Let me introduce myself. I’m Lucy, I’m 18 and I want to be a journalist. I have been lucky enough (and, I’d like to think, good enough) to feature in several publications, and lucky enough too to be heading off to university to study Politics and International Relations. So imagine my surprise when a young man from the Department of Work and Pensions turned up at my house and declared that I am not expected to find a job; I automatically qualify as “unfit for work”.
I have cerebral palsy. This results in an inability to walk, limited hand control and a slight speech impediment. I often neglect to mention this – as I don’t think of it as my defining characteristic – but it appears to be the only thing the DWP needs to know about me. According to the government, I am my disability.
I am fully aware that some disabled people may be unable to work, and I fiercely believe that they deserve a first-class quality of life. But I take serious issue with basing a judgement about someone’s ability to work on a medical form.
The lack of ambition society has for its disabled members is nothing short of embarrassing, especially when compared with how strongly others are encouraged to strive for excellence in the global economy. I am unapologetically ambitious. By the DWP’s own reckoning, just 46.3 per cent (just to emphasise the point: that is less than half) of working age disabled people were employed in 2012, compared to 76.4 per cent of the able-bodied population. And what struck me most about my run in with the DWP was their representative’s insistence that I “needn’t worry” about looking for work, as if I wouldn’t want to fulfil my potential, preferring instead to spend my life at home. He was even surprised to learn that I was going to university (which made me wonder just what was in the large file with my name on it that he was carrying around).
The assumptions that disabled people don’t want to work made by the DWP are also made by employers and the general public, and it is holding disabled people back. Much of it stems from the fact that many people cannot, or will not, distinguish between physical and learning disabilities, or the fact that they associate mental disability with lack of intelligence (yet many people with autism, for example, have prodigious talents which could be valuable to companies). Education could alleviate this problem, but only if it is media-rather than school-driven. It is no use telling children how to treat disabled people if their parents wouldn’t work with them and, what’s more, we don’t have time to wait for today’s kids to grow up: we need change now.
The media are themselves partly responsible for the situation. Disabled people are portrayed in two polarised ways; the lazy benefits scrounger (the rights and wrongs of such depictions have been endlessly debated) or the pitiful victim. Neither of these stereotypes invites a job offer but it may be a different story if the get-on-and-do-it-anyway disabled people were also featured. I suspect that the media is where my DWP man got the idea I wanted to be on benefits.
The disabled people I know are determined and resilient; we get up and go to school or work and we campaign for what we believe in. If I were an employer, I would want to employ someone with those qualities. I would want to pay for a handrail in a bathroom in return for a hardworking employee, or accept a slower typing speed for the provision of high-quality writing. This would be even more the case if making changes didn’t cost me anything. Why doesn’t the government stop paying me to do nothing, and start subsidising ramps into office buildings instead? This would at least give disabled people the chance to challenge the status quo. And really, that’s all we need.