A charity for families with disabled children has published a report revealing children with disabilities are being illegally excluded from schools. Whilst troubling enough, this news forms the crest of a wave of policies disenfranchising and impoverishing people with disabilities across the country. In the 1950’s there were signs in British Bed and Breakfasts saying ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’; in 21st century Britain, perhaps disability is the new black.
Exclusion, Exclusion, Exclusion
Disability charity, Contact a Family interviewed 400 families of children in England and Wales with disabilities or additional needs for their Falling Through the Net Survey. They found more than half (53%) had been asked to collect their child during the school day because there were not sufficient staff available to support them; more than half (56%) have been told by schools that their child cannot take part in a trip or activity because it is unsuitable for them; almost one in four are illegally excluded each week and 15% were excluded every day.
Srabani Sen, Chief Executive of Contact a Family, said: “Illegal exclusions undermine the government’s intentions set out in the children and families bill of disabled children of achieving their full potential. Children with additional needs up and down the country are missing out on a good education and the opportunity to form friendships because of illegal exclusions. If non disabled pupils were sent home because there were not enough school staff, there would be uproar. We have to ask why is it happening so regularly when it comes to disabled children and what can be done to tackle it?”
Families with disabled children face challenging practical, financial and emotional circumstances as it is, without the additional distress of managing the impacts of their child’s exclusion. Children with disabilities deserve better than to be left in a teacher-less environment, segregated from their peers and missing out on opportunities for trips and activities which may inspire and engage them simply because, as a society, we refuse to create an educational environment which meets the demographic realities of the population.
Not only are we failing to involve children with disabilities in mainstream schools as we could and should, but we are creating a context and a welfare system which tells them the worst is yet to come.
Hijacking of the Social Model of Disability
The Rowntree Foundation report of November 2011, Rethinking Disability Policy sounded an alarm which we might well have heeded at the time. The report stated that some positive changes in disability policy and therefore on the lives of people with disabilities over the prior twenty years. However, they also warned the Coalition government had taken the progressive ideas behind this success and used them as the basis for applying cuts to the welfare state which will directly disadvantage people with disabilities.
The central idea which has been transforming the context of disability in 21st century Britain and beyond is the social model of disability. In short, the social model says that disability is caused by the way a society is organised, not by a person’s impairment or difference. By removing such barriers, disabled people can be contribute to and participate fully in their society. These barriers will be physical (such as the built environment) and attitudinal (eradicating opinions that prejudice people who are disabled). Disabled people developed the social model of disability because the traditional medical model did not explain their personal experience of disability or help to develop more inclusive ways of living. The medical model sees the person’s disability itself as the ‘problem’. To use an example, if a wheelchair user was unable to gain access to a building due to steps, the social model would see the steps as the problem; the medical model would blame the wheelchair.
However, the Coalition government have taken the ambitions self reliance and enhanced contribution, and applied them in such ways as to achieve the opposite result.
The Rowntree Foundation states: “Some aspects of the arguments made by disability organisations have been capitalised on by the politics and ideology driving recent and current policies in ways which disadvantage disabled people. In particular this has happened with the social model of disability and concepts of ‘independent living’, ‘user involvement’ and ‘co-production’… In campaigning for policies to tackle disabling barriers and enable equal access, we need to explicitly and vigorously promote the welfare state and the concept of social security in its broadest sense. People of all ages who experience impairment and/or illness are at a disadvantage in a society and an economy where the market is the sole arbiter of opportunities and life chances.
The Dark Ages for Disability
One could hardly have imagined in 2010, the sheer scale of horror which would be heaped upon people living with disabilities and their loved ones and carers by the Coalition Government. Prime Minister David Cameron, himself touched by the life and death of a severely disabled son, was hoped to hold a greater level of understanding of the issues involved. Instead, his government delivered a sucker punch to the community at large.
To examine the impacts of the proposed changes, Tanni Grey Thompson recently held an inquiry, the findings of which were produced in a report by The Children’s Society and Disability Rights UK. The results were conclusive and devastating, revealing that almost half a million people with disabilities would face losing vital financial and other support with the coming changes. The report identified three groups most impacted by the changes as people with disabilities who are in work, disabled children and their families, and severely disabled people and their Carers.
The brain child of Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit replaces a range of social security payments into one single benefit. However, many changes and current provisions have been removed or reduced in the new payment.
The new payment makes changes to the Employee Support Allowance and disability elements of Working Tax Credit, removing the financial support required to allow those disabled people who can work, to work. The payments were designed to reimburse employed disabled people for the additional costs that arise from the world they live in being unfit for all who reside within it. There could, for example, be additional travel costs for people with disabilities due to public transport being unsuitable. The withdrawal of this support means up to 116,000 disabled people who work will be at risk of losing around £40 a week. In reality, it will make it impossible for some disabled people currently working, to continue in their jobs.
Furthermore, the Atos work capability assessments which every person claiming the benefit will need to undergo within the next year have been roundly condemned as computer based exercise unfit to capture the complexity of physical and mental health issues. A recent debate in parliament on the issue revealed over 30 people have committed suicide due to stress inflicted by the assessment process, while 1,300 people had died after being assessed by Atos as ultimately fit for work.
The Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is to be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment. At present, families with a disabled child, who receive some level of DLA, may be entitled to support through the disability element of child tax credit, currently worth £57 a week. Under Universal Credit, this support is to be provided through ‘disability additions’ within household benefit entitlements but the proposal is to cut this support in half to just £28 a week. This change will affect all families with a disabled child unless the child is receiving the high rate care component of DLA or is registered blind. 100,000 disabled children stand to lose up to £28 a week.
The new payment removes the Severe Disability Premium which provides additional financial support for care required for those with more severe disabilities. As a result, 230,000 severely disabled people who live alone, or with only a young carer – usually lone parents with school age children – will lose between £28 and £58 every week.
And then came the Bedroom Tax. Prominent members of the Conservative party dismissed plans for the Mansion Tax on the richest as ‘colossally unfair’, whilst welcoming the Bedroom Tax on the poor as being ‘about a basic argument of fairness’. It seems spare rooms in mansions are good, whilst any possible ‘spare’ space in a council house is bad. This plan will mean 660,000 of the country’s poorest families losing £14 per week, that’s £728 over the course of a year. Under the Department of Work and Pensions own calculations, two thirds of those impacted will be people living with disabilities, that is a whopping 420,000 people.
The Perfect Storm
This should stress the criticality of understanding the whole horrendous picture facing those living with disabilities in the UK today. The children are being excluded from school, the workers are being forced to leave work, the severely disabled are losing crucial care, and all are facing the threat of impoverishment. The segregation caused by lack of a built and attitudinal environment suitable for the breadth of physical, sensory and mental abilities of the whole population should be viewed no differently than sitting black people at the back of the bus or ‘White Only’ bathrooms. It is discrimination, plain and simple.
The government’s bastardisation of the social model of disability is breath taking; using the language of inclusion and empowerment whilst kicking the ladder out from under an entire community. We cannot allow the progress made in building places of work, study and leisure fit for all those who wish to use them to be so undermined by a government which is seeking to reduce the welfare state at all and any costs.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – this is an awe inspiring campaign. You can donate to support them, keep up to date on direct actions and petitions, and get important news and information about the cuts and their impacts.