Disabled actors, performers and activists have joined faith leaders and mainstream grassroots campaigners for a memorial event outside parliament to remember the thousands of disabled victims of the government’s austerity programme.
The 10, 000 Cuts and Counting event saw a swathe of Parliament Square covered with white flowers, each one representing a disabled person who had died shortly after undergoing the government’s hated “fitness for work” test, according to government statistics.
It saw leading user-led campaign groups such as the WOW Petition and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) collaborating with the mainstream grassroots protest group Occupy London and the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr David Ison.
More than 150 people listened to speakers and performers including Penny Pepper, Sophie Partridge, and the Labour MPs Michael Meacher, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn.
Partridge read extracts from the emails, blogs and other posts made by Karen Sherlock, who died in June 2012 after fighting for two years against the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.
Ellen Clifford, from DPAC, told the audience: “Today we are doing something important, we are remembering our dead, and those individual lives damaged and destroyed, individual lives of people not born into money, real people whose lives meant something.”
Wayne Blackburn, from the WOW petition, said: “I am so angry and so upset at the fact that we are having to have this in 2013.
“I am asking you to think about [the impact of] this intrusive and abusive test in the last weeks of their lives, people who are having to take multiple WCAs… it is torturing people, it is making them ill and it is causing true hardship.”
The disabled singer John Kelly, who compered the event, said it was being held for “those who have had their lives devastated by the austerity cuts”.
He said: “Disabled people are leading the fight against the injustice of austerity. We can’t stand idly by and watch our institutions be devastated by this government.”
He called for an end to the WCA and any other “damaging assessments”, as well as to the use of Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments, the “bedroom tax”, and the closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015, as well as cuts to other essential support.
Meacher said he saw signs of hope. “I am convinced that things are going to change and that your efforts, your courage, your resolution, is going to bear fruit.
“I believe we are getting increasing public support. I have no doubt that public support for your cause – our cause – is growing. I firmly believe this is a fight we can win.”
John McDonnell said that in the last four months, five people had killed themselves “as a result of austerity” by stepping off the railway platform in Hayes, in his constituency.
He said: “It is a community under siege. The worst affected are those with mental health problems who just cannot cope with the abuse of the Atos system.
“There are people who are dying as a result of this system. We are here not just to commemorate them, but to expose the suffering that is going on. Suicide after suicide, as a result of Atos and the WCA system. I want them tried as social criminals.”
He also paid tribute to all the disabled activists who had campaigned against the WCA and Atos, and said: “They should not be arrested, they should be awarded medals for what they have done. If it takes direct action, we will take further direct action.”
During a faith-based section, supporters were led in prayers while they faced, in turn, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court, the Treasury and the Houses of Parliament.
Ison said that the white flowers that were laid in front of the stage were there as a reminder of the “human costs” of the WCA.
He said they provided a picture of those who have “found it extremely hard to cope with what the government is doing”, while some “have even taken their own lives”.
The civil rights campaigner Mohammed Ansar told those gathered for the memorial: “We are here to highlight the human cost of government policy in relation to disabled people, to assure disabled people they are not alone and that many stand in solidarity.”
He said they were calling on the government to “listen to disabled people” and the many others, including the British Medical Association, who were “shocked by what is happening”.
A delegation later presented a letter to 10 Downing Street, calling for an end to the “stressful and humiliating” and “highly ineffective” WCA, and the scrapping of the government’s contract with Atos.
Disabled activists who have campaigned to point out the unfairness, the inflexibility and the dangers inherent in the WCA system had spoken earlier of the emotions caused by the event.
Julia Smith, from Essex, told Disability News Service (DNS) before the event began that she was “very emotional”.
She said she was just beginning her fourth cycle of “relentless processing” under Atos and the WCA.
“I was suicidal after the last one. I had a doctor who was rude, abusive, he wouldn’t look at my evidence, he snapped at me, he wouldn’t let me answer questions. I cried all the way through the assessment.”
She said it was “the most degrading, awful thing” she had ever experienced.
“I am here for all the people who have died, and to show solidarity with their families. We don’t even know how many, because they have stopped recording them.
“We are pleading with the UN to come and help us because the story has not been told in this country.
“No-one really knows what is happening except the disabled people who have gone through it. It is just so awful.”
Dave Skull, from Mad Pride, said he felt “anger and frustration and fear”, and added “I am going to find it hard not to cry, because I understand the impact on other people.
“I myself have nearly been pushed into attempting suicide because of being wrongly assessed by Atos. I told them quite clearly that I had suicide issues; it was all recognised, but they didn’t record it at all.
“The doctor denied it had been said, even though I had a witness. Atos tried to discredit my friend.”
He added: “There is a real risk that the Tories will win the next election and then it will get worse. They see disabled people as a burden on society, as useless eaters.”
Andy Greene, from DPAC, said: “I think people are going to be angry, first and foremost, that an event like this has to take place, and I think people are going to be eager to take this message and this struggle on.”
He added: “You can get sucked into talking about statistics, but the truth is that each one of those people are people and families that are really hurting at the moment and do not have a voice, and no-one is really taking on what is happening to them.”
Gabriel Pepper said it was “very annoying” that he had to keep coming to events protesting about the unfairness of the government’s cuts and reforms on disabled people.
He said: “Until everyone gets angry, nothing will happen and we will keep on going to events like this. The general public have chosen to ignore us.”
Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, said she and other activists were sad but also very angry.
She said: “We want to show that we are not going to forget the people who have died and we are determined that there are not going to be any more deaths as a result of the government’s genocidal reforms.”
She said that disabled women had been hit particularly hard, and pointed to the death of June Mitchell in 2009, who was found fit for work and died five months later from lung cancer before her appeal could be heard.
After the memorial, Partridge told DNS: “When you think of these flowers representing all the individuals who have departed… it makes it very poignant. It’s about real people.”
She said that reading Sherlock’s words had been “emotional” and “gut-wrenching”.
Pepper added: “It is a different atmosphere [to other recent protests] because it’s a memorial. We have been reflecting on the sadness. We all know people who have been through this and are going through this.”
She said she remembered being part of the “first wave” of the disability movement, which had led to improvements that made it easier for disabled people to live independently.
She said: “Disabled people were the primary force behind those changes and now it is all under attack.”
WOW campaigner Ian Jones said the event had made him feel “humble and proud, and determined to find a better, fairer way” of assessing people’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
1 October 2013