LATEST ISSUE OF VIEW: ‘We have watched with dismay as hard fought for rights have been eroded or simply swept aside’

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Sean Fitzsimons

Sean Fitzsimons, Employment Advocacy Officer with Disability Action, takes aim at austerity policies in the United Kingdom and the devastating impact they have had on the lives of thousands of people with disabilities

I’m proud to be a malcontent of austerity. In tackling the politics of austerity, it is critical we frame the conversation not only in terms of fiscal policy, but of the very real human cost.

Austerity has been pursued relentlessly for close to a decade now and it has many faces; including political heavyweights, neo-liberal think tanks and the less visible back office Government policy teams. It’s real face, however, sits beyond spreadsheets and financial modelling. Austerity has and continues to change utterly the lives of so many sections of our society. Lower income families, lone parents, self-employed and disabled people being just some of the worst affected.

It would be impossible for me in this short piece to speak authoritatively on the conscious cruelty that is being meted out to so many groups under the guise of “balancing the books”. One area I am most familiar with is the outworkings of austerity on disabled people.

In August 2017, Theresia Degener, then chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, stated that in respect of UK austerity, “social cut policies have led to a human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”.

To many disabled people and our allies working alongside us, these comments backed by such considerable expertise and investigative rigour were very welcome but ultimately unsurprising.

We have watched with dismay as hard fought for rights have been eroded or simply swept aside – the closure of the Independent Living Fund, DLA to PIP, legal aid cuts, attacks on social care budgets.

In the last decade, sections of the media and political establishment have engaged in an unrelenting, toxic narrative in relation to disabled people. We are painted as ‘scroungers’, ‘fakers’, ‘cheats’, ‘spongers’ and are, without fail, brought up regardless of forum, as a ‘burden’. The ease with which these conversations arise and take place in workplaces, shops, bars and school playgrounds is indicative of the degree to which so many of us have unwittingly been affected by media and political machines. By these indicators alone – it is not hard to see how these policies designed and rolled out (in near total absence of input from disabled people themselves) could be allowed to inflict such unflinching cruelty on our community.

What has happened to enable policy that has such a devastating impact on disabled people? Has policy shaped media and societal rhetoric in respect of disability? Has the policy been written and rolled out to feed a desire to blame, single out and create easy scapegoats?

There has now been a noticeable political shift, with virtual cross-party condemnation of ongoing failings, particularly in respect of PIP. However, we also need to look at the whole picture – disabled people are not just passive benefits recipients, here in NI we have the worst chances of securing, retaining and progressing in employment anywhere in the UK. Why?

As a disabled person, working in the field of disability rights, it is my hope that we have finally seen a societal awakening and a tipping point reached in respect of systemic abuses and ongoing rights denial. I have watched with admiration the recent resurgence, rise and successes of feminism and LGB&/T movements. It is critically important that disability rights are understood to be inalienable human rights, and that we do not stand alone, but rather shoulder to shoulder with our allies.

In the weeks, months and years ahead, a number of key challenges lie before us all. We need to create space for disabled people at all tables, we need to pursue cultural transformation – espousing the inherent rights, dignity and respect all disabled people are entitled to. We need to ensure adequate representation in Government and political spheres. In striving for a change in societal values – we will by default achieve policy change, a halt to rights retrogression and stronger legal protections for the future.

Austerity has many malcontents – disabled people have and will continue to reject any painting of us as ‘victims’. I am confident that disabled people will rise from this period stronger.

Our voice has been absent and continues to be, we remain isolated, marginalised and othered – we are however unbroken. Pass the mic and join us – the austerity agenda has highlighted to many the need for immediate action – disabled people will be treated with dignity and respect. We will have full realisation of our rights.

I look forward to working with everyone to achieve this.

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