A disabled activist and consultant has attempted to explain the aggressive tactics he has used to attack the anti-cuts campaigners he blames for hijacking the disability agenda.
Simon Stevens has talked in depth to Disability News Service about his frustration at what he sees as a left-wing takeover of the disability rights movement.
He makes no apologies for his often controversial stance on many issues, because he says his views are “pure inclusionist”.
He believes that cuts to social care have been exaggerated… that there is “reason to be optimistic” about the imminent closure of the Independent Living Fund… and that the widespread protests over the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) and the broader cuts agenda are wrong-headed and damaging to disabled people.
Stevens knows that views like these – promoted heavily and often angrily on social media and through articles on the Huffington Post website – have made him many enemies among what he sees as “welfare-focused disabled activists”.
But he argues that the focus on welfare reform, government cuts to benefits, and the WCA has over-shadowed the fight for true inclusion.
“I am a purist,” he says. “There are no ifs and buts with inclusion. That comes from the countless times in my life where I was destined to sit on a bean bag all day. My first school, at the age of three, back in the 1970s, was in a mental hospital.”
Not only does he have no patience with the anti-cuts movement, he believes they – and many of the reports of their protests by Disability News Service (DNS) – have fundamentally damaged efforts to boost inclusion.
Campaign slogans such as “Atos kills”, which targeted the company carrying out the WCA on behalf of the government – which has now withdrawn from the contract, to be replaced by the US company Maximus – “suggest that disabled people cannot and should not work”, and replicate deeply-held institutional prejudices.
But more than that, he believes that, rather than supporting disabled people in their fight against oppression, these campaigns and reports actually fuel people’s mental distress.
He does not accept the suggestion that the distress caused by Atos and its application of the WCA, and the harsh, tick-box nature of the assessment, came first, while the protests and anger came later.
The grassroots organisation Black Triangle, for example, was founded by friends of the Scottish poet Paul Reekie after his suicide in 2010.
His decision to kill himself was believed to have been driven partly by the decision to stop his incapacity benefit and housing benefit. Instead of a suicide note, two letters informing him of these decisions were laid out on a table.
But even if this is so, Stevens says, “it does not give the protest group the right to angrily campaign for the exclusion of disabled people”.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) was formed in response to the swingeing cuts announced by the coalition, at a march in Birmingham in October 2010.
The announcement of the cuts came first – although Stevens insists they have yet to be felt by many disabled people – and then came the march, then the formation of DPAC, and then its campaigns.
Stevens insists that these campaigns and others like them, such as the WOWcampaign, are arguing that many disabled people are incapable of work, when he believes that all disabled people are capable of making a meaningful contribution to society.
He is partly driven, he says, by the number of disabled people with high support needs who he has seen written off by professionals.
“If you think you can work, you will work, and for everyone you can show me in a specific situation who feels unable to work, I can show you someone able to work.
“If people are politically educated to think they have a right not to work, or even be assessed, when their actions show otherwise, and this is endorsed by the ‘PC police’, what hope do we have of true inclusion?”
Several days after Stevens’ face-to-face interview with DNS, and a subsequent lengthy email exchange, the website Benefits and Work published the results of a survey, which asked if there was a link between benefit sanctions and the deaths of claimants.
The site also published about 100 detailed comments from survey respondents, which included extensive anecdotal evidence of the damage caused by the current benefits system.
One respondent said: “I have been hospitalised due to the strain I was under when dealing with DWP I was without benefit for three months, when DWP lost my personal information twice.
“I was blatantly lied to on the phone on four occasions I now live in fear of the DWP, and am almost sick when a letter from them comes through the door.”
Another said: “My granddaughter was sanctioned for not attending the jobcentre after having a stroke the week before, she could not talk or move, the DWP were informed but still sanctioned her for not turning up.”
A third respondent said: “I believe this government is trying to kill me and take my home. I’m a disabled insulin dependent diabetic and forced to go without meals in order to pay bedroom tax and council tax.
“This time last year I was in credit with my landlord by over £600 but from 1/1/2015 I’m now in arrears. This government is inhuman!”
Despite scores of similar comments, Stevens insists that often it is not the government’s benefit rules that are wrong or unfair, but how they are implemented, communicated or interpreted by “people who have incompatible expectations, or are in an emotional, fragile or hostile state of mind”.
He said he was concerned that the media and activists take evidence like this “at face value” and “twist and shorten it” until it becomes “a shortened myth and then a fact that is unchallengeable”.
Stevens added: “And this leads to my second concern, that this is read by people applying for WCA and makes them believe this test is wrong before they start, framing how they see things, making it worse, and potentially leading to suicidal feelings.
“The leaders of protests groups have always used or abused people’s anger for their own agenda, rather than resolving people’s specific problems, because this is how collectivism works.”
Stevens accepts that he occasionally makes mistakes. “I know I have made every mistake going,” he says, “and I am proud that I had the opportunity to make those mistakes, as opposed to basket-weaving in a Remploy factory as I was destined to do.”
But he is unwilling to accept that he has made mistakes in his frequent aggressive outbursts on social media, particularly via Twitter, where he has frequently called opponents “murderers” and “terrorists”.
“Twitter is who I am and what I believe,” he says. “I take full responsibility for who I am and what I say.”
Many of his attacks have been targeted at DNS, and its reporting of the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement. He has accused DNS editor John Pring of being “paid to lie to disabled people in the hope they commit suicide”, and of a “neo-Nazi desire for disabled people to be murdered”.
In response to comments like these, Pring asked him on Twitter whether his social media activism was being funded by a political party or any other organisation.
“I am totally independent of anyone and I only get paid for the services I am paid to provide,” Stevens says. “Like many disabled people, the reality is I rely upon tax credits because many organisations expect me to work for free, and this is something I try to avoid.
“It is very concerning to suggest my viewpoint that all sick and disabled people have the ability and potential to participate in society is so alien that it has to be paid for.
“Disabled people are capable of their own viewpoint as individuals and not every activist has such an obvious political agenda as the anti-cuts activists seem to believe.”
In the last few months, he has been angered by DNS efforts to force the Department for Work and Pensions to publish secret reviews carried out following the deaths of benefit claimants.
These DNS articles push the idea, he says, that disabled people need “special treatment” and should not be encouraged to work.
He believes that DNS wants to publish the reviews because it assumes that the Department for Work and Pensions is alone responsible – rather than any other agencies – for the deaths of people who have had their benefits removed, denied, or sanctioned*.
He believes there is little point in DNS “claiming to pretend to believe in inclusion”, when such stories “promote disabled people as incapable of any meaningful existence and therefore being better off dead”.
Reporting such deaths merely adds to the fear, anxiety and stress of people waiting to be assessed for their eligibility for benefits, he says.
“When people read your articles, I worry that it makes them stressed, because it reads as though the government isn’t going to get your benefits right, so don’t even try.”
He insists that there are many disabled people who share his views, but that there is “no point in us putting our heads above water, because we are just going to be shot down at the moment”.
He adds: “What we see is outrage that disabled people are allowed to work. It is the public fear of including disabled people. Basically, people who believe in inclusion do not have a voice anymore.”
He says: “The last five years have been diabolical for disabled people, because of the way the left wing has hijacked disability as a welfare issue.
“It will be another five or 10 years before we can get inclusion back on the agenda in any meaningful way.”
The anti-cuts movement shouts loudly about rights, he says, but forgets that disabled people also have responsibilities.
And he argues that the campaigns around the WCA, and the unfairness of the test, even fuel the arguments of the assisted suicide lobby.
“I do not like the assumption that it is OK to ‘socially warehouse’ disabled people, to stop them moving forward with their lives,” he says. “The desire not to reassess people, the failure to understand that we should all be moving forward in many ways, is a desire to exclude people, and exclusion makes debates about assisted suicide more possible.
“If people are automatically forever incapable of work, why bother with an education? How far back do you declare people unfit for society? At birth? In the womb?”
Stevens appears to stand almost alone among disabled activists – at least publicly – in insisting that the government’s cuts to social care are not as bad as they have often been described.
He believes that moves towards telecare and other new technology are largely compensating for reductions in council funding, and that any cuts that have been made have been to the administrative “back rooms” of local authorities.
“There are cuts, but they are not the major cuts there were in the 1990s,” he says. Where there are cuts, it is because some councils have failed to match the improvements made by those local authorities that have managed to cushion the impact of the loss in funding from central government.
He also believes that there is no need – at least not yet – to be concerned about the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), another key campaign target of the anti-cuts movement, as many ILF-users with learning difficulties – the largest group of ILF recipients – will probably qualify instead for personal health budgets through the NHS.
Despite being an ILF-user himself, he believes its success in delivering independent living has been exaggerated, and that it often benefits families more than ILF-users themselves.
And when it comes to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, he again appears to stand almost alone among disabled activists. For some countries where basic needs are not met, it is relevant, he says, but not the UK.
“My understanding is that this is one of the best countries to live in for attitudes, money, technology, and rights, if you are disabled. I am not saying it is perfect in this country, but we are now looking at putting the cream on the top.”
Stevens is keen to clarify one fact about his CV that is often used by opponents to attack him. In August 2013, he wrote a blog for the DNS website, which was headlined ‘Why I chose to work with Atos.’
In the blog, he describes meeting with Atos managers in a bid to secure paid consultancy work with the company on its new personal independence payment contract. “It is all about helping to make things better for disabled people,” he says in the blog, “whatever the supposed motives of the organisation.”
He has repeatedly made it clear, he says, that he did not end up working with Atos, because “the lead fizzled out”.
“They were thinking of asking me to help them write a report on how to use Twitter,” he adds.
His hope, he says, is to become an adviser to the government, for the Department of Health or the Department for Work and Pensions. He has already been a member of the Department of Health’s personal assistance steering group.
Although he has considered trying to become an MP, he has ruled that out. “It is impractical on many levels, because of my health, pain and energy, and my speech impairment. I also used to say that I never wanted to be hated by half the population, although I seem to already be in that position.”
*DNS is happy to make it clear that it wants the reviews published for the sake of transparency, and to determine if the DWP – and any other agencies involved – have learned any lessons from the deaths of benefit claimants.