The TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference in London heard from a string of union delegates who spoke of the impact of the cuts on disabled people and the need to defend their rights in the face of the coalition’s austerity policies.
They also heard from Francesca Martinez, the actor and comedian, who has been fronting the disabled people’s WOW (War On Welfare) petition.
Martinez said disabled people were facing an “attack on basic human rights”.
She said: “People my age with so much to offer have been writing to me and expressing such worry over issues such as the closure of the Independent Living Fund.
“A very common thing written to me is a stark choice between losing all their care and being isolated at home or being forced into institutions.”
She added: “I believe the way to save money really is to give disabled people the support they need, so they can contribute to society.
“I myself have never met a disabled person who doesn’t want to be a valued member of society.”
Martinez, who received a standing ovation at the end of her speech, said the cuts to benefits were “not about money”, but were “an ideological attack on sectors of society that could not defend themselves”.
She said she would be joining direct action protests against the cuts. “Those in power are not going to give in unless you force them to. That means making things uncomfortable. There is no other way things are going to change.”
But she added: “It might take more than marching and protesting. It might take a national strike. I don’t think change occurs because of polite pleading. I also support any action taken and I will be out there on the streets with you.”
Sean McGovern, a co-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, told the conference that the situation for disabled people was “so grim” that it was “hard to find new words to properly describe it”.
He accused Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, of using “government propaganda” to try to “drive a wedge between ‘hard-working families’ and ‘scroungers’”.
He said the fight back by disabled people was one of the themes of the conference.
Jim Thakoordin, from the University and College Union (UCU), told delegates: “This has to be a special conference and we have to fight back.”
Roddy Slorach, also from UCU, said that benefits were “not about charity, they are not about handouts, they are not about a culture of entitlement, they are our rights and as rights they have to be fought for”.
Lesley McCallum, from Unite, said: “That we have to stand here and protect our rights is appalling – for them to start eroding what we have fought for, not what we have been given.
“Nobody has given us anything. We have had to fight every step of the way. We have to keep fighting.
“Nice doesn’t do it. We have to get out there, stand together and fight, fight, fight. Our dignity and respect comes from us, not from somebody sitting in Whitehall.”
Rob Murthwaite, a UCU delegate and a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said it was necessary for disabled activists to continue breaking the law.
He said: “It is all very well for them to demand that we obey the law when they are killing disabled people.
“We must do whatever it takes to stop them. If it means breaking the law, including trade union laws, come on, it’s about time we did it.”
Aruna Patel, from the NASUWT teachers’ union, said her teaching career had been “robbed” from her on the grounds of ill-health after her employer took 12 months to provide the reasonable adjustments that had been recommended.
She said: “Apparently I am a scrounger. That is what the media is shouting out at me every day.
“I am sick to death of this injustice and unfair labelling. The public does need educating from the right-wing media demonising people like me.”
23 May 2013