Eugene Grant says the disabled should still have grounds for optimism.

Helen Keller, the deafblind American radical, once said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence”. The first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, Keller went on to become an accomplished author, well-travelled lecturer and prolific political activist.

The election feast is now behind us.  The first frenzies of the coalition’s honeymoon are done.  And yet, thus far, the Lib-Con coalition has offered little in the way of optimism for some of the most disadvantaged in our society: people with disabilities. On the contrary, the approach adopted by the new government appears tainted by cynicism.

First, the pledge from work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to reassess all 2.6 million incapacity benefit (IB) claimants and move them onto other benefits like jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance (ESA).  This is a thorny political issue, which isn’t necessarily regressive.

There are likely to be some IB claimants who are willing and able to work, but many will have serious illnesses and disabilities. Such a move will result in a rise in appeals – ESA appeal success rates are already at 40 per cent – which will be costly for the taxpayer and extremely stressful for those individuals involved.

Second, the decision to scrap the pathways to work programme, which provided disabled people with tailored welfare-to-work support. A single, overarching ‘work programme’ is to take its place. While the details of this programme are as yet unclear, there is real concern that a one-size-fits all approach will only serve to reproduce and reinforce barriers for disabled people who are ready, willing and able to work.

Third, calling on the equality and human rights commission (EHRC) – which is, in this instance, central to tackling disability discrimination and promoting equality – to cut its budget by 15 per cent. Such cuts come when the EHRC is about to launch a (long awaited) inquiry into disability hate crimes.

Fourth, pledging to review employment law, fuelling fears that employers’ obligations to improve working practices for disabled people will be watered down. This is particularly perturbing considering that studies show that incidents of disability discrimination in the workplace increased by 11 per cent between 2007 and 2009.

Disabled people entered one of the worst financial crises in recent memory at a gross disadvantage in terms of income, savings, education and employment. People with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty and to have no qualifications as their non-disabled counterparts. Moreover, charities warn that the coming public spending squeeze will have a disastrous impact on disabled people’s employment, their independence and their wellbeing. Counter to George Osborne’s claims, it would seem that we are not quite “all in this together”.

In such dark times, and with such austerity ahead, the most disadvantaged warrant the most protection. At present – on the back of the recent recession and facing cuts that will change ‘our whole way of life’ – the message articulated to people with disabilities is marked by a profound lack of optimism.

President Obama famously told New Hampshire that “there has never been anything false about hope”.  Though dismissed by cynics as glib and disingenuous, it was a phrase that suited his optimistic purpose brilliantly.

And in coalition Britain, even now, hope need not be false. Reviewing employment law should be seized as an opportunity to strengthen, not weaken, employers’ obligations to disabled employees. Following Duncan Smith’s mass-reassessment, money made (from tax revenues and benefit savings) from IB claimants who do move into work should be put into labour market programmes for people with disabilities; Britain has a poor spending record on such schemes.

The Danish ‘flexjobs’ scheme, in which the state subsidises part of the salary of disabled employees, could help encourage employers to diversify their workforce and may well be worth exploring. Ultimately, the new government should assert an explicit and real commitment to finally removing the stubborn stain of disability poverty and inequality that has long since blemished our social fabric.

The coming cuts and economic climate may make achieving such goals more difficult, but do not render them unreachable. Hope and optimism are keystones of a progressive society. As Helen Keller pointed out, it is optimism that hastens progress; pessimism keeps the world at a standstill.

Eugene Grant comments widely on disability welfare and works in public policy.

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5 Responses to “Eugene Grant says the disabled should still have grounds for optimism.”

  1. Henrik says:

    “Eugene Grant comments widely on disability welfare and works in public policy.”

    I’m also guessing that Eugene Grant’s living depends to a great extent upon there being lots of disabled people upon whom he depends for his public sector salary and final salary pension.

  2. Mike Killingworth says:

    A more interesting question is: does Grant have a disability?

    If not, why is it OK for an able-bodied person to write about this issue? Would the site publish an article by a man on women’s rights or by a gentile on anti-semitism?

  3. Eugene Grant says:

    For the record, I do have a registered disability, yes.

  4. Editor says:

    @ Mike Killingworth

    You will have seen from his reply that Eugene does have a disability. But to answer your question, yes it is perfectly ok for somebody to have an opinion on something that affects others more than themselves.

    Yes, we would publish an article by a man on women’s rights or by a gentile on anti-semitism. You don’t have to be a victim of anti-semitism to abhor it. We find it a strange notion that only the oppressed and the disadvantaged should speak up against oppression and discrimination.

  5. Karen says:

    There are many kinds of disability. My own disability causes my great pain. I have likened in the past to being run of by a truck and then being picked up and told to carry on. When you suffer pain working is difficult or impossible but these days this is treated at a weakness that should be ignored. I have found that pain relief is a myth that only the well believe in.

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