Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Equality, Disability, and Welfare Reform

One of the four traditional Testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is Equality. The basic idea of equality is probably agreed upon by pretty much everyone - no-one is inherently 'less' than anyone else. The fine details are a matter of variable opinion - should opportunity be equal, or outcome? Should everyone be entitled to the same standard of living, or should those who have worked hard and succeeded be rewarded for it? What about those who have worked hard, but not succeeded? Does the reason for their failure matter? I can't speak for all Quakers, but I can speak for myself, as a Quaker.

First, an element of full disclosure - I am disabled. I receive Disability Living Allowance, and I get 'passported' to various other things because of it, such as increased rates of Working Tax Credits, a higher disregard in Housing Benefit, and minor recognitions of difficulty like a Disabled Person's Railcard. I'm happy to share the nature of my impairments, but that would make this post too long.

As I started composing this, Latentexistence posted about 'worth', and that may have steered me somewhere other than I might have gone... and I think it's an improvement, so thanks there.

The Quaker ideal of equality is strongly associated with our belief in "that of God in everyone"; this comes from the Society's Christian roots, which I do not share. My best version of it is "that of the divine in everyone", and it'd take a while to explain my concept of 'the divine', but suffice to say it has nothing to do with any deity, rather an inherent quality that encompasses whatever it means to be 'good'. I believe that everyone has some divinity to them, and this means that everyone should be treated with respect; no-one should be distrusted without good cause; stereotypes shouldn't be bought into, and appearances shouldn't lead to assumptions. You get the idea. I wouldn't claim this means that everyone is equally deserving of any particular quality of life, but I would say that it means that one can't presume that those who have 'succeeded' are more deserving, nor that those who have 'failed' are less so. Who are any of us to judge?

So, then we come to disability; I include in this chronic ill health where it leads to difficulties in normal life - the gist of the Disability Discrimination Act definition is quite good, to my mind. Disabled people in this country are far more likely to be in poverty. We have lower average family incomes, lower rates of employment, and we suffer from social stigma - not helped by recent media campaigns seemingly supported by the government. Can you judge our 'worth'? Are we worth helping? For me, the presumption has to be that someone presenting prima facie evidence of disability should be taken at their word until there's reason to doubt them. To demonise us as a class, because some pretend or exaggerate, is not on. To drag us through adversarial assessments by people with minimal train, and with the goal of removing benefits with any slight justification, is not on either. To distort the social model of disability as an excuse to remove support isn't on either, but let's not go into that now.

But I'd like to go beyond the way the state treats us as regards financial support. After all, the government gets frustratingly close to being right with the way they talk about work being good for the disabled (when they're not paraphrasing the Auschwitz sign). Anyone can believe that "that of God in everyone" imbues them with inherent worth, but even those of us who believe that ourselves have trouble applying it to ourselves. The fact that we contribute less to society than we could, if we were well or miraculously cured, makes us doubt our worth. We want to have worth, and we want to feel that worth. So maybe the government could support us in that.

Some people who qualify for ESA, even in the Support Group (those not expected to do anything work-related or to prepare for a hypothetical return to work), are able to do a lot of good work by fitting it in when they feel up to it. No employer would put up with that, but charities would. However, if a person on ESA (or Jobseekers) does 16 hours of charitable work in a week, they lose their entitlement. So, how about we stop discouraging people in that way?

Moving on from that, how about we encourage it? Facilitate it? Maybe even do something to recognise it? A modest bonus to benefits wouldn't need to cost too much, and would be a straightforward way of doing that; I'm sure there are other methods, but they'd probably end up costing a similar amount, and would be less effective emotionally. Not only that, but doing charitable work (which we can often do from our own homes at times that suit us) even helps people with an eventual return to work, by offsetting the huge gaps in our CVs.

So come on, Maria Miller, support us for once. Stop persecuting us, and instead help us feel our worth, and show that worth to the rest of the country.

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