Archive for the ‘ media ’ Category

A Response To Philip Hensher’s Article

Dear Philip,

I read your article (Some people on disability benefits are fit to work) yesterday and I saw the backlash on twitter. I have some thoughts on it and I wanted to share them, as a disabled woman with both physical and mental health problems who has been through the wringer with the DWP and it’s WCA process plenty of times.
I read every word and upon finishing was struck by two things. Firstly, that whilst apparently arguing for  some form continuing assessments of sick & disabled benefit claimants you were against the Work Capability Assessment in it’s current form. That is something I applaud. I too am against the current WCA’s. I’m very glad to hear you speaking out against them and I would love more voices to join the throng. 
The second is that whilst suggesting that there is some need for assessment you (I assume accidentally) propped up some rather pernicious myths about people claiming disability benefits. I hope you can understand that for many of the people that will have been attracted to read your article that might have made pretty painful reading. I will just go through some of those myths now as I assume you might not be well versed with them.
That there is a high percentage of people claiming these benefits that shouldn’t be.
You devote about 50% of your article to talking about people who defraud the system. I would argue that this is providing false balance to these stories. The DWP’s own statistics show that less than 1% of claims are fraudulent. You are not the first person to cover the issue in this manner (either to make it seem more contentious or exciting, or simply because you believed it to be true because of the media coverage you have ingested) and nor will you be that last. The problem is that many of us are suffering, I personally believe, in a huge part to the false balance given to these stories.
As a wheelchair user I have noticed the abuse I receive in the street has changed over the last few years. It’s no longer about how I look (funny, disgusting) or about how I might be “catching”. Instead it is about how I am probably a lazy, workshy, scrounger and a benefit fraud. People feel free to approach me in car parks and ask if I really need the blue badge parking space or if I just use the chair to get a free car. It’s painful and it’s part of my day-to-day existence. It’s part of many other peoples too. There has been a huge rise in disability hate crime over the last few years. I assume from what you have written it is not part of your everyday life, but I don’t know. When people for whom this is their day-to-day reality read articles like yours they often have an (understandable) emotional response which can vary from sadness to anger. I became pretty despondent personally as what I thought was a very promising piece propped up the “scrounger rhetoric” as many of us call it. I hope you can see that when people in the media spend as much, if not more time talking about scroungers the effects on the vast majority of disabled people 
That mental health conditions are not as debilitating as physical health ones.
The way (or tone) you take when talking about people who claim benefits for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression seems pretty sceptical to say the least. This reader at least felt like you were either ignorant of the how severe these conditions need to be to claim ESA or you were suggesting they weren’t really very debilitating. As I hope you are aware many people who live with mental health conditions are routinely told to “snap out of it” or are treated as if it is something they could just “get over it” with the right motivation and the way they were talked about in your article felt like you too were propping up this myth. I know that many people who responded angrily to reading your article were most hurt by this sentiment.
But, I can’t talk about other people. that’s not my place and those aren’t my stories. I can however talk to you about myself. I have a mental health condition, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in fact. I also have a chronic pain condition stemming from a lot of damage to my abdomen and the nerves within. I have quite a bit of personal experience of dealing with both kinds of health issues. Thanks to the PTSD I can’t manage 15 mins in a whole host of seemingly innocuous environments (for example; being near petrol or the sound of breaking glass) because they trigger flashbacks during which I relive experiences that were so horrific the first time around they left me with a mental health disorder. I would often describe this, to those I would really rather not have a huge conversation about this stuff with as panic. In my experience panic can be as debilitating, if not more so than severe physical pain at times. Panic, fear, terror, fight or flight responses, what ever you want to call it is extremely unpleasant and can govern a persons life. We need to remember that when we talk of claiming ESA for anxiety or panic disorders we are not talking about people who experience panic on a once a month basis, if we were then they would not be getting ESA. We are talking about people who often experience it multiple times daily to the point it may stop them talking to strangers, leaving the house or wearing certain colours. It will also often have physical manifestations such as uncontrolled shaking, nausea, pain & high blood pressure. Someone who can cycle for over 15mins but can’t talk to people without crying and shaking in fear isn’t very likely to be employed. All because it is a mental health disorder does not mean it’s any less likely to be disabling than a physical health problem. 
That some conditions are more worthy than others
You mention obesity in your article and say that “The only possible purpose for public expenditure there is to help them back into fitness for work.” I feel the same way reading this I did when the Daily Mail published it’s bogus article about the parents of lots of children with ADHD being given free BMWs. There is a gulf of misunderstanding when it comes to these statistics which list which disorders people have and what they are claiming. Many people claiming ESA or DLA have more than one condition but the DWP only bothers to record the first condition listed on it’s forms. So, for example someone with ADHD, Obesity & EDS will only be recorded as claiming one of those conditions, possibly ADHD or obesity. It’s hardly ever as simple as black and white as it looks.
I also was disappointed that you used your platform to in many ways make it seem as if obesity (to a disabling enough level one would be able to claim ESA) is a lifestyle choice/moral failing and that people shouldn’t be supported. I hope you realise that obesity is often a side effect of many medications (steroids, beta blockers, anti-seizure medications etc…) as well as medical conditions  either directly (such as PCOS, Cushings & Prader-Willi syndromes) or indirectly by limiting activity or changing diet (such as arthritis & drepression). Even forgetting all of this I personally believe that if someone can’t mobilise, breathe, manage continence of anything else similar then regardless of the reason behind it those people deserve support. If we start deciding what conditions are worthy of being disabling rather than looking at the effects of conditions upon individuals we risk leaving a lot of vulnerable people behind.
I believe that you could have written the same article, which I believe can be summed up as “The WCAs as they stand need to stop but that we should talk about what will replace them that will be fair to everyone”, without using the afore mentioned problematic dialogue.
I’m going to leave it there, because I’m tired of writing and I’m sure you are growing tired of reading criticism. I do really respect you for having tried to take a stand against the WCA’s and I’d love to see you continue to write about these issues in the future but I’d also like it if you could try and consider how you talk about sickness, mental health problems & disability when you do so.  
Warm Regards

[Edited to correct typo]

On Disability, Fraud, Distrust & Abuse

This post is going to be about the bits abuse and bullying I have had since becoming disabled. It may be triggering for some.

Edited to add: A version of this post is on the Guardians CiF peoples panel with regards to negative attitudes faced by disabled people.


I think the most humiliating thing to happen to me is when (often drunk) men try to grab at my breasts and face if we go out on an evening. Something that fortunately didn’t happen to me until I became a wheelchair user*. I think it’s because I’m an easy target, if my breaks are on I can’t turn away and, anyway, who would believe someone would grope a wheelchair user? We are often thought of as asexual and almost alien. I don’t often talk about it because I feel ashamed and embarrassed which is made worse by having been treated a couple of times I have complained like I am either making it up or should be grateful. A nice mix of sexist and disablist stereotypes fuels those myths. I’ve never contacted the police, I doubt a drunken boob grab from someone I can’t identify will be acted on. All that would happen is they would ruin whats left of my evening.

Where that is humiliating, the bit that actually hurts the most isn’t sexual harassment. It is that people regularly approach me when we are out (especially when my carer has stepped away for a bit) to ask questions like “Do you really need that wheelchair or are you doing it for the money?” and “I saw you move your leg! Are you just too lazy to walk?”. Every where I go I’m subjected to a grilling from strangers with regards to my disability, my employment prospects and my lifestyle choices. I feel like I have to defend myself to these people because if I don’t they assume I’m a faker, but in defending myself I have to share the painful story of my disability and some very personal details about how it effects my ability to live. I have developed a fear of being left alone in my chair because that’s when people most often come to ‘talk to me’ about my disability – just to make sure it’s real. Last December my city held a big Christmas market and I decided to attend. I was told to “Go home” repeatedly and mocked loudly by various people for both my appearance and for having a wheelchair all the way through. Not all cruelty is direct, the indirect “This isn’t a place for you” when it is clearly a public area is also very damaging. It’s like you are being pushed out and told you don’t belong in public. If it was done online I’d call it concern trolling. I came home and cried and couldn’t go near the city centre again until after it had gone. That kind of thing happens every time I try to go out to somewhere with lots of people and it’s just not good enough.


I associate this rise in abuse with a huge rise in public distrust & vilification of people who are disabled. I think that is fuelled by disproportionate the amount of negative stories in the media (often coming straight from the DWP) which paints the majority of those who claim disability benefit as fraudsters land manipulative scammers. There are a lot of faulty assumptions made by the which are fuelled by poor reporting such as; the assumption DLA is an out of work benefit – it isn’t, the assumption you just get a free car when of course you don’t, and the assumption you don’t need evidence to claim disability benefits which just isn’t true.

In reality £16 billion in disability benefits goes unclaimed in the UK. There is a 0.5% fraud level (ignoring DWP error) yet thanks to the unbalanced reporting in the media the general public assumes the level is much much higher. As a result of this kind of distrust we can see a witch-hunt beginning. Disability hate crime is up 75% according to government statistics, many reporting that those attacking them often use scrounger or similar as a term of abuse. In 2009/10 a massive 96% of calls to the national benefit fraud hotline were found to be malicious or time-wasting though I’m sure most of the people that rang in were sure they were shopping a scrounger. The government needs to take serious steps to address these issues and to raise public awareness of the reality of living as a disabled person in the UK. 


* although I am aware it happens to other non-disabled women a lot too

Disabled People’s Protest In Oxford Circus

This morning I got up very early and (with help from my wonderful partner & carer) got dressed, drugged and ready to catch a train to London.

After the normal mess around with trains and alike we made it to Euston station in a fairly bright mood. We decided to save some money and roll down to the DPAC meeting point (MacDonalds on Regent Street at 11.30am) which took a while. Luckily for me, the first face I saw was that of blogger Latent Existence which was a lovely surprise, especially when it transpired we had actually met at an action in Birmingham ages ago. There was a bit of milling about whilst the plan was explained to us;

  1. Collect a D-Lock and keys.
  2. Get into place at Oxford Circus (where Oxford Street & Regent Street cross).
  3. When the lights change UK Uncut activist would run across with a chain which would have each end attached to a lamppost.
  4. Wheelchairs were to roll over to the crossing and line up along the chain. 
  5. Lock the wheelchair to the chain and start protesting!


Whilst waiting for it to begin I spoke to a few journalists that had found us and explained my reasons for being there;

I wanted to protest against the both the Welfare Reform Bill and the cruel way it effects disabled people & children as well as the associated vilification of the disabled, poor and vulnerable. The government has decided to combat a fraud rate of 0.5% that they will take 20% off Disability Living Allowance by re-branding and reforming it into Personal Independence Payments (PIP). In doing so they are removing the assistance from DLA/PIP from 199 genuinely disabled people for every 1 ‘fraudster’* they catch. So they can remove so many they have made the criteria for PIP even more stringent than with DLA and they are including regular repeat assessments – regardless of whether your disability can ever improve or not. I wrote about how important my DLA is to me and the struggles I had obtaining it recently. The Responsible Reform Report (dubbed the Spartacus Report) details many areas of key concern better than I could here and it makes interesting reading if you fancy it.

The Conservative led government has done what it always does when they want to cut benefits to the poor and the vulnerable. First they leak press stories vilifying the targets, then when public opinion is on their side they strike with cruel reforms & cuts. We’ve been watching over the last couple of years as more and more horrid and twisted headlines about fake disabled people, scroungers and those seeking an easy life on ‘lavish’ benefits have filled up our press. I’ve popped some examples of recent press headlines on the right. All of these are real and all of them have helped shape public opinion. We’ve seen disability hate crime soar up by 75% and most I’ve spoken to have noticed it. I blogged this December about my experiences at the local Christmas market and I’ve been stopped in the street by strangers who ask me “Do you really need that wheelchair or are you just pretending?”. It’s both annoying and painful but still, I’m lucky that I’ve not been on the end of some of the violent abuse that many others cite having experienced.

To make it all the more poignant, yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. A day during which we remembered those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazi party. The party wished for racial purity and in 1933 began forcibly sterilising disabled people under the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”. By 1939 they began “euthanising” children born with severe defects and within months the criteria for eligibility for “euthanasia” was both relaxed and extended to older children, adolescents, and adults. But before this started happening the Nazi propaganda mill tried to make sure that the public were on side with gems like this poster:

A German propaganda poster from 1938″60000 Riechmarks, this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too.” It’s so similar to last years tabloid headlines it chills my blood looking at it.



That’s why I joined the protest. That’s why I and many others chained ourselves in our wheelchairs across Oxford Circus. We see what is happening, how our rights are being eroded away and how thoughtless government propaganda is ruining our right to live free from fear and intimidation. We see all this and we are angry. We won’t go down without a fight. Even if it near kills us.

The protest itself was brilliant. No sooner had we done up our D-locks and settled into a chorus of “No ifs, no buts, no disability cuts!” than the sound of sirens filled the air. The police & some people that I assume were fancy shop security (given the odd beefeater meets bellhop uniforms) surrounded us quite quickly but did nothing. The atmosphere was great, angry yet positive, vulnerable yet strong as steel. We had a wonderful time and met some fantastic people. I spoke to journalists, independent media and radio crews and watched as some amazing people got filmed by the BBC & Sky. We had initially thought we would get an hour at the most before the bolt-cutters cam out and we were either arrested or dispersed. I think that because of the amount of media attention we had the police were loathe to act and risk bad publicity. They also would have had a big job trying to arrest all of the wheelchair users as I don’t think their vans are particularly accessible. Still, by 12.45 the police were telling us that we could either move over and just block one side of the road (the street behind us was strewn with abandoned buses) or we could stay and they would take ‘appropriate action’. Many of those chained up expressed a wish to stay and risk arrest simply to show how serious they were about protesting the Welfare Reform Bill. Sadly we had to leave before the end as we had a train to catch but twitter informed me that everything broke up peacefully at around 2pm with no arrests or trouble.

To finish on a brighter note are some pictures from today’s demo;

The wheelchair line getting into place.

 
Me and my partner fashionably sporting chains and a Green Party flag. (Picture via @HeardInLondon)

 

DPAC protesters – not all of us use wheelchairs (Picture via @HeardInLondon)

Legal Observers – the person in orange was from Green and Black Cross, the person at the back with a camcorder works for the Met.

* let us remember that this term also includes disabled people that aren’t technically ‘disabled enough’ to receive DLA.

Media Links (edited to add more as they arrive):

    "Oh… So Where Did You Serve?"

    “Oh… So where did you serve?” Is a question I’ve had a few times since coming out of the mental health closet and openly talking about my PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis. I always reply that I have not been in the military, nor have I spent any time in a war zone.

    It’s funny how much the media influences the publics perceptions of disorders. Most people when picturing a PTSD sufferer in their minds get a picture like the one below:

    Picture of a white, male, American soldier in uniform looking overwrought

    The average PTSD sufferer/survivor on a global scale is actually depending on your preferred way of looking at it is female and not a soldier. They are someone like me. Someone who has been exposed to a very traumatic event that was “outside the range of usual human experience.” Things like witnessing a violent/ unexpected death, rape, torture, sexual abuse, witnessing or experiencing life-threatening physical assault, terrorism, being held hostage and similar are often causes of PTSD. Where many people experience some level of trauma in their lives only about 8% of them will go onto develop PTSD.

    So, what is PTSD? It’s a severe anxiety disorder caused by physical trauma and/or psychological trauma. It’s thought to happen when the brain is exposed to extreme levels of adrenaline which causes the brain to store & deal with the trauma in a disordered manner. People with PTSD have the following symptoms as a result of their exposure;

    • Persistent Re-experiencing – flashbacks (v.different from memories), nightmares, intense negative reactions to things that remind them of the trauma and other re-experiencing of the event.
    • Persistent Avoidance & Numbing – disassociation, seriously reduced ability to feel certain feelings and a desire to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma.
    • Increased Arousal – hypervigillance and associated problems like difficulty falling/staying asleep.

    In my case I spent years in a extremely abusive relationship where I was frequently abused (physically, psychologically & sexually) in horrific manners during which I was repeatedly exposed to the imminent possibility of my death. Looking back I’m still not sure how I survived some of the stuff. It all feels like a nightmare I can’t quite forget yet can’t bring myself to properly think about.

    It’s funny, I can type about it sometimes but yet if I try and talk to someone about these things face to face my brain simply shuts down on me. I can’t hold the memory of what I was trying to say in my mind and I just end up opening and closing my mouth and eventually apologising for the fish impression and changing the subject. My brain is very good at blocking off the traumatic memories by either making it all feel like a dream or a story. Sometimes it shuts me down and I simply sit and stare into space, it feels like being simultaneously awake and in a deep dreamless sleep. Othertimes it drives me away from things that are likely to trigger flashbacks or re-experiencing. Occasionally it causes head pain so intense I feel like my head has been cut open again. Normally it just makes me forget things that I find extremley difficult to deal with which can be very problematic.

    For the last year or so of my relationship and the years that followed I would have these intense re-occuring nightmares where the same horrific acts were being carried out by my ex. I’d find I would be unable to recall how I got cuts & bruises or why I was suddenly terrified of seemingly harmless things. It wasn’t until I escaped his reach that I really started getting flashbacks. Waking nightmares, memories so powerful they are indistinguishable from reality, like having time-travelled back to the time of the trauma and being forced to re-live it again and again. Imagine the most horrendous thing you have ever exprienced, the worst thing to have happened to you, forever etched in your mind. Haunting you with not just the old emotions but the smells, the tastes, the senstations on your skin. I hate them most of all. I think they are now the thing I’m most afraid of in the world. When they started kicking in I broke down. Having recently become disabled I lost the ability to cope as my mind crashed six months after my body. I lost the ability to sleep, lost the ability to disassociate for a while and ended up ready to kill myself. Luckily my GP intervened and got me psychiatric help where I was finally diagnosed and I began to get treatment.

    I’m saddened to say that I’m not alone in this. I’ve met hundreds of PTSD sufferers online over the last few years and the overwhelming majority are female victims of domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence. Not white male soldiers – though I’m not ignorant enough to suggest my experiences are going to be representitive. Yet we often seem to be ignored when a discourse is opened up about PTSD, especially by the media. As well as the issues with inaccurate representation by the media fueling public stereotypes and misunderstandings it also can be very damaging for victims of the above traumas. Denial, silencing & victim blaming (often thanks to that pesky Just World Fallacy) is a really common experience for those of us who suffered in these ways. These problems create a feeling that people don’t/won’t take the horrid thing that happened to you seriously and more often than not they get internalised making survivors blame, silence and doubt themselves. Naturally this makes healing far harder. When the media ignores stories like yours and paints your struggles as being somehow less traumatising it adds to this nasty mess.

    The more I think about it, the more sure I am that there is a gender bias in the reporting and coverage of PTSD which fuels the blackout of ‘womens issues’ with regards to the disorder. PTSD from ‘masculine’ causes like the serving in the military or in the emergency services is talked about far more commonly than PTSD arising from incidents that disproportionately happen to women*.

    For plenty of reasons, male dominance in the media being a big one, people like myself are being left out of the PTSD discourse. If we want to move forward and stop creating a culture where some traumas are problematically rated as ‘less deserving’ than others, then things need to change.

    * rape, domestic abuse, sexual assult – please note that no where did I say these things don’t happen to men.

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