The WOW petition read: “We call for a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform, and a new deal for sick and disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions.” Some 100,000 signatures later, the government has been forced to listen. This morning, the House of Commons will have a full debate on what the “reforms” have done to the thousands who couldn’t stop them.
The disabled, as a group, lumped together and picked out, is being forced to watch as £28bn is hacked from their benefits. Disabled people in poverty make up 4% of the population, but have taken 13% of this government’s cuts.
Carers are facing eviction from their homes because they can’t pay the rent. People too ill to work are going to payday loan companies to be able to buy food. Severely disabled people are being told social care cuts mean they can’t have help to get to the toilet at night and they should lie in incontinence pads instead. This is happening in this country right now. The seventh richest in the world. No one is stopping it. It has been left to the people without power to make someone listen.
It’s significant that it was via an online petition that people who are disabled or long-term ill made themselves heard; faceless behind screens, voiceless but for the keys, finding some freedom within four walls. Signing, sharing, tweeting, talking: these are the only options for people who are not given options, who did not start in a position of opportunity and dignity but have watched over the months as the scraps they had have been taken away.
It’s often said the cuts are an attack on the “most vulnerable”, but it’s a term that suggests an inevitability to all this. Fear is not a guaranteed result of disability; desperation does not have to come with long-term sickness, just another natural symptom amongst pain and fatigue. Governments make people vulnerable: they provide the support that the disadvantaged parts of society need, or they don’t. When you cannot work, you eat when those with their fingers on the purse-strings give you money, and if they don’t, you go hungry. When you cannot wash yourself, you get to the bathroom when those who make the decisions send and pay for someone to help you, and if they don’t, you stay in bed dirty. That is the definition of vulnerability. Ignoring it, leaving human beings to suffer alone, is, while we’re at it, the definition of cruelty.
I think disabled people deserve their day in parliament. They won’t, of course, be there themselves. The thousands who together got the WOW petition to be noticed will sit at home aware that the fate of their lives, as always, is in the hands of someone else: strangers, politicians – who are almost exclusively healthy and non-disabled. These MPs will have to imagine, for a moment, what life would be like if they woke up tomorrow without the security of money and health, where there’s one packet of pasta in the cupboard and some off-smelling milk in the fridge and their body hasn’t got the strength to cook anyway. And where the tempting radiators are the enemy because the heating bill’s already in arrears and there’s no choice but to go to bed at 7pm and sit wrapped up, feeling your sick bones get cold.
This is a quiet battle, with its victims shut behind doors and their weapons a keyboard and a name. But it is a battle for life that means living, not just existing. We are in a war on welfare cuts. When your own government is making you vulnerable, there is no choice but to fight.