Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is Britain the Worst Place to Live in Europe?

The Guardian asked today if Britain is the worst place to live in Europe.

Is the UK the worst? I don't know, but it certainly isn't an ideal place if you're disabled.

A media that claims on a near daily basis that we're all frauds and scroungers (the Guardian is a near lone exception).

People who overwhelmingly believe that 'they're all at it' and simultaneously that if their relatives fall ill the state will instantly meet every need (they're in for a rude awakening).

People who openly state that we'd be better off dead, who urge us to go to Switzerland and use Dignitas, who attack anyone who tries to argue that our life is just as valuable as anyone's else.

Complete strangers who attack me in the street as a benefit fraud, without knowing whether I am working or not, revealing it as an attack on me simply for being disabled.

Politicians who proclaim that we are the 'vulnerable', demeaning us as less than adult, but that we are safe in their hands, then turn around and cut the benefits the most disabled of all of us depend on, proclaiming all the time that only the fraudsters have anything to fear.

I don't know if Britain is the worst, but it could be a hell of a lot better, and a hell of a lot more equal.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Another Train Journey From Hell

- Or the nightmare of travelling with a disability when plans fall apart.

I’m just back from a visit to my family in the North East, it was good to see them, and the journey back was okay, if exhausting; it’s just a pity I can’t say the same for the trip up.

I always travel by train, the problems my disability causes with sitting mean I can’t drive for long enough to get there (or even to get out of town!) while coach journeys are just too long to tolerate (air travel too once you add in connections). Train seats are verging on the edge of intolerable, but at least I can limit the exposure, I just have to plan on not necessarily being able to do anything for up to a week afterwards. (1)

The plan was 11:24 from Chatham  to St. Pancras, walk over to King's Cross, get the 13:00 to Darlington, then pick up the local train to Bishop Auckland where my parents would collect me at 16:20. Planned elapsed time, about 5 hours. The saying is no plan survives contact with the enemy, but precious few survive contact with reality and this one was no exception.

I was having real problems walking at all even before I got to the station, reduced to a swing-through gait that uses my shoulders and crutches rather than my legs, and just glad I was travelling light with only a small rucksack, which meant I could use both crutches as opposed to having to tie one to a larger pull-along piece of luggage. My first thought on getting down the stairs to the platform was ‘There’s an awful  lot of people here’, the second thought was ‘Oh, shit!’ rapidly followed by a check of the announcement boards, which confirmed that we were still waiting for all three of the trains that should have come through in the last hour (and the antique boards only have room for 3 entries…). I was over 20 minutes early, so I thought at least I’d get to know what the situation was before my train was due, fat chance. The best I heard was a garbled announcement on the opposite platform that there were emergency track repairs happening somewhere.

11:24 arrives, no sign of my train. Five minutes after that we get the announcement that the train now approaching is the late running 10:28, it’s only going to Dartford, but anyone wanting any of a long list of London stations should get on and follow instructions at Dartford. St Pancras isn’t mentioned, and there’s no one on the platform to ask, while the booking office is back up a long flight of steep stairs (I’ve no idea how someone with a hearing impairment was meant to cope with all these instructions delivered solely over PA). This is a problem, there are three lines out of Chatham to London, the fast line to Victoria, the slow line to London Bridge and Cannon Street, both of which need underground trips to get to King's Cross, and the very new, very fast line to St Pancras, which is right next door to King's Cross. Taking anything other than the St. Pancras line might mean I missed my connection at King's Cross, but given there had been no mention whatsoever of the St. Pancras train, and everything else was over an hour late, I decided I had to get on and risk it; otherwise I might not get out of Chatham at all.

I’d packed really light, and decided that my hard collar didn’t make the cut as I’d only worn it a couple of times in the past month, and it isn’t exactly a convenient shape to pack. Purely on impulse I’d grabbed my soft collar because there was just about room for it in my rucksack. Within a couple of minutes of sitting down I was cursing myself, it felt like I’d been stabbed in the shoulder and I really needed the hard collar, the soft one just about stopped the situation becoming intolerable, but I wasn’t a happy bunny.

We crawled to Dartford, even stopping at some stations they had claimed we wouldn’t stop at. At Dartford several hundred frustrated passengers poured out of the train to announcements telling them that trains were waiting at platforms 1 and 2 and to follow the directions of staff. Platforms 1 and 2 were over a footbridge, with another set of steep steps, and by this time steps were the last thing I wanted to deal with, I was doing well to be vertical at all. There was a sign saying a lift was available, but with trains waiting and no staff member in sight I wasn’t certain I would make it if I took the time to find someone and say I needed to use it. So I struggled over the bridge, last one of several hundred, and yelled ‘King’s Cross?’ at one of the guards, who pointed me onto the Cannon Street train and said to get off at London Bridge.

I was no sooner on than the train was off, and needless to say the train was packed, with people standing everywhere, but someone stood up to let me sit down. Unfortunately it so crowded there was no room to take off my rucksack, which just served to amplify the pain coming out of my neck and shoulders. By this time the only thing stopping me from packing it in and going home was that the trip back would be just as much of a nightmare. The trip to London Bridge was another stopping crawl through every minor station in East London, finally getting me into London Bridge at about 12:35 – umm! I think I’ve been to London Bridge precisely once before, so I’m not exactly familiar with it, but I can navigate these places given time, unfortunately that wasn’t something I had a lot of. I followed the signs for the Northern Line, glad I didn’t need to use the Jubilee Line (‘Jubilee Line is currently not running due to a person on the track’). Now the signs were clear, the concourses wide and brightly lit, and I don’t recall any steps, but what I do recall is a walk from platform to platform that took me 10 minutes when I was struggling to stand at all. Of course I just missed one train, so when I finally got on a tube it was with 10 minutes to make my connection – not gonna happen! And I was right, we were a couple of stops short of King’s Cross when 13:00 ticked around.

Once at King’s Cross it was another 10 minute trek to get to the Main Line station – even if TfL are making efforts to make a token few stations accessible to disabled people the reality seems to be that they’re turning them into airport-like concourses that are inaccessible due to the distance to be covered even if step-free access is now provided. And is it really beyond the wit of man to put distances on the direction boards? A few hundred metres may not seem significant if you aren’t disabled, but if you are then knowing the distance may give you some indication of whether you can make it to a platform or need to ask for help.

At King’s Cross, the announcement board confirmed that the 13:00 had already left, so I squeezed through the crowd to the Information Booth to ask what I should do. ‘You need to go to the booking office,’ they told me, ‘you’ll probably need to buy another ticket’. Yeah, right. So I went to the booking office and found a nice long queue, with no provisions for disabled customers that I could see. When I finally got to talk to a booking clerk it was over a wide chest-high counter. I struggled to hand my ticket over to him with crutch attached to my arm, god knows how someone in a wheelchair would have managed. ‘You’ll need to buy another ticket’ he said, too bored to listen to anything I had told him. I pushed my voice up to insistent and pointed out I had done exactly what I was told and taken the only train running and it was his responsibility to fix it, not mine. So he grudgingly turned to his monitor and started trying to confirm what I had told him. After a couple of minutes he turned around again: ‘This is a St. Pancras ticket, it’s a different company, you should have got on the St. Pancras train’. Arghh! Which part of ‘I took the only train’ was he having difficulty with? Crank in another level of insistence and repeat the story for at least the third time… After a couple more minutes fiddling with his computer he decided that he needed help and went off to talk to a colleague; by this point I was hanging onto the counter just to remain upright and any more objections were going to be answered with a demand to 1) speak to his supervisor and 2) do it somewhere I can sit down. I was at the point I was seriously considering sitting on the floor. After several minutes of peering at on-screen logs of what services had actually run with his colleague he came back, pulled out a pad and ignored me while he started scribbling on a voucher.

 “You can get on the 13:30” he said, stapling it to my ticket and handing it back without really looking at me.

By this time it was after 13:20, just physically getting to the 13:30 before it left was questionable, which I pointed out to him, I also pointed out that I absolutely needed a seat, which isn’t always guaranteed on the East Coast Line.

 “You’ve got plenty of time!” he said repeatedly, oblivious to the fact I was wearing a collar, using crutches and hanging desperately onto his counter lest I fall over. It wasn’t just questionable whether I could get to the train in time, I also needed to phone family to let them know about the change of plans, didn’t have a mobile on me, and would much rather have caught the 14:00 at that point, but he clearly wasn’t interested and I couldn’t face arguing with him any more, so I headed for the train, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I did get there before it was due to leave, barely, but the train guard took one look at me and said I had better get onto the first carriage and walk through the train to Standard Class, she at least realised I couldn’t walk that far before the train was due out.

Fortunately there were plenty of seats for once and the journey up to Darlington was fairly straightforward, apart from the bit where I missed my connection there by 10 minutes, on a service which is less than hourly, and couldn’t phone my parents to let them know. I finally made it to Bishop Auckland at just before 18:00, my father having sat patiently waiting for me in the station car park for over an hour and a half. Three trains and five hours had become six and a half hours, four trains and a tube, none of them ones I should have been on. I had a quick bowl of soup, told my parents ‘I’m sorry, but I have to go to bed now’, and was in bed (shaking!) by 19:00, sleeping through until 08:00 the next morning. The only good side to it was that I slept the effects off, rather than being completely out of it for several days.

I’ve had train journeys like this before; it’s why I never go into London if I can avoid it any more. You can plan your journey around your abilities, but if things go wrong then you can rapidly find yourself in a situation where you don’t know where you are and don’t know whether the route to get you out of it is either accessible or manageable (two different things entirely). And then you can find yourself facing staff who clearly don’t have the first idea that someone with a disability may not be able to sprint for a train, may even face difficulties just in talking to them over a counter. I have this horrible feeling that TfL, Network Rail and the Train Operating companies are going to turn the Olympics, and particularly the Paralympics, into an embarrassing farce of inaccessible transport and tens of thousands of disabled people from all around the world who simply can’t get to where they need to be, and can’t get the help they need, because we have a rail system with Victorian levels of access, and Victorian levels of disability awareness in the customer-facing staff.

(1) Necessary caveat to make it clear to DWP that suffering through a train journey doesn’t mean my disability has changed!

Friday, 23 September 2011

How the Papers Help Make Disability Hate Invisible

I've just been on a visit to my family in Durham and while I was up there the Northern Echo, the main regional daily, reported on a rise in hate crime statistics. I wanted to comment on the figures then, to compare and contrast the way that the Echo had treated race hate and disability hate crime, but I couldn't get online, so had to wait until I was back home and could look the two articles up on the net. That made things even more interesting, because instead of the two articles, one on race hate stats taking up the top quarter of page 5, and a tiny two paragraphs on disability hate stats buried on page 7, there was only a single article, still entitled  'Rise in Race Hate Incidents', but with disability given nearly 50% of the coverage and the quotes and background to show that the reporter had actually gone out and done a good job of it. Somewhere between his writing a good article, pointing out that even if race hate incidents are up 4%, disability hate crimes are up over 20%, and the paper going to press, someone in the Echo's editorial staff decided that disability hate crimes just weren't worthy of the same degree of coverage, chopped them out of the article and buried the facts on page 7 without the context to say the reality is likely even worse because we can't get people to pay attention. I'm not sure whether that counts as irony, or tragedy.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The 100% Income Tax

Imagine the outrage if a government proposed a 100% income tax stretching across all income.

Imagine how much worse the outrage would be if that tax was proposed purely to fund one minister's pet project.

Now imagine the outrage if it was targeted solely on a disadvantaged minority.

Never happen? Let me introduce you to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Time-Limiting of Contributions Related Employment Support Allowance, and the 100% of 700,000 disabled people's income he proposes to take away.

Iain Duncan Smith is on a mission, he wants to transform the UK benefits system through Universal Credit and the Work Programme. Universal Credit is bad enough for disabled people, because wrapped up in it is the replacement of DLA by PIP and an absolutely arbitrary 20% cut in those eligible (worse, the supposed justification for this, an 'inexplicable' rise in DLA claims, turns out to be totally explicable once you account for minor things like people retiring and children being born, but DWP managed to hush that up for 3 months while they got the Welfare Reform Bill through its second reading in the Commons). But new welfare systems need years to put in place, so Universal Credit is something for the future, the Work Programme is the flagship programme IDS can implement right this moment.

The one problem in IDS's plan to leave his mark on benefits is that that nasty George Osborne at the Treasury won't give him the money for it, and has told him he has to find it from the existing Department of Work and Pensions budget. So IDS cast around and settled on the perfect victims, disabled people who are too sick to work, after all he already had his allies in the tabloids hard at work convincing the public, which has always been in two minds about disability, that disabled people were universally lazy benefit cheats and fraudsters as part of the justification for the Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance migration, so why not take advantage of that twice over.

The ESA Work Capability Assessment is a success in the DWP's eyes, it discourages 36% of claimants, rejects 39% (though an awkward 30% appeal, and c40%, 70%+ with advocacy support, of those have the audacity to win their appeal), leaving 17% going into the Work Related Activity Group and 7% into the Support Group. Now it's a bit difficult to hit the Support Group, because these are people even DWP recognise are too ill ever to work, and there is too much risk they'll get the sympathy vote from the media, but the ones in the WRAG, they may be unfit to work at the moment, but DWP have managed to get the media all confused about that, to the point that they largely think those in WRAG actually are fit for work, and so they make a nice, ripe target for cutting. You can't cut them entirely, there has to be some pretence of support, so why not give them a year of benefit, because if they can't find a job in 12 months, then clearly they can be spun as not bothering, to lazy to go out and help themselves (and icky little details like their not being fit for work can be glossed over). Of course it can't be called a cut, that would be too blatant, but 'Time-Limiting' has such a nice ring to it, not remotely negative, and doesn't it really sound like the kind of thing the responsible person would do?

And so there we have it, if you're in the ESA WRAG, no matter you are too disabled to work, no matter DWP admit you are too disabled to work, come 12 months into your claim, Time-Limiting will kick in and if you have a spouse earning a few thousands pounds, or a few thousand in savings or pension fund, then your benefit will be stopped in its entirety, taxed at 100% to fund IDS's darling Work Programme.

The changes leading to Time-Limiting aren't some future fantasy, they are part of the government's Welfare Reform Bill and they are going for their second reading in the House of Lords in just a few days time.

So where's the outrage?

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Day of Infamy

(This is the piece that should have gone up yesterday, 1st of September, and prompted my move to Blogger. I deliberately haven't changed anything to reflect the delayed post as it is talking about the specific day)

LatentExistence wrote an excellent piece yesterday for Where’s The Benefit, entitled Godwin’s Law Must Die, discussing how people’s horror at Nazism actually gets in the way when 1930s Germany really is the only historical parallel for the situation you are experiencing.

It had slipped my mind what today is the anniversary of until I was reminded by someone else’s tweet, but it is an anniversary that brings that post by LatentExistence into sharp focus and reminds me of the things we must never allow ourselves to forget, whether disabled people or not.

Today is September 1st. Although in Great Britain we usually remember the start of WWII as the 3rd of September, based on our own declaration of war in support of Poland, it was on the 1st that Germany executed Fall Weiss, the invasion of Poland, having used commandos the night before to manufacture an incident of ‘Polish’ provocation. Attacked from three sides - Slovakia invaded with Germany, while Russia stabbed Poland in the back on the 17th - organised Polish resistance soon collapsed, although many Poles slipped away, coming to Britain and France to continue the fight. The end of organised resistance did not bring an end to the killing, it just provided freedom for the massacres and the men of Einsatzkommando 16 moved through the mental hospitals of Western Poland, slaughtering the disabled patients: 7,000 at Gdansk, 10,000 at Gdynia, and hundreds at Poznan in the first example of mass gassing, a process Himmler came to see in December of 1939. The organised extermination of disabled mental patients then spread back into Germany itself, clearing the hospitals of the ‘useless’ to free them for war-wounded: 1,400 in Pomerania, 1,600 in East Prussia, 8,000 of their own people in this wave, killed for the crime of being disabled.

The organised killing of disabled Germans had actually started before this, with children, or, perhaps more precisely, a single child. Part of Nazi Party ideology, a creed which in some cases literally became a religion, was a fetishizing of racial purity, the cult of the inherent superiority of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan German, destined to rule over the untermensch, eugenics taken to its ultimate conclusion. That some Germans might be less than ‘perfect’, might actually be disabled, was problematic for the Nazi Party’s racial purity zealots, and in the confrontational politics of 1930s Germany problems were simply something to actively pour your hatred onto. They took the passive concept of racial purity and developed it into the active concept of racial hygiene, planning to purge the German Volk of undesirable elements, such as people with disabilities.

Eugenics run rampant wasn’t actually unique to Germany at that time, both the US and Sweden had programmes for sterilizing those with disabilities considered inheritable or who were judged to show anti-social behaviour, but Germany turned to sterilization with all its national fervour for efficiency and in June 1933, almost as soon as the Nazis were in power, passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, which mandated sterilization for disabilities such as epilepsy and ‘social deviances’ such as alcoholism. Hereditary Health Courts (Erbgesundheitsgerichte), conducted a witchhunt through the German mental hospitals, asylums and other institutions, choosing those to be sterilized, a number estimated to have run to 360,000 Germans by 1939. Perhaps the only reason the programme did not progress to physical disabilities was that the senior Nazi Joseph Goebbels had a club foot. And all the while the Nazi propaganda machine was churning out films and posters intended to portray disabled people as a drain on the state and worthy only of euthanasia.

In 1939 Hitler asked Brandt, his personal physician, and Bouhler, head of his chancellery, to look into the case of a disabled baby, Gerhard Kretschmar, whose parents wanted him killed – the father’s letter to Hitler apparently referred to his son as ‘this monster’. In July 1939 the killing was carried out and Brandt was instructed by Hitler to proceed on the same basis in other cases, leading to the systematic classification of disabled German children by the Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illness, authorised on 18th August 1939, with doctors and midwives required to report all births of disabled children and preparatory measures being made to extend the process to adults. With the outbreak of war the need to proceed cautiously diminished and in October 1939, Hitler issued the Euthanasia Decree, bypassing the Health Ministry in favour of Brandt and Bouhler, his own men:

Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death.

And so Aktion T4 was born, a programme that ultimately killed over 200,000 disabled Germans and started a full two years ahead of the Wannsee Conference and the decision on the extermination the Jews. But the killing had already started, and so Hitler backdated the decree to ‘legalise’ the actions that had already taken place.

The date he chose was September 1st, 1939, a day of infamy.

Why Flat Out?

Why Flat Out? Because I often am!

That shouldn't be taken as meaning I hurtle through life, all hurtling on my part is done in a thoroughly uncontrolled manner and strictly inadvertently.

Flat Out is more literally descriptive, I have a disabling spinal condition, actually I have two disabling spinal conditions, quite possibly two disabling spinal conditions and a separate and more general disabling joint problem, and that means I spend much of my life flat on my back.

I've been blogging for a while as dwgism on LiveJournal - 'dwg' being me and 'ism' reflecting that no one party seems to reflect my views, but the vast majority of my output is now for Where's The Benefit, where, as DavidG, I'm one of a collective of disabled people blogging on the current savage attacks by the ConDem government on disabled people, and I was already thinking of moving my non WTB-blogging over to Blogger to share my account here when I hit some issues with the LJ editor on a post that really needed to go up yesterday, and so here I am.

I'll still be blogging at WTB, I'll still be keeping up my LJ account to keep track of all the friends there (and as a Shadow Unit fan LJ is an essential part of the experience), but my non-WTB blogging should be here from now on. That's likely to be stuff on living with disability, crip-politics stuff that doesn't fit on WTB, and some technology/aerospace and defence stuff related to my sadly now former career, possibly some reviews as well. I'll try and keep stuff tagged so that people can steer around the stuff that doesn't interest them.
So, onwards!