This is a guest post by Lisa J. Ellwood, a disability & mental health activist
“The moral health of a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members” – a new twist on an old saying that is itself rooted in religious antiquity. How sad it is that 3,000 years later this sentiment is still very relevant. Author and MS Philanthropist J.K. Rowling made much the same observation in her best-selling Harry Potter series with the following pearl of wisdom: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
Recent media coverage has shone the spotlight on disabled people, and that spotlight has been less than favourable. We are castigated as ‘scroungers and ‘fakers’ not only by journalists and their employers, but also neighbours, friends and even family. It would seem that the vast majority of the great British public knows several people who are as fit as a fiddle and audaciously raking money in hand-over-fist thanks to bogus benefits claims based on faked illnesses. There is an endless stream of rhetoric to be found when reading any newspaper, blog or listening to talk radio. Too often I find myself reading the latest venomous shots fired by the disgruntled and wonder if the face behind the pseudonym is a familiar one.
It takes much more than one voice singing in the darkness to shed light on a given concern. It is this basic understanding which brings the most unlikely of people together to work towards a common purpose. While “The Broken of Britain” campaign is in its infancy, the core group of people involved are seasoned veterans when it comes to raising awareness about their lives as disabled people in the modern world. We come from differing backgrounds, have a wide range of illness physical or mental – and we all have differing perspectives on the contentious issues concerning disabled people. The one thing that brought us together as a collective was our tacit agreement that the current coalition government is waging wholesale warfare against the most vulnerable in British society: women, children, the poor and disabled people specifically.
The irony is that funds and services for disabled people includes women and children from all backgrounds (including celebrities collecting benefits for their disabled children).
We have supported the various UK anti-cuts initiatives including boycotts, protests and petitions. That support will continue. The only thing that we have ever asked is that the not yet disabled keep an open mind and lend their support to our efforts in kind. Contrary to populist belief, disabled people do as much as we possibly can to help ourselves – as much by personal choice as driven by circumstance. However, we do need the active support of able-bodied people. What we bring to the UK anti-cuts movement is no different to what we’ve always had to do in order to get even a modicum of much-needed help with daily living.
However, it is a double-edge sword for us – standing up for ourselves, so to speak, by participating in protests typically elicits the salvo “if you can manage that then you are fit to work” or even worse “you asked for trouble just by participating”. Disingenuous statements and worse have been levelled at Jody McIntyre, the disabled activist pulled from his wheelchair during a recent student protest and dragged across a London street by no less than four Met Police Officers. We are made to hold account for our unenviable predicament by the society which victimises us. Many disabled people hold back from activism because they are afraid of taking the risk and then having it used against them. We are broadsided on a daily basis by the insensitive and uninformed, no less because of the stigma attached to being physically disabled, mentally ill or wresting with the energy-stealing demons of “invisible illness”. It’s bad enough for someone who struggles with physical disabilities, but for those with ‘invisible’ and/or mental health problems there is added trauma in processing the searing hatred coming from wilfully ignorant and wholly unrepentant able-bodied people. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
For those that care to, it is easy to engage with disabled people; all that is required is communication. Yes, we will have missteps along the way and on both sides. But in speaking to members of the various students groups via social media, I have reminded them that once-upon-a-time I was student, able-bodied and thinking I had my ‘whole life ahead of me’. The life I lead now as someone who lives with both physical and mental illness was not one I had ever considered for myself. As little as two years ago I could not have foreseen how drastically my life has changed in the past year alone. The only good thing that keeps me holding on is the fierce determination of those whom I work alongside. It is a great privilege to fight a good and just fight with people whose entire lives have included coping with chronic illness far more admirably than I have in my situation in the past year. The powers-that-be have come first for the most vulnerable of British Society. It’s easy to close hearts and minds to a situation because you believe it’s nothing to do with you. But one day it just might be you they come for, you who needs to fight tooth and nail to save your home, you child or even your own sanity.
The afore-mentioned Ms. Rowling has bequeathed to us a legacy of accessible wisdom. To paraphrase The Greatest Wizard of the Age, Albus Dumbldore, Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry: it is our choices my friends, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. These are dark times and the moment is already upon us when we must choose what is easy and what is right. We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. All who are not in the decidedly comfortable position of an assured future must work together bound by the fears which concern us all. It is imperative that we fight, fight again and keep on fighting – for only then can the underhanded be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated. “We teach people how to treat us” – so the old saying goes. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike. The consequences are far worse should they be the result of simply giving up.
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