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Mik Scarlet: Stop harassing disabled people and start helping us to rejoin society

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    Mik Scarlet: Stop harassing disabled people and start helping us to rejoin society

    Mik Scarlet: Stop harassing disabled people and start helping us to rejoin society
    'Don't waste taxpayers' money making sure that we haven't been miraculously cured'
    05 July 2001

    So the Labour government, fresh from its second landslide victory, has decided that it's time to bear down on the terrible scourge of disabled people - those scrounging, terrors that are such a drain on society. People like me, perhaps. Now, I know that fraud within the benefit system is something that must be stamped out but, as a wheelchair user of 20 years, I do feel that Alistair Darling is picking on a group who are more innocent than most. I mean, I'm sure that the number of people faking it by pretending to be chronically physically or mentally disabled doesn't exactly threaten to destabilise the Government's finances.

    In truth, there are two main problems with the idea that all the disabled people should be getting out there into work. First, although there are companies out there screaming for skilled staff, are they looking for people who have spent most of their adult life being left out of the workplace as a hidden statistic?

    Despite what Mr Darling says, most disabled people who claim Incapacity Benefit are truly unable to work, whether it is through physical or mental limitations. They also did not attend schools where they gained the qualifications needed to find work. We are not the computer experts, the skilled managers and technicians that the modern workplace so desperately needs. No: we have mainly still been educated in the second-class system called "special schools", where coping with incontinence is more important than maths and physics.

    Even if we were lucky and had parents who fought to get us into mainstream education, with the result that we do have the much-needed skills, we still have to get over the prejudices of employers. How many times in the past have I applied for employment and been turned down even though I know I am properly qualified?

    Most disabled people looking for work are amazed if they get an interview, let alone the job. If, by a miracle, we do get the position, we then have the problem of access to the workplace. An employer can get a government grant towards helping to make the physical adaptations to a building that would mean their new disabled employee could actually get into work, but this can take up to six months even to get started - not many employers will give an new employee over six months before they start work.

    So finding work can be just like wheeling up Mount Everest for a disabled person, even when found fit enough to work. But then are we even going to be considered for those "plum" jobs? Are we going to get on to the "career path"? Or are we, more likely, heading for a dead-end job, the kind that most people dream of getting out of? But then at least it would get us out of the house! Even if we are employed, and the building we work in is accessible, and the job is in a career that will lead to success, we still do not enjoy the same legal employment rights as every other person in that firm.

    This is the second problem. The equal rights act passed for the disabled still means that, if we face discrimination, it is we disabled people, and not the Government, who have to take the offending company to court. We never get the "Queen versus" when we face discrimination. The Disabled Rights Commission will finance the prosecution and help us with legal arguments, but in the end we have to take the prosecution to court ourselves.

    All other groups protected by equal rights legislation will have any legal battles pursued by the Crown, since to discriminate against them is a criminal act. But not for us, no. When we're spat at in the street, or told we're not welcome in a restaurant, or sacked for having more than two days off sick (it has happened to me - you see, employers believe that any sick leave means that a disabled employee is about to become a sickly, crippled drain on his company, one that needs getting rid of) - then it is a civil offence, not a crime against society.

    And here lies the root of why disabled people are so fed up with being picked on when benefit reform rears its ugly head.

    When my spine collpased 20 years ago and I had to go into a wheelchair, I hoped then for a future where one day I would be equal to my able-bodied fellow citizens. I hoped I would one day live in a world with accessible buildings, tolerant people and the chance to show the talents I know I have in the workplace. Ha. Here I am, having grown up in my wheelchair, living in a world where I am still not truly equal, watching what little rights I did have slowly being whittled away.

    Even the disabled parking badge is becoming a joke. In London, where I live, some boroughs have their own badge, and this means that your average disabled person has to drive round for hours trying and praying to find one of the few spaces for normal badge holders. And, of course, it's not like we can use public transport. No, the plan to make public transport fully accessible means that I'll be over 70 when I can get on a bus.

    Maybe if society treated us as part of it, we might be more open to the penny-pinching ways of successive politicians. Stop wasting money making sure we haven't been miraculously cured (that only happens in TV soap operas), and spend that cash on ensuring that buildings are accessible, making sure disabled people are treated as equal in society, and making sure that schools are fully integrated. Then you won't have a disabled underclass that you have now, that costs so much of your hard-earned taxes to be paid over in benefits. Or then you can waste billions on helping the Americans with "Son of Star Wars", or the Millennium Dome, or other fantastically cost-effective projects.

    One last thing, and this applies to us all, equally. Always remember that the health of a society lies in the ways it treats those who are most needy.