Disabled people’s independence could be jeopardised by the government’s planned cuts to disability benefits, according to a leading Paralympian.
David Clarke, who will captain Britain’s blind football team at next month’s Paralympics in London, said he believed cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA) could put people’s independence and equality of opportunity at risk.
And he said that the focus on forcing disabled people off incapacity benefits and back to work ignored the barriers in society and workplaces that can prevent them from finding jobs.
Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) about the cuts to disability benefits, he said: “It does seem as though disabled people’s independence is being jeopardised by the government’s proposals and I think what worries me is that it has been done with good intentions in certain areas, but it is so wide of the mark.”
Speaking at the official launch of the ParalympicsGB team for London 2012, Clarke said the push towards forcing disabled people off out-of-work disability benefits appeared to be ignoring the “wider debate” about equality and discrimination.
He said: “It is about creating opportunities through diversity programmes within businesses, it is about transport, it is about assistance in the workplace.”
He said the government appeared to have failed to understand the importance of DLA to disabled people’s independence.
Clarke said: “If a government minister found himself in the middle of a city with no-one to help and needed to get a taxi owing to mobility difficulties, he probably would appreciate his DLA. Or indeed if he needed someone to read his post.
“DLA matters. It covers some of those additional costs that we wouldn’t necessarily have the money for.
“What DLA does in my opinion is it enables you to afford all the additional support you need in all sorts of guises without impinging on the income you receive. It puts you on a par with other people in society.”
He added: “Every single penny of that DLA goes back into the economy. It is not like people are clinging onto it and creating a nest egg.
“They spend this money on funding their independence, on necessities, on assistance, on transport networks. Whatever it is doing it is going into the economy.”
A string of Paralympians have joined him in speaking out about the importance of DLA.
Powerlifter Ali Jawad told DNS: “I just hope when [the cuts]come along that the government have thought this through.
“[If they haven’t] they are going to have a lot of disabled people who are losing their independence.”
Table-tennis star Sue Gilroy said it would be “devastating” if she was to lose her DLA and would make day-to-day life “impossible”, as she uses it to help pay for things like support at home, the £20,000-worth of adaptations to her Motability vehicle, and her wheelchair.
Aaron Phipps, a key member of the ParalympicsGB wheelchair rugby team, said: “It is just completely essential. I would be completely lost without it.
“A new wheelchair costs perhaps £1,700. I would not be able to live independently without a wheelchair like this.”
His team-mate Kylie Grimes added: “DLA is really important. It’s been a massive help to me over the years.”
And Boccia world number one Nigel Murray, a two-time Paralympic gold-medallist, told DNS: “The benefits that I get are very important to me. They enable me to live and get the support I need.”
Dressage medal-hope Natasha Baker said DLA allowed disabled people to be independent.
She said: “I love my independence. I hate relying on other people to do everything for me. I drive and I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the petrol if I didn’t have DLA.”
It is not the first time Clarke has spoken out on issues around rights – the historical figure he looks up to more than anyone is Martin Luther-King – such as outdated media attitudes to disabled people, particularly the Sun’s “appalling” front page that mocked the speech difficulty of the new England football manager, Roy Hodgson.
But he believes some media attitudes are improving, while Channel 4’s presentation of Paralympic sport – as the UK’s official TV broadcaster for the games – has been “very impressive”.
He said he was now more likely to be asked sport-related questions about blind football, rather than receiving the “patronising, arm-round-the-shoulder” attitude, but he is keen that the Paralympics further highlight the elite nature of his sport.
Away from sport and disability, he is also keen to speak out in defence of the banking industry.
A senior partner with Clydesdale Bank, running a team of corporate and private bankers, he is proud of what he does, despite the scandals and crises that have enveloped the industry.
He said: “I know what I do on a day-to-day basis. It is helping people, be it small businesses, corporate businesses, private individuals.
“My sole objective is to make them more secure and successful in life, maybe richer, and to protect what they have earned. I build positive relationships with people.
“It is a million miles away from the stuff that is going on at the moment, so far removed you can’t believe.”
He added: “Clydesdale have been absolutely amazing to give me as much time as I need to prepare properly, as well as allow me to continue with a full-time career.”
Despite his willingness to speak out in defence of disabled people’s entitlement to benefits, and his high media profile, he is focused on the competition ahead, and is looking forward most of all to “getting into the tournament and away from all the hype”.
He said: “Football is about results. There will be a lot of additional attention, but we are here to win a football tournament and fundamentally that has to come first.”
Although he hopes the games are a success, he said, the only way he will judge that success personally will be if he comes away with a medal around his neck.
19 July 2012