Disability and Austerity

Sam Fury writes on the neglect disabled people have faced from both the Tories and Labour for over a decade whilst offering a stance that we as communists should take on inclusivity and support.

Sam Fury, is a member of YCL’s Merseyside district

Since the imposition of austerity on our country in 2010, the working class have felt the effects of underfunded public services and brutal cuts to the lifelines we all rely on. 

In their relentless drive to slash public expenditure and transfer the cost of the 2008 crash to working people rather than the bankers and their eager servants in the political class, the government has claimed many victims.

Public services have been privatised, libraries shut down, whole communities ravaged. Everyone has a vague idea of the misery caused by the coalition government and its Conservative successor. 

Yet too little attention has been paid to those who were the most cruelly and savagely hurt by the government’s cost-cutting measures: those living with mental and physical disabilities.

We’ve all seen the stories about people callously declared “fit for work” despite suffering from terminal illness. We’ve all felt that familiar mixture of anger and despair when reading about disabled people who, denied the benefits they needed to stay alive, have been driven by government policy to suicide. 

Committed socialists probably don’t need to be told that these are not one-off occurrences either; but the grim reality of the treatment of disabled people still is not given any of the weight it deserves.

Statistics show the number of suicide attempts of people claiming for disability benefits more than doubled from 2008-2017.

Over 17,000 sick and disabled people died while desperately trying to get access to benefits from 2013-2019. 

The humiliating tests those attempting to get state benefits for disability are forced to complete alone are linked to hundreds of suicides across England and Wales.

According to an NHS study – and this only takes into account those whose suicide attempts were successful. 

No doubt, countless more will have survived suicide attempts, and data suggests these tests caused thousands of new cases of mental illnesses. 

Even the UN, toothless though it may be, has raised the alarm, stating that government policy was violating the human rights of disabled people.

These are just the headline figures, but looking further into the pattern of mistreatment that disabled people in this country have suffered at the hands of austerity and its handmaidens, there are yet more horrors to be unearthed.

Benefits sanctions on disabled people rose by a jaw-dropping 580% from 2018-2019, showing the welfare system for what it really is: a machine designed to target the most vulnerable, humiliate them, and rip away the meager protections they have been afforded. 

Make no mistake: those in power know these policies lead to misery and death. What is happening to disabled people in this country is nothing short of social murder.

The inhumanity that disabled people have been exposed to should be unthinkable in any civilised society, and yet it has been tacitly accepted here in Britain. 

The government, working for the powerful rather than the poor, has done something that is little more than the systematic murder of its most vulnerable citizens. 

The official opposition, far from doing its utmost to defend those hit hardest by the government’s criminal approach, prefers to censor any criticism of this new order. 

Leaked memos have shown that someone within the Labour Party removed mentions of discrimination against the disabled and the support that disabled people receive from trade unions from criticism penned by the Shadow Minister for Disabled People. 

Sadly, in Britain we do not have a government that cares for the disabled nor an opposition that defends them.

Instead, we have a system of widespread silencing, humiliation and suffering of those who need help the most.

The fact that we as a country have not reacted with public outcry and sustained outrage is no accident. It’s a consequence of an economic system that casts the disabled as almost sub-human. 

Under capitalism, the value of human life is completely disregarded. Rather than seeing human beings as inherently deserving of life, entitled to compassion, respect and dignity, capitalism evaluates people’s worth based on two metrics; how much they can produce, and how much they can consume. 

For disabled people who are less able to work (and therefore less able to earn money they can use to consume) this means they will be seen as lesser.

Nowhere has this disgusting attitude been more clearly exposed than in the response of the right-wing, inside and outside government, to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After half a year of track-and-trace scandals, overly-complicated rules, and pointless sloganeering, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the initial preference of the government in responding to the crisis was to simply allow the virus to ravage the population and for ‘herd immunity’ to be built up. 

Questions about reinfection aside, this strategy is deadly for many disabled people. Those who are at particularly high risk of death – often those living with disabilities – would simply be left to catch the virus, battle its effects, and either die or live with the complications it causes. 

The initial impulse of the government was to simply leave them to their own devices, because the deaths of Britain’s disabled people to them was a price more than worth paying, compared to the prospect of disrupting businesses and hitting share prices. 

Even now with this monstrous ‘herd immunity’ strategy no longer being touted quite so loudly, those who cheerlead for an end to COVID-19 restrictions routinely point out that those killed by the virus are only those with ‘underlying conditions’. 

In other words, it’s okay; it’s only the sick and disabled dying. This is not a reasonable approach to a pandemic; it’s twenty-first century eugenics.

Even where the failures of the government are exposed, it is often the plight of students locked in their accommodation, or workers losing their jobs, that is focused on. 

This is perfectly right; the conditions young people have been exposed to by greedy student landlords are appalling and the damage done to people’s jobs and careers is devastating. 

But there is comparatively little attention paid to the disabled, who, like with austerity, will end up paying the highest price for the government’s failings.

As young communists, we have to act now to stand up for disability rights. 

Standing up to a system that has worked to eradicate the disabled will be difficult, but there are ways we can fight back. 

As we organise in trade unions, we must ensure they continue their long and proud history of defending the disabled. 

We must, in our community work, keep the many different needs of the most vulnerable in our society at the front of our minds. 

Foodbank drives like the ones already organised by the Young Communist League and other left wing groups are a lifeline for disabled people who are facing isolation. 

We must do our best to listen to our disabled comrades. 

Perhaps most importantly, in our opposition to capitalism and our political education, we must counter the dehumanisation of disabled people that has become entrenched in our society. 

It is our job now to tear down the system that has callously thrown vulnerable people to the wolves, and build a new one that will respect and provide for all.

Sam Fury

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