Disabled activists are gearing up for a campaign of direct action to back up the launch of a manifesto they hope will show the government that disabled people are not “victims” and “passive recipients of benefits”.
More than 100 disabled people and their supporters crammed into an inaccessible committee room in Westminster – with many forced to spill out into the corridor – for the launch of the UK Disabled People’s Manifesto: Reclaiming Our Futures.
The manifesto lays out seven “priority demands”: on inclusive education; a legal right to independent living; welfare and housing; access and inclusion; employment; a single disabled person’s citizen’s income, to replace the current range of benefits; and effective co-production.
The manifesto launch was the final event of the Reclaiming Our Futures week of action – led by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – which saw disabled people protesting outside government departments and in their own communities; a direct action protest that blocked the main entrance of the BBC; an exhibition on disability, art and protest; and a debate on the future of the social model.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told the meeting that the manifesto – produced by DPAC, Inclusion London, The Alliance for Inclusive Education and Equal Lives – was an attempt to map out an “inclusive vision” of society.
She said: “This government and our leaders have to stop seeing support for disabled people as dead money and a drain on resources that needs to be eliminated.
“This has been developed by disabled people and our organisations as a direct response to the unprecedented range of attacks that we are facing, attacks that are systematically destroying the progress we secured… towards disability equality.”
Lazard pointed to research which found that disabled people had been nine times more affected by the government cuts than non-disabled people.
She said: “That’s shameful. It exposes the lie that we are all in this together.”
Bill Scott, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, endorsed the manifesto and said disabled people had been “singled out” by the government.
He said: “I think the government made a calculation that we would be the easiest to attack… the least able to get out on the streets to protest… the least able to articulate our demands to key decision-makers.”
He said that some disabled people were already taking their own lives as a result of the government’s “bedroom tax”, and he called for a fair rents policy and a national programme of social housing construction.
He told the meeting: “They thought that we wouldn’t fight back. I have an answer: look around this room.
“I have come down from Scotland to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Never again should disabled people be allowed to be attacked in this way.
“We are calling on everyone to get together and fight for this manifesto. It is a really important step by the disabled people’s movement.”
Sean McGovern, co-chair of the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee, said the manifesto had to be put in front of every MP over the next 18 months.
He said: “We have got to be in their faces all the time with this document.”
Although most of the anger in the meeting was directed at the coalition, there was also frustration with the Labour party for its failure to oppose many of the government’s welfare reforms.
Richard Rieser, coordinator of UK Disability History Month and chief executive of the disability equality consultancy World of Inclusion, said the government was “flagrantly abusing” the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But he also called on disabled people to push the Labour party to change its policy positions and adopt a stance of “full civil rights for disabled people”.
Sue Mitchell, from Derbyshire, said: “I can’t think of any other group that has been picked on and victimised as much as disabled people.
“They think we are victims, passive recipients of benefits. We have to prove that we are not.”
She said: “The launch of a manifesto is OK. But if it sits on someone’s desk, nothing is going to change. We have to carry on with direct action. We will be victimised if we don’t carry on fighting.”
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of DPAC, said the organisation had been experiencing a surge in emails from disabled people left without food, those being sanctioned by having their benefits removed, and people “who want to commit suicide because their housing benefit has been stopped”.
She said: “I totally agree… we do need direct action as well as the manifesto.”
The Labour MP John McDonnell, who has been a strong supporter of the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement, said that the experience of DPAC and Black Triangle was that “direct action works”.
He said: “You now have an agreed manifesto. You will need a direct action campaign in their faces to make sure they sign up to this.”
He also advised disabled activists to occupy Westminster Hall – the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament – the next time they turn up for a parliamentary meeting and find the room is not accessible.
Burnip said after the meeting that she was sure there would be more direct action from DPAC.
She said: “The worse it gets, the more desperate people get. But I also think that any kind of on-street protest is very empowering for people and makes them more willing to carry out direct action. That’s the feedback I am getting from people [after the DPAC week of action].”
She said the financial situation facing disabled people had significantly worsened in the last couple of months.
“DPAC are getting so many emails from people being left with no money and no food, and their hardship payments are not turning up. It’s getting worse and worse.”
Some problems are a result of the latest raft of welfare reforms and cuts brought in by the government, she said, and many from employment and support allowance claimants who had been “sanctioned” by DWP because they had not been able to get to work-related activity appointments with their advisers.
She said she had been told by a source within Jobcentre Plus that staff were being pressured to sanction more claimants, even though DWP denies imposing any targets.
Burnip said she was receiving so many distressing emails that she could soon need counselling herself.
She added: “We are getting a lot of emails from people who are in arrears and cannot get their rent, and saying they are seriously thinking of suicide.”
5 September 2013