Guest post: Disabled Activists and the Anti-Cuts Movement


This is a guest post by Lisa J. Ellwood, disability & mental health activist. The Broken of Britain is a non-party political campaign providing advocacy for physically & mentally disabled people of Great Britain and their carers. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.

“The moral health of a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable
members” – a new twist on an old saying that is itself rooted in religious antiquity.
How sad it is that 3,000 years later this sentiment is still very relevant. Author
and MS Philanthropist J.K. Rowling made much the same observation in her
best-selling Harry Potter series with the following pearl of wisdom: “If you want
to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his
equals.”

Recent media coverage has shone the spotlight on disabled people, and that
spotlight has been less than favourable. We are castigated as ‘scroungers
and ‘fakers’ not only by journalists and their employers, but also neighbours,
friends and even family. It would seem that the vast majority of the great
British public knows several people who are as fit as a fiddle and audaciously
raking money in hand-over-fist thanks to bogus benefits claims based on faked
illnesses. There is an endless stream of rhetoric to be found when reading any
newspaper, blog or listening to talk radio. Too often I find myself reading the
latest venomous shots fired by the disgruntled and wonder if the face behind the
pseudonym is a familiar one.

It takes much more than one voice singing in the darkness to shed light on a
given concern. It is this basic understanding which brings the most unlikely
of people together to work towards a common purpose. While “The Broken
of Britain” campaign is in its infancy, the core group of people involved are
seasoned veterans when it comes to raising awareness about their lives as
disabled people in the modern world. We come from differing backgrounds, have
a wide range of illness physical or mental – and we all have differing perspectives
on the contentious issues concerning disabled people. The one thing that
brought us together as a collective was our tacit agreement that the current
coalition government is waging wholesale warfare against the most vulnerable in
British society: women, children, the poor and disabled people specifically.
The irony is that funds and services for disabled people includes women and
children from all backgrounds (including celebrities collecting benefits for their
disabled children).

We have supported the various anti-cuts initiatives including boycotts, protests
and petitions. That support will continue. The only thing that we have ever
asked is that the not yet disabled keep an open mind and lend their support to
our efforts in kind. Contrary to populist belief, disabled people do as much as
we possibly can to help ourselves – as much by personal choice as driven by
circumstance. However, we do need the active support of able-bodied people.
What we bring to the anti-cuts movement is no different to what we’ve always had
to do in order to get even a modicum of much-needed help with daily living.

However, it is a double-edge sword for us – standing up for ourselves, so to
speak, by participating in protests typically elicits the salvo “if you can manage
that then you are fit to work” or even worse “you asked for trouble just by
participating”. Disingenuous statements and worse have been levelled at Jody
McIntyre, the disabled activist pulled from his wheelchair during a recent student
protest and dragged across a London street by no less than four Met Police
Officers. We are made to hold account for our unenviable predicament by the
society which victimises us. Many disabled people hold back from activism
because they are afraid of taking the risk and then having it used against them.
We are broadsided on a daily basis by the insensitive and uninformed, no less
because of the stigma attached to being physically disabled, mentally ill or
wresting with the energy-stealing demons of “invisible illness”. It’s bad enough
for someone who struggles with physical disabilities, but for those with ‘invisible’
and/or mental health problems there is added trauma in processing the searing
hatred coming from wilfully ignorant and wholly unrepentant able-bodied
people. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the
US, “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as
those who are.”

For those that care to, it is easy to engage with disabled people; all that is
required is communication. Yes, we will have missteps along the way and on
both sides. But in speaking to members of the various students groups via
social media, I have reminded them that once-upon-a-time I was student, able-
bodied and thinking I had my ‘whole life ahead of me’. The life I lead now as
someone who lives with both physical and mental illness was not one I had ever
considered for myself. As little as two years ago I could not have foreseen how
drastically my life has changed in the past year alone. The only good thing that
keeps me holding on is the fierce determination of those whom I work alongside.
It is a great privilege to fight a good and just fight with people whose entire lives
have included coping with chronic illness far more admirably than I have in
my situation in the past year. The powers-that-be have come first for the most
vulnerable of British Society. It’s easy to close hearts and minds to a situation
because you believe it’s nothing to do with you. But one day it just might be you
they come for, you who needs to fight tooth and nail to save your home, you child
or even your own sanity.

The afore-mentioned Ms. Rowling has bequeathed to us a legacy of accessible
wisdom. To paraphrase The Greatest Wizard of the Age, Albus Dumbldore,
Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry: it is our choices
my friends, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. These are
dark times and the moment is already upon us when we must choose what
is easy and what is right. We are only as strong as we are united, as weak
as we are divided. All who are not in the decidedly comfortable position of an
assured future must work together bound by the fears which concern us all. It is
imperative that we fight, fight again and keep on fighting – for only then can the
underhanded be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated. “We teach people
how to treat us” – so the old saying goes. Differences of habit and language are
nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open. Indifference and
neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike. The consequences are
far worse should they be the result of simply giving up.