Disability: The difficulties of the Hardest Hit

Disabled people, their carers, friends and family, are protesting against proposed changes to vital benefits and services in 14 places around the UK. But what difficulties do they face?

Organisers expected thousands to take part, but said many more would do so if they were physically able.

It is the second protest action from the Hardest Hit coalition, made up of over 40 charities from the Disability Benefits Consortium, plus members of the grassroots umbrella organisation UK Disabled People’s Council.

Louise Bolotin, 49, has epilepsy and was due to speak at the rally in Manchester. Her condition forces her to use taxis regularly as she can’t drive or use public transport easily.

Ms Bolotin pays extra for convenience foods and takeaways locally so she can avoid having to handle hot cooking pots when recovering from seizures. She uses her disability living allowance, a benefit earmarked for change, in order to help pay expenses that others don’t have.

She says: “We’ve all got higher costs if we’ve got disabilities. My DLA goes on day-to-day costs which make my life easier.”

Helen Searle is 37 and from Buckinghamshire. She’s a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. She had to give up work due to ill health and is presently on incapacity benefit awaiting an assessment which will decide whether she’s fit for work or not. If they say yes, according to the government’s proposals she will have a year to find a job before her benefits are reduced.

“I would be delighted to be able to work, but due to my condition that’s not an option at the moment. I am really worried that under the changes the government wants to make to benefits I will be forced back to work and my health will suffer even more.”

She is anxious that she won’t be able to prove to an assessor that she has pain and fatigue and says most people think she looks “normal”.

The first Hardest Hit action was in May, a march and mass lobby of parliament. With an estimated 8,000 protesters, it was widely considered the biggest disability protest ever.

Compared to student protests, anti-globalist marches, and the TUC anti-cuts march – which on its own drew a quarter of a million people to the streets ofLondonearlier this year – the 8,000 turnout at the May protest sounds small. Jaspal Dhani, co-chair of the Hardest Hit coalition, says otherwise.

“In disability terms, it’s massive. Let’s remember that for disabled people to turn up inLondonand demonstrate, 8,000 was a huge achievement.

“Many can’t just use public transport from any part ofLondonthey arrive in, due to inaccessible transport. You can’t just park nearby due to restrictions on blue badge use.

“The number of accessible blue badge parking bays are limited. Also remember that many had to rely on friends, families and carers to facilitate their journey and participation; not everyone is going to have that level of support or money to do so.”

Organisers say they’re having to do it again because the government have ignored their concerns. The latest march is timed to coincide with the Welfare Reform Bill, now at committee stage in the House of Lords.

Jaspal Dhani says: “Government is continuing with its regressive policy reforms and more and more disabled people are ending up in institutional care, and losing access to vital services to help them remain independent. Others risk being isolated by having services reduced.

Fellow chairman Steve Winyard says: “The government committed to protecting the most vulnerable when it announced deep cuts to public expenditure, but it’s clear that disabled people are facing some of the deepest cuts to benefits and services.

“I guess you could say that the one single achievement of disability minister Maria Miller is that she has united the disability movement.

“The proposed cuts have brought together disability charities and disabled people’s organisations into a single united force where previously we’ve had a difficult relationship with differences on policy and ideology. The government has united the sector.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “This government is absolutely committed to supporting disabled people and we continue to spend more than £40bn a year on disabled people and their services.

“Our reforms are more than just changes to benefits. The Sayce review is looking at how we can use the protected budget for disability employment services more effectively, to get an extra 35,000 disabled people into work”.

Those disabled people and carers who would like to be part of the Hardest Hit day but who can’t leave home or turn up due to their circumstances, are considered an important voice.

The Hardest Hit website invites them to do their own protests online by writing to their MP and local press.

Disabled people can also show their support by tweeting, emailing and leaving messages on the dedicated Facebook page.

Mr Winyard said that some who cannot attend would be represented on the march itself: “They’ve had their photos taken and those will be carried on placards and posters on the marches. They will be there in photographic presence even if they’re not there in person.”