Monday, 14 May 2012

Wrong Wrong Wrong

Far better and more politically astute bloggers will write (and have already written) about the silliness in government arguments surrounding reform of the DLA (Disability Living Allowance) benefit.  However, having woken up to yet another repetition of the silliness, I thought I better write down why the arguments are wrong, even if reform is important.

There are several points I'd like to answer in this BBC article  as briefly and clearly as I can (thereby proving why I could never have a career in politics)

"Mr Duncan Smith said the number of people claiming it had risen by 30% in recent years."

In recent years: don't you just love when a statistic is varified like that?  What are recent years?  Ask a ten year old and ask an eighty year old and the difference will be very great indeed.  And so, I will qualify my next statistic.  Between 1994 and 2011 there was a 34% increase in the number of cars on the road.  Now obviously we're all aware of this (apart from the ten year olds) and it's no big shock.  But if you say it about people who live lives which are often unseen by many, who you're insinuating are taking money unfairly, it's a shocking thing.  Mr Duncan Smith might further qualify by saying...

"It's been rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability or for that matter, general trends in society."

...but I don't believe him.  I mean, the general trend is less than the increase in cars on the road.  There are more people surviving dangerous illness and injury.  There is better care for people with mental health problems (even if it's still woeful).  Disabled children are kept alive longer.  And, of course, of the 34% increase in cars, there are now plenty made in such a way that you're less likely to die in an accident.  And how many of those 34% collide with pedestrians?  Nice soft bouncy bonnets can only do so much.

To suggest that there's something sinister in the increased numbers of DLA claimants is just weird.  I mean, between 2009 and 2011 there was a 100% increase in Prime Ministers who claimed DLA for a child.

So what does Mr Duncan Smith claim is the reason for the increase?

"A lot of that is down to the way the benefit was structured so that it was very loosely defined..."

If something is loosely defined to begin with, why would the number of successful applicants suddenly increase later on?  The only thing I can imagine is that 1.) he's suggesting that people have somehow worked out loopholes that allow them the benefit, or that 2.) we've developed disabilities in such a way as to fit the criteria, tricksy little things that we are.  This is so silly and strange I really can't work out how to argue against it other than saying it's wrong.

"Second thing was that in the assessment, lots of people weren't actually seen. They didn't get a health check or anything like that."

This really annoys me.  Every single flipping form I've filled in, I've had to go through paper-work / google in order to find out my GP surgery address.  I have to do this so that the people in the benefits office can contact my GP and ask if I'm lying.  Surely, rather than go to the cost (and it's cost we're arguing against) of sending someone to assess me (and let's not even get on to whether that person's qualified or even rewarded for failing you) it'd make more sense to trust a qualified doctor who knows at least a little about my life?

Also, there are some conditions which are quite 'obvious'.  If one of the 34% extra cars were to have had the exhaust fall off and you rang up the garage to tell them and they said 'yes, well, you're hardly qualified to say if the exhaust has fallen off and whether this actually necessitates a repair...' you'd be pretty upset.

Of course, condition is not impairment and we should remember this before we get too angry - there is a reason the form goes beyond diagnosis.  MS is a good example of a condition which can be highly variable.  But surely the need for greater face-to-face assessment is minimal if we remember that all forms sent back should have doctors details.

"Third problem was lifetime awards. Something like 70% had lifetime awards, [which] meant that once they got it you never looked at them again. They were just allowed to fester."

I love the use of the word 'fester'.  The gorgeous writer of Diary of a Goldfish, creator of all things magical and light of my life, has a pregnant sister.  Very soon this will make me an uncle.  Yes - I too could be Uncle Fester.

DLA is about not letting people fester.  It's about giving them the ability to pay for the expensive needs of their disability and so allow them to live as normal and equal a life as possible (allowing them to, say, pay for someone to take them out rather than just festering at home...).

Do I really have to point out the major weakness to this?  Do I really?  Does anyone fail to see the really really really silly really really really wrong wrong wrong thing here?

Disability can result from conditions and injuries which are permanent.

At school I had a friend called Nigel.  He had a condition which has, by now, killed him.  There was no way he would recover.  No way his care requirements would get less.  To burden his family with reapplying for benefits for a condition which eventually killed their son would be cruel.

There are people with mental impairments which will never go away and they will always need help.  There are degenerative nerve conditions, bone and joint problems, mental conditions, cancers and tumours and lions and tigers and bears.  There are so many awful things which DO NOT GO AWAY.

If another one of those 34% extra cars were to have its engine blow up in such a way that the entire front end was mangled beyond repair and, every few years you had to contact the DVLA to confirm it was still un-drivable, you'd get pretty fed-up.  And then, if you thought about the time and money it takes to administer that check, you'd be horrified.

So that's it really.  Most people agree that Disability Benefits need to be reformed.  There's wasted time and money in administration, disabled people are put in positions of fear and dependence, and it's all talked about as if it's a charity rather than a part of NATIONAL INSURANCE.  Those things should change.

Which brings me to my final point.  If one of those 34% extra cars was damaged by an accident and you'd paid your insurance premiums, would you be happy if someone then started droaning on about the high number of insurance claims and how much this was costing them, and how they were going to cut the number of people to whom they pay out?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 - Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Troll

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012 For an audio version, either stream using the player below, or click here for the MP3 file.

Clippity-Cloppity Goat and the Troll under the Bridge.

Clippity-Cloppity Goat was a young kid, and like young kids everywhere he was easily bored.  He liked going out and about, hoping he might find something exciting and different.  But given that he lived in a field, this was pretty difficult.  After all, one patch of grass looks much like the rest.  So one afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, Clippity Cloppity Goat let loose the gate and scampered out along the path.

He felt excited and free.  The sensation was intoxicating and he laughed.  He splashed in puddles, bleated at the goats he saw in other fields and butted trees to show them who's boss (and got a bit of a headache as a result).  But, being a young kid, he soon began to get bored.  And that's when he saw the bridge.

It wasn't a particularly special bridge.  The road above was paved and rutted.  But underneath in the dark, mingled with the burbling noise of the little river the bridge forded, Clippity Cloppity Goat could hear a deathly growl.

Now, it's fair to say that the goat was at least a little nervous.  What could possibly be there?  He'd heard all manner of stories about the weird creatures that lurk in the dark, never going out anywhere.  He'd heard that they were aggressive and hateful and were part of the reason that all the fields around here weren't as green as they used to be.  Wanting to be a big ram, Clippity decided he'd make a point and have a laugh at the same time.

So Clippity Cloppity lived up to his name.  He strutted up to the bridge and Clippity Cloppity-ed his way over top, stamping as hard as he could on the cobbles, whilst shouting in his loudest voice;

Trolls who live under bridges smell
They spend our hard earned cash
Claiming not to be very well

Trolls who live under bridges are bad
They never go to parties
And they never look glad

Trolls who live under bridges deserve to die
They're a waste of space and air
And everything they say's a lie

Of course, as with all people who show off, Clippity Cloppity hadn't actually been paying attention to what he'd been doing.  Somewhere around Verse Two he'd climbed up onto the edge of the bridge and, still stamping, had managed to dislodge one of the stones.  With the final line he gave a great stamp, which echoed.  But as the echo died, the noise was replaced with a scraping and the great block upon which Clippity was stood gave way and the young goat was thrown down into the cold water below!

He scrambled about in the river, choking and crying in fear.  You see, he'd grown up in a field all his life and he'd never had anything to do with water deeper than a puddle.  He couldn't swim!  He shouted out for help, not really expecting any reply, but he was desperate!  What could possibly save him?

It was then he heard it.  The growling noise had stopped, and in its place there was a calm and gentle voice talking to him.

"Relax little one." said the Troll, his voice deep and tired-sounding, "I know this river well - I've watched it every day for years - and you've fallen on the shallowest part.  If you relax and put your hooves down, you should be able to stand on the bottom."

Clippity Cloppity, gasping and thrashing, was almost too scared to take this in, but there was something about the calm, caring voice that made him trust it and he stuck his feet down, throwing his head up.  And the Troll was right - he could stand on the bottom!  And although the water was very cold and the current quite fast, he was able to walk towards the deep voice.  As he neared it, the water got shallower and shallower, until he was, at last, out of the river and shivering on the bank.

Blinking the water out of his long lashes, the goat looked around him.  His eyes were used to the bright sunshine on shiny grass, but under the bridge everything seemed shades of black and green.  Eventually, though, his eyes adapted and he could make out a large shape comfortably ensconced in an alcove.  The hard stone was padded with great blankets and pillows as big as a Ram.  The Troll himself looked very strange, having many features which were unlike those of any goat.  Clippity felt scared, but he was too tired and cold to just run away.

"Who are you?" Clippity stammered.

Looming out of the darkness, the Troll's face slowly became distinguishable.  It certainly wasn't the kind of face Clippity was used to seeing.  And being a young kid, he saw lots and lots of faces.  In fact, he thought the world was made entirely of the kind of faces he was used to seeing.  So he felt scared.  And yet, the face did not seem angry.  And the more he looked at it, the less scared he became.

"I'm Arnold" said the Troll.  And this surprised the little goat, as Arnold seemed like the least scary name he could imagine.  Arnolds should not live under dark bridges.

"What are you doing here?" asked the inquisitive little goat, his whiskers twitching in curiosity.

"I live here" breathed the troll, the growl of his voice distant like far off thunder.  "I am not able to leave the shade of this bridge because the sun hurts me.  I was born differently to you.  My limbs won't hold my weight.  So I stay here on my own."

"On your own!" exclaimed Clippity.  He had been away from his herd-mates only a few hours, and yet already he felt the distance between them and longed to return to his lush, green field and be surrounded by all the people who made him feel safe.  "It's weird not wanting to be around people." he declared, stamping a little hoof on the muddy bank, the damp little clop echoing in the dark spaces above him.

"But I do want to be around people.  I do talk to people."  The troll gestured to the water, one huge hand skidding across the silver surface.  "My friends all live along the river and we send messages in the water.  Just this morning, my good friend Emma wrote me a lovely letter on the back of an oak leaf.  I fished it out with this."  He produced a willow wand, at the end of which was a simply lashed hoop, criss-crossed with bind-weed.  "All of my friends are in the net."

And he was right.  Clippity watched open-mouthed as Arnold up-ended the net, letting leaves, bark and sticks rain out on to the floor.  Each one was inscribed and marked - some times with text, sometimes with pictures.  One particularly beautiful silver-birch twig was even decorated with multi-coloured flowers.

At this very moment, a sand martin swooped low over the water, its sharp, pointed wings skimming the surface.  It caught a fly, swallowed as it banked, and came around again, calling as it passed.

Arnold's face screwed up and he chuckled as only a troll could.  The hair on Clippity's neck stood on end.  Eventually Arnold explained "As well as the net, we have learnt to communicate through birds who send our messages.  In return, we keep the bridges clean and tidy for their nests and keep them safe from predators.  It's useful being able to 'tweet' a friend, especially if they live up-stream...."

"But it's not right being stuck in one place."  Clippity continued, feeling, though, that perhaps the things he'd heard might not be entirely true.  He was also intensely aware that for all his short life he'd been stuck in the same field.  It was only today that he'd finally broken free to see more of the world.  And he guessed that soon he'd have to get back.  It was hard to tell in the darkness under the bridge, but the sky outside seemed to be getting darker.  He would be able to find his way back in the dark, wouldn't he...?

"Stuck in one place?" Arnold said, with surprise in his heavy voice "As well as the messages I receive from my friends, I can watch the entire world go by on the river.  I can smell the mountain soil on the water after heavy rain has washed it down to the sea.  I can watch the cherry-blossom float on the surface when there's a strong April wind.  I hear the trout splashing on its journey between river-bed and sea-deep.  What am I missing?"

And Clippity could not answer.  Although not able to join in with the same games all the other goats enjoyed, Arnold clearly was the same as he.  They both enjoyed talking with their friends, watching all the creatures around them, and the smell of the world after rain.  And they were pretty important things.  But still...

"Why do people think you're so scary, then?" asked Clippity, sitting down in a comfy spot as he looked up at his new friend and listened, patiently.

"I have to sleep a lot during the day.  Whenever people come along, it's likely that I'll be snoring.  And when I snore, people go away, scared.  I can't help it.  If only they'd stop and wait, I'd wake up and they'd see I wasn't to be feared."

Clippity saw a big tear well in the dark eye of the troll.  With a small 'plink', the tear fell into the river.  Perhaps, Clippity thought, another troll might notice it and send a bird to check that everything was alright.  But just in case, Clippity nuzzled the great troll gently.

"I'm sorry," he said "I just didn't know."

The great Troll patted the little goat on his bristly head and said, gently, "It's alright, little one.  It is normal to be scared of the things we don't understand.  What isn't right is to ignore reality and truth when we see it.  It's not right to make up hateful stories.  But you have found the truth and understood it.  That is the meaning of all great quests."

Clippity felt a huge sense of pride, but whilst his heart was full and warm, he shivered against the cold wind which whistled under the bridge and, when he turned back, he was shocked to see that the world had turned dark behind him.

"Oh no!" he cried, "It's got late and dark and I don't know my way home!"

Clippity began to cry, far more scared now than he had been when he'd heard the snoring of a hidden troll.  How on earth would he find his way back to his family and friends?

But the troll patted the kid again and quickly reached for one of his stores of dried leaves and delicately wrote a note on it.  This was placed, gently, into the water where it was quickly taken away by the fast flow.  He then carefully tapped on two of the martin nests which were dug from the fragile bank of the stream.  In a strange language he spoke to the birds who had been resting, and, like bullets from a gun, they flew out into the air and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

But Clippity hardly noticed this.  His vision was clouded by tears and his body felt trapped - trapped under a water of despair and floundering as surely as he had when he fell into the river.  He shivered again.

He gasped with shock when a heavy weight of wool fell around him.  Arnold was making for him a bed of his own blankets and pillows.  Too upset to say anything, Clippity collapsed onto the soft space and, very soon, was snoring almost as loudly as the big troll who was now his friend.


Clippity awoke with a start.  He was scared because he didn't know where he was.  But soon he remembered and once again was overcome with remorse and upset.  At that moment, however, he heard a familiar sound.  It was the clank and clamour of a rough bell.  The bell he knew so well.  It was the bell that, for all his life, had been tied around the neck of his mother.  And here she was, appearing in the glow of the fire Arnold had built especially to keep little Clippity warm.

"There you are, you young rascal!" she called.  "If it wasn't for your new friend, we'd never have found you.  Thank you, sir," she said, bowing her head slightly with a rattle from the bell, "We'll never be able to repay you for keeping our little one safe."

The troll shrugged, "It wasn't really me, I just sent out a message.  My fellow trolls had heard young Clippity in the woods and, later, had heard your folk searching for him.  With the help of our birds, we were able to track you down and guide you."

And so, with a sleepy backward glance at his new friend, Clippity made his way back home under the watchful eye of his mother (who would later have many things to say about going off on your own and the real dangers of the wood which would make a troll look like a kitten).  But from then on Clippity knew that wherever he was, he was never alone.  Even in the dark places and where people seemed strange and different, there was always a good chance that there would be things shared and commonly valued.  He understood the difference between 'different' and 'bad'.  And he also knew that, whatever he did in the coming years, he would set out to find truth and understanding and never to give in to fear.  Because truth and trust would keep you safe even when the night falls.

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 - Intro

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012 For an audio version, either stream using the player below, or click here for the MP3 file.

I've been thinking about trolls lately; those Scandinavian beasts of mythology.  Blame it on my recent viewing of the fabulous Troll Hunter, a sharp comedy which is very much worth watching.  But that's not quite what I want to write about on this, Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012.

I believe strongly that we live our lives through the rules of stories.  Fables, religious texts, soap operas - they all use story to teach us about events we may face through sometimes heavily veiled yet strongly appropriate examples.  As we grow, the stories continue.  We've seen in the last few years a massive increase in the number of newspaper headlines denigrating the disabled.  With them has come a number of set stories - the person claiming benefits who runs a marathon, the blue badge user who drives a Merc, the heroic military amputee overcoming injury...

This makes it very difficult to be a normal disabled person.  That might sound silly - obviously no disabled person has an easy life...I mean, they're disabled.  But, when you're new to it all, looking into this mass of negative stereotypes, how can you assume that identity with a good heart?  It'd be like an electrician watching 'When Cowboy Tradespeople Make Old Ladies Cry' only to exclaim after the first grief stricken segway into advert break 'I'm a tradesperson too!'.

There was a documentary last year - Katie and Her Beautiful Friends.  The documentary looked at people who had various disfigurements.  The idea was that Katie helped these people to grow and become confident and assume a position as ambassador to other people dealing with disfigurement.  There were some great people on there, but none who would (at least on screen) identify as disabled*.  How could they?  The position they were aiming to fill has nothing to do with the story of disability we currently see everywhere.  These people were going out, facing the world, working and achieving.  Admirable achievements, to be sure.  But it precludes them from the story of disability.

I recently had a reply to a letter I sent to a member of parliament.  I will keep it (and their name) private, but at the end of said letter, the MP said

In order to better public perceptions of disability, you need to get out and about and show the world how great you are.

I paraphrase to make it significantly less long winded.  But the message is clear.  Disability in the traditional storybook sense is not appropriate.  We hide away in the dark.  We are trolls - not human, not attractive, not worthwhile.  The only way we can be worthy of not being abused (which was the point I'd made in my letter) is to recreate who we are by flinging aside any impediment and parading through the streets, bursting into song and, preferably, saving small kittens from trees whilst climbing the nearest mountain.

I disagree.  Rather than change who we are (which is impossible...) we need to change the stories.  We need to rewrite the nursery rhymes.  They are the foundation block of all narrative we use today (including newspaper headlines, government statements, etc) and how we learn morality.  And all of this is, I believe, a moral issue.

So in my second post (I thought I should break them up to save you from overload) I will rewrite the Troll Fairytale.  I suggest you print out a copy for any passing parents you see.

*it's important to note, of course, that this might have nothing to do with the people involved.  It's entirely possible that this was done in editing.  It's also important to say how much good the people and the programme did.  It's just a shame that their positive story isn't really related to disability, even though some of the injuries are certainly physically disabling and, of course, that societal reactions to disfigurement are, and always has been, disabling.