would believe they would have such a brass neck?  No it is not the real fraudsters, estimated to be less than 1% of benefit claimants, who are the target for the abuse, it is those with an obvious physical or learning disability.  That’s why some of the irresponsible reporting has been so dangerous.  It is the person who clearly has a disability, who may actually be in work, who is having to suffer the taunts, the name calling and being spat on.

Those with genuine disabilities were told there was nothing to fear from the new Work Capability Assessment for people who are unable to work due to sickness or disability.  It was being introduced, we were told, to weed out the scroungers and work shy but those with the greatest disability would get more help and support.  However, two television programmes this week, Channel 4’s Dispatches “Britain on the Sick” and BBC’s Panorama “Disabled or Faking It?” have given the lie to this.  Something which many people who have been through the new system already knew.

Rather than showing that those with severe disabilities had nothing to fear from the new assessment, Panorama found a number who were being found fit for work, such as the man with severe emphysema who keeps having to take his case to appeal as he scores no points every time he goes through the assessment.

The Dispatches programme showed that the WCA was declaring people fit if they could work from a wheelchair even if they don’t use a wheelchair.  Are wheelchair services across the country ready for the influx of applications? And what happens if the wheelchair assessment says the person doesn’t qualify for one on the NHS?

But most worrying was a woman who featured in the Panorama programme who, among other things, could not go to the toilet on her own. Yet she was put in the Work Related Activity Group.  There must be something seriously wrong with a system which makes that kind of mistake.  I wasn’t allowed home from hospital recently until I could safely toilet myself.

These were not isolated examples. I received an e-mail this week from a man who was highly anxious because he had just been called for this third WCA in three years. It is not surprising he was feeling persecuted as he had had to give up work as he has the particularly cruel degenerative Huntington’s disease.

Much of the misleading press coverage blames the victim of the system for the failings of the system.  So someone who begins a claim for ESA because their Statutory Sick Pay has run out but returns to work before their ESA claim has been determined is counted as someone swinging the lead.  Nor is the WCA very good at dealing with people with progressive diseases.  It doesn’t make any acknowledgement that people with MS or Parkinson’s or Huntington’s have probably just lost their job precisely because they have a degenerative disease so their employability will not improve no matter how many reassessments they go through.

One thing about disability worth bearing in mind is that in a blink of an eye it could be you.  An accident or a diagnosis can change your life for ever. At the very time you want to be wrapped in the care of the NHS and supported by the welfare state is the very time when a complete stranger in the street might spit the word “scrounger” at you.

Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of Work and Pensions Select Committee, MP for Aberdeen South

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  • 1maia

    Hospitals in prison are not actually part of the NHS, all the Drs. who got struck off etc. work there; such people must be around and willing, you’re right.

  • 1maia

    Vote for the NHA Party if they stand in your area, they’ve been formed by Doctors to re-nationalize the NHS but have other policies including reducing inequality, they’re standing against about 50 MPs most closely linked to privatising the NHS (not all Tory) in the most likely to swing seats, in the hope of being a powerful enough minority to be effective on this one issue at least. And they are a new party, driven by belief, not careerists used to corruption and lying but like normal people, more honest and know about real life.

  • 1maia

    Just out of curiosity, why are all Atos Victims Group website stories links to Daily Mail articles about how evil and useless the NHS is, neglectful self-satisfied staff and hopeless bureaucracy, of the softening-them-up-for-NHS-privatisation sort we’ve become extremely used to lately?

  • 1maia

    Just like most prosecutions for witchcraft were malicious, usually someone you owed money to…

  • 1maia

    I did carework and most disabilities aren’t like it falls off, gone, they’re like, the person may be able to get up in the morning but by evening they can’t raise an arm, if they leant forward in their chair they fell flat on their face on the table. I saw it over and over, that’s how i know. The human body is incredibly complicated, things that go wrong often result in extreme tiredness as a result of any exertion, so walking across the room would require a day in bed to recover from, it makes no sense if you’re well. Any more than a toddler understands why granny keeps sitting down. Pain’s another one: after agonsing back pain, i learnt why disabled people, some, used to complain if they were sitting on a wrinkle of clothing: the story of the princess and the pea makes perfect sense: i could tell, from pain, exactly how many degrees out of vertical my spine was: super-sensitive grades of perception, in pain, which in normal life you could never feel. It makes no sense, because you need a body like that to feel it. Some blind people see clearly in half-light or twilight but are fully blind in bright daylight. I met a blind woman who could see everything – but it kept fragmenting and jiggling around in front of her, like a kaleidoscope with the fidgets, it was driving her mad and, of course, her 20/20 vision saw nothing because it never sat still or in order. She in fact wished she was properly blind, to get some peace. God knows what was wrong with her, but i know she was blind, i saw her keep walking into the coffee table. There is so much that can go wrong, because the body is so complex, that the resulting disabilities are infinitely varied.

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