Disabled are at the mercy of ministers and media

Published in the London Evening Standard (February 7th, 2012)

What would you think if you heard the Home Office was colluding with newspapers to fuel hatred against gay people? Or if affable Ken Clarke at the Ministry of Justice fed propaganda to broadcasters designed to disparage ethnic minorities? There would, quite rightly, be an outcry.

This is the issue confronting another minority – and one far more ostracised in society. Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, desperate to force through cuts to their budgets, have demonised disabled people with smears designed to give the impression that many are cheats and scroungers.

Daily life is already tough enough for the disabled. A majority of Britons believe most people see them as being inferior. Little wonder they find it harder to get a job, are more likely to live in poverty and, increasingly, are victims of hate crime.

Typical is a case heard last week when a teenager attacked a man walking along the street, shouting: “He’s disabled. He deserves everything he gets.”

The charity Scope has revealed increasing antagonism towards disabled people, with two-thirds saying they have experienced recent abuse.

This dark new mood is terrifying for people who struggle to access things the rest of us take for granted: not just jobs but public transport or a meal out. It destroys confidence and makes people change behaviour; I know one man who barely left home after being targeted and others who always ensure they are back before dark.

This is shocking enough. But what is so scandalous is that a government department – run by ministers calling themselves compassionate Conservatives – has fuelled this disturbing new climate. It distorts data, manipulates facts and misuses statistics to feed a false media narrative that scapegoats the vulnerable.

So they give the impression that fraud is commonplace, conflate benefits designed to support people in jobs with those supporting people unable to work, and encourage the idea that filling in a simple form is the passport to a life of luxury at taxpayers’ expense. Oh yes, with an expensive car thrown in, even if your child just has mild behavioural issues.

The facts are very different: levels of fraud for disability benefits are significantly lower than for other benefits, with more money wasted by officials making errors. Not that we hear much about maladministration, do we? Nor that taxpayers save more by disabled people not claiming than is spent on overpayments.

Instead there is a spate of drip-fed stories about “scroungers” and a decline in sympathetic articles – not just in tabloids but in broadsheets and on the BBC. Columnists talk about the “fake” disabled, or think it witty to say we should all pretend to be disabled to get lucrative handouts.

The legacy of such negative stereotyping is more hostility, more attacks, more fear and a deepening state of apartheid for people with disabilities. Perversely, this comes as Mr Clarke extends hate crime laws to ensure tougher penalties for those attacking the disabled.

There is nothing wrong in stopping fraud or imposing cuts at a time of austerity. But it is revolting to see politicians and the media collude to target people who just want to join society. Or do we want to live in a world in which people with disabilities are driven further into the shadows?

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