Friday’s protest from UK Uncut and Disabled People Against The Cuts. Photo: Jamie Kelsey Fry.
As the end of the London Paralympic Games draws closer, the legacy of the event for the disabled community is on the agenda. Will the inspiration and excitement have a lasting positive outcome for people with disabilities in Britain?
Many campaigners are unconvinced. They are also angry at the Games’ sponsorship by Atos. The company is deeply unpopular for its Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which help the Department for Work and Pensions decide who receives health and disability related benefits and who is ‘fit for work.’
The tests have come in for a huge amount of criticism for being inaccurate and unfair as the government tries to cut the cost of the welfare bill, leaving many without the support they depend on.
When Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics was announced, it caused an outcry. Many found it offensive that the organization was going to be so closely associated with an event celebrating the best of disabled sport.
Last week saw the climax to a week of action by activists intent on ramming home the message that the French company don’t #giveatoss about disabled people. On Friday 31 August Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut teamed up outside Atos’ UK headquarters for a ‘Closing Atos Ceremony’.
Protesters also blockaded and occupied the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). As police broke up the demonstration outside, DPAC reported one arrest, several injuries to protesters and damage to one woman’s wheelchair.
In a poignant twist, Friday’s protest also coincided with the death from cancer of 51-year-old Cecilia Burns from Northern Ireland – just six months after DWP found her ‘fit to work’ following an Atos assessment.
Earlier in the week DPAC staged a vigil outside Atos, delivering a coffin to remember others who had died, including people who committed suicide after receiving their assessment results.
Elsewhere, actions included a mass ‘die-in’ in Cardiff’s city centre, which blocked a major road, as well as a blockade in Manchester outside an Atos office.
Paralympians themselves have voiced their concern about Atos. Former swimmer and seven-time medal winner Tara Flood played a role in the ‘Atos Games’ as part of a spoof ceremony where she had a medal awarded then taken away after an Atos assessment.
During the opening ceremony of the Paralympics it was thought Team GB were hiding their Atos-branded lanyards in an act of protest. However, team officials later denied this.
The Paralympics and whether they benefit the struggles of disabled people has become a thorny issue. Activists have been accused of drawing attention away from the games and the achievements of the athletes.
However, there is feeling among some disabled people that the perception of the Games as strengthening their cause is unhelpful; after the buzz has died down people will still face the same barriers.
‘I think if anything it’s actually reinforcing that idea of deserving and undeserving that the government and the rightwing media have been really promoting with their whole rhetoric of benefit scroungers,’ says Ellen Clifford from DPAC.
Atos was the publicized focus of the last week of action but DPAC are now keen to raise the profile of other aspects of their work, including lobbying government and politicians. ‘Obviously if you got rid of Atos the DWP would just pay someone else to do it,’ points out Clifford.
Andrew Cox, a spokesperson from UK Uncut, said in a statement: ‘The government have been making huge cuts to welfare provision, even though their own research shows that less than 0.5 per cent of welfare claims are fraudulent. They are making disabled people a scapegoat for the economic crisis.’
One of the things on the list of demands handed into the DWP on Friday was the maintenance of the Independent Living Fund, which makes payments to disabled people aimed at helping them live within the community, for example by employing people for personal care.
Currently closed to new applications, the future of the fund is currently out to public consultation, with the deadline of 10 October 2012.
Although a lot of anti-cuts anger has been directed at the Conservatives (as leaders of Britain’s coalition government), disability campaigners are not letting Labour off the hook.
‘One of things that we’re looking at is to educate Labour to make sure that if they get into power they’re not going to do the same things they did before,’ says Clifford. ‘We’re very aware that Labour brought in the Work Capability Assessments.
‘We want to send a clear message to Labour that disabled people are not going to support them unless we trust them.’
DPAC will hold a Paupers’ Picnic for Independent Living on 13 September in London. You can find out more from their website.
You can watch a video by Small Axe Films from Friday’s protest here.