Disabled people lead the fight against austerity

The resistance put up against the UK government's cuts by Disabled People Against the Cuts can teach us many lessons, writes Jamie Kelsey-Fry.

Westminster: A DPAC protest against benefit cuts © Artists Against Blacklisting

In February 2011, New Internationalist editor David Ransom helmed an issue called ‘The Great Rebellion’ where he outlined a ‘con-trick of truly breathtaking proportions’, played out across the Majority World by unscrupulous financial institutions and abetted by the World Bank and the IMF.

As much of the Majority World had wised up to the devastating practice, it was being turned on those countries that had devised it instead.

What was termed as ‘structural adjustment’ in the Majority World phase, was now being called ‘austerity measures’ in the Minority World phase, though the con-trick was essentially the same: the citizens of countries were being made to pay for vast debts that they had no hand in creating, allowing the market to privatize national assets while imposing outrageous cuts and levies on the population.

Ransom outlined the dangers ahead, of inevitable spiraling national debt, the rising power of unaccountable, undemocratic, opaque corporations and financial institutions and the crippling onslaught of brutal cuts.

‘Tories can’t help themselves but be Tories, and they will get to everybody eventually. If they haven’t got to you yet, sit tight because they will’

Five years later, the global debt has risen to $152T dollars, austerity programs continue to crush vast sections of societies as in Greece and Spain, fossil fuel generated climate change is ripping our environment apart, yet the leaders of the Minority World are all staunch supporters of continuing with this neoliberal course that serves nobody but the financial elites that have brought about these vast debts in the first place.

While the attack on peoples’ lives through social welfare cuts continues unabated, there has been no sign of accompanying cuts to corporate welfare.

A banner by DPAC gives space to all the people who have died because of sanctions and benefit cuts

Paula Peters

The resistance begins at the raw front lines of those impacted first and impacted the hardest. The UK grassroots direct action group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), run by disabled people, has grown out of that immediate need to hit back against crushing austerity. Their story is a microcosm of the neoliberal story, including its construction, its destructive effects and how to fight back.

Without learning from DPAC, and having active solidarity with them, the various pockets of resistance risk remaining fractured and ineffective.

In 2010, UK chancellor George Osborne announced cuts of 20 per cent to disabled people, despite the fact that the government’s own figures stated only 0.5 per cent of claimants to be potentially fraudulent.

Disabled people have been forced to pay nine times more than the average citizen to reduce the budget deficit and people with high or complex support needs have been forced to pay 19 times more. From the failed Bedroom Tax, cuts to Employment and Support Allowance and the closing of the Independent Living Fund, it has been relentless. The UK has become the first country in the world to use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities to be investigated for 'grave and systemic violations' of disabled peoples’ rights and it is telling that the Tory government has since refused to make public the findings.

Andy Greene, member of the national steering committee for DPAC, tells me, ‘What you have is the people who are engaged most with the state, disabled people because of the nature of impairment, being the first in the firing line when these public services and the welfare state start to be dismantled in the name of austerity... and the fall out is that peoples’ lives shrink or people die.’

‘Until we understand that it is the same oppression that oppresses us in many different forms and until we physically take part in addressing these oppressions, then there is no real movement’

On 7 September, as the Rio Paralympics opened, 150 people gathered across the road from Downing Street in London as part of a day of action by DPAC. Three women took it in turns reading names that have been sewn on to a beautifully wrought cloth banner. One of them falters as she gets to one name and she apologizes. ‘He was my brother,’ she says.

Written in black along the top are the words ‘Deaths due to sanctions and benefit cuts’. It is impossible not to be deeply moved when witnessing such powerful testimony.

The day of action carries on with the crowd, mostly people with impairments and in wheelchairs, blockading Westminster Bridge to raise awareness about welfare sanctions deaths. The protest was swamped by police instantly, outnumbering the protesters. Clearly a specific strategy has been worked out to deal with DPAC as police took to threatening the Personal Assistants for many of the disabled activists with arrest, which would mean leaving on their own people with high or complex needs that assistance is essential. An unmarked van pulled up with specialist equipment to detain and take away wheelchair users; the two non-uniformed men started liaising closely with the senior officer in charge immediately.

It was clear to me that DPAC are seen as ‘dangerous’ enough to the state to warrant such carefully structured tactics. From such political policing, to withholding the findings of the UN report and even the Department for Welfare and Pensions dodging Freedom Of Information requests, the outrage of the deaths of thousands of people with disabilities linked to their benefit sanctions is something that the government of the sixth richest country in the world would rather we don’t stop to think about too much.

Andy Greene, quoted above, member of the national steering committee for DPAC

Artists Against Blacklisting

I ask Greene more about the specific effects of austerity on disabled people and he outlines a litany of devastating circumstances that are being experienced by people across the country.

One situation that is common is what Greene calls ‘shit or sandwich’, where many disabled peoples’ support has been cut so dramatically that there is not enough time for their help to feed them as well as assist them to use the toilet so they are left with having to choose between the two.

Greene explains the extraordinary rationale behind this treatment, ‘The thinking is that this sanction is designed to encourage them to do more for themselves, even though they can’t possibly do so.’

This point, where ideology overrides reality, is central to neoliberal thought. States need to create a narrative to justify their actions, however egregious. For a resistance movement to be successful, it is essential to isolate this false narrative and pull it apart.

A Tale of Two Models is an essential document on this and central to DPAC as it describes the construction of the state’s ‘ideological cover for attacking disabled people’ as the author, DPAC co-founder Debbie Jolly says in the introduction.

The two models referred to are the ‘social model’ and the ‘biopsychosocial’ (BPS) model. Jolly explains how the BPS model uses a hugely distorted rationale to assert that disabled people can somehow ‘think themselves out of being disabled’ and ‘work will set them free’.

She says it has been created and propagated by a criminal insurance company known for profiteering from the misery of disabled people, administered by a failed banker who admitted he ‘didn’t know anything about welfare at all’, and legitimized by corporate funded academics as well as supported by the big disability charities.

The opposing ‘social model’ was created by people living with disabilities and sees the problem as being how society views disability, how this can create far greater barriers than actual physical or mental impairments themselves.

The government only recognizes the BPS model, masquerading as a legitimate model for understanding disability and the social model is ignored, even by the big disability charities, which have betrayed the cause by towing the government line rather than risk losing their huge funding streams. In tones that echo David Ransom’s ‘Great Rebellion’, Jolly ends her article by saying that this distortion of reality by parties seeking to profit by other people’s misery ‘amounts to the biggest government benefit fraud in social welfare and human rights in contemporary history.’

‘Either we value the difference in each other and the contribution that we all make to each others’ lives or we value each other as people who are able to contribute to a market system, that either we are a net receiver or a net generator of income’

The insidious, market driven strategizing she details, is a textbook case of how neoliberal ideology undermines the role of the state, perverting it to serve corporate greed in every way possible while throwing to the side any semblance of serving the needs of the people.

A key component is establishing a narrative to ‘legitimize’ what are in reality crimes against humanity at the hands of a market driven ideology, which ultimately nobody is in control of. It is an example of the corporate capture of politics. The process is smoothed by a compliant neoliberal press whose negative depictions of disabled people on benefits have been directly linked to a 41 per cent increase in hate crimes against disabled people.

‘The bottom line is this,’ Greene tells me. ‘Either we value the difference in each other and the contribution that we all make to each others’ lives, in terms of 'we are all human beings and we value each other for the very sense that we exist' or we value each other as people who are able to contribute to a market system, that either we are a net receiver or a net generator of income.’

He adds that even though we are discussing the attack on disabled people in the UK, the destructive forces of neoliberalism is a global problem.

‘We are at the tipping point now, huge swathes of the world’s population are about to be culled over the next few years due to the effects of climate change and corporate backed wars for the last resources and we have to realign our whole value system and question ourselves about what are our priorities as a species.’

This ‘bigger picture’ goes part way to explaining why DPAC are the only direct action group in the UK who come out to physically support a very wide range of other anti-cuts and anti-neoliberal grassroots groups. From trade unions to Sisters Uncut, Fuel Poverty Action to Reclaim the Power, you will find DPAC there on the ground supporting.

When I ask Greene about this, he describes the opening scenes of the spoof Western film Blazing Saddles, where a wagon train of white settlers that has one wagon of Afro-American settlers is attacked by first nation Indians. The white people form a wagon train circle to protect themselves and the one black family circle on their own as the first nations Indians attack them all.

‘That’s the image of the political movement in the eighties and the disabled peoples’ movement in the eighties, you’ve got two groups of people sharing exactly the same experiences on the exact same road understanding the exact same pressures that are attacking them, doing the same things, like taking action and political movement building but still completely separate from each other.’

He says that the movement now is no different and that without wide reaching solidarity, various groups are fighting from a very weak position.

‘Until we understand that it is the same oppression that oppresses us in many different forms and until we actually physically take part in addressing these oppressions in ourselves and in the way all these groups bisect, then there is no real movement.’

DPAC's banner


Despite their being probably the most prolific grassroots group in the country in terms of direct action, even forcing their cause into the Houses of Parliament itself twice, the amount of physical support for DPAC reciprocated from people in the wider movement is negligible.

Until that changes and people stand in solidarity with DPAC, using direct action and civil disobedience, putting their bodies in front of their convictions, then the UK movement against neoliberalism risks remaining fragmented, ineffective and easily dismissed or ignored by the right wing press and government.

Greene’s challenge to decide whether we value life in terms of economic standing or by the simple fact of existence drives at the heart of our current problem of mass civil obedience, where the reality of what is happening still hasn’t struck most people.

Neoliberalism, like the BPS model, relies on us believing in a flimsy ideological cover for the truth that we have been conned into paying off a debt that we didn’t create, by the people that did. A group such as DPAC, with such hard-won experience and deep understanding of the struggle is a key to building a movement in the UK that can connect with the growing global movement to end this ‘con-trick of breathtaking proportions’.

As Greene says, ‘Tories can’t help themselves but be Tories, and they will get to everybody eventually.'

‘If they haven’t got to you yet, well sit tight because they will.’

Find more about DPAC at dpac.uk.net or on Twitter @Dis_PPL_Protest