Disabled artists fear ‘lazy’ journalists could disappoint at London 2012

Leading disabled artists and commentators have raised concerns about how journalists will report on the high-profile disability arts and sport set to take place this summer around the London 2012 Paralympics.

The Headlining Disability: Arts, Sports, Disability and the Media seminar at London’s Royal Festival Hall focused on how disabled people are represented in the media.

The leading disability arts figures who organised the event believe that how journalists write about the Paralympics and the disability arts that will feature during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad will provide a “unique opportunity to re-imagine the way the public see disabled people”.

Michael Shamash, the disabled researcher and lecturer, said it was not yet clear what impact the Paralympics themselves would have on the representation of disabled people in the media.

But he pointed to Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who because of her gold medal-winning exploits at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics was “seen as a very good thing” and helped to “take small people away from the realms of the ludicrous and ridiculability, into somebody who has achieved something”.

In a discussion with Shamash, writer Will Self said many reality and other factual television programmes were guilty of “exploiting the age-old freak show”, but in a way that was “insidious”.

He added: “The capacity for television and now internet-based media to masquerade as being sympathetic when in fact they are being voyeuristic has never been greater than it is now.”

He said he constantly noticed references to disability in the media that were “actually offensive to somebody who is disabled”.

And he suggested that Ricky Gervais’s BBC comedy Life’s Too Short, which starred disabled actor Warwick Davis, was “exploitative”, and had featured a short person in the starring role so the audience could “laugh at somebody being disabled”.

The seminar was organised by Shape, the disabled-led arts organisation, and the Leading Through Change network of senior figures in the disability arts world.

Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape, told Disability News Service after the seminar that he feared journalists this summer would focus on the impairments of disabled artists and Paralympians, instead of their work.

And he pointed to the widespread concerns about reporting of disability benefits cuts and reforms and the use of rhetoric about “benefits scroungers” in the mainstream media over the last year.

He said he was disappointed with the failure of non-disabled journalists to take part in the seminar – despite advertising it widely, including a plug on Self’s widely-followed blog – with most of the participants disabled people from the arts and media.

He said: “Disabled people really want to have an intelligent debate about the way journalists report on the work of disabled artists and the performance of disabled athletes.

“Have journalists even engaged with that notion? Possibly not. The outcome is likely to be that journalists will respond in an incredibly lazy way.”

Asked if he thought there would be a problem with how disabled people are represented by the media during London 2012, he said: “I think there will and we will be disappointed as disabled people by the reporting.

“It feels to me that we have been saying this for a long time and nobody has grasped the idea that it could be problematic.”

Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online (DAO), has written a blog about the Will Self discussion on the DAO website.

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Activist’s death highlights ‘cruelty’ of ‘fitness for work’ rules

Anti-cuts campaigners have paid tribute to a disabled activist who died last week after fighting for two years against the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.

Karen Sherlock died on 8 June, just a fortnight after she was told that she would be eligible once again to receive out-of-work disability benefits.

Campaigners say her death is further evidence that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) is unfit for purpose and is causing thousands of disabled people anxiety and hardship, is exacerbating their ill-health and even contributing to some deaths.

Sherlock had several long-term health conditions, including diabetes and a heart condition, was about to start dialysis and was awaiting a kidney transplant, and experienced regular pain, exhaustion, vomiting and incontinence.

In a blog written in April, she described how her employment and support allowance (ESA) had been stopped, and accused the government of “stripping the most vulnerable of the essential benefits they need”.

She added: “Just throw them on the scrapheap. Don’t worry if they can’t feed themselves or heat their homes, or pay for taxis to take them places because they cannot walk anywhere.  No, that doesn’t matter, they are leeches on society.”

Sherlock had been forced out of her NHS job in 2008 because of serious ill-health, and although she was found eligible for ESA – the replacement for incapacity benefit – she was placed in the work-related activity group, for those expected eventually to return to employment.

She was one of the tens of thousands of disabled people whose contributory form of ESA was stopped from 30 April this year, because of the new one-year time-limit introduced under the coalition’s Welfare Reform Act.

She only found out days before she died that her latest appeal had successfully placed her in the support group for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity, and therefore would no longer be affected by the time-limit.

The disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin has pieced together Sherlock’s experiences from emails and blogs she posted between October 2010 and May 2012.

She wrote in a blog that Sherlock had been filled with “confusion, fear and anxiety” because of the assessments, appeals and administrative foul-ups she was put through, and that she felt “caught up in the mill, frustrated, angry and insignificant”.

In a blog on the New Statesman website, fellow disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a friend of Sherlock’s, said she had “battled just to survive” and faced “endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms”.

Marsh has focused her campaigning efforts on the government’s new one-year time limit, which she describes as “an emblem of cruelty that really did cross the line of decency”.

She said Sherlock had been “terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.”

Asked whether Sherlock’s death demonstrated that too many ill and disabled people were being forced through a continuing cycle of assessments and appeals when clearly not fit for work, a spokesman for Chris Grayling, the Conservative minister for employment, said: “I really don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on an individual case like this.”

Heathrow wheelchair ordeal raises London 2012 questions

A leading activist has accused airline staff of ignoring the needs of disabled passengers at Heathrow, just weeks before thousands of Paralympic athletes and other disabled visitors will flood through the airport.

Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), was returning from a disability rights conference in Denmark organised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

She had asked British Airways (BA) cabin crew on the return flight last Friday evening if they could arrange for her fold-up wheelchair to be brought to the door of the plane on arrival at Heathrow’s terminal five, as it had been when she arrived at Copenhagen on the outward flight.

But as she left the plane, she was told by the airline’s ground handling crew that they would not bring her wheelchair to the plane for “health and safety reasons”, even though they would only have had to wheel it to the entrance, rather than carry it.

Instead, she had to transfer into one of the airport’s own wheelchairs, and then transfer again into her own chair once she had managed to reclaim it from the carousel in the busy luggage retrieval area.

Newman said: “I had to use the generic chair, which for me with my spinal and muscular condition, although it was functional, it hurt. It was very uncomfortable.

“The only time I have been abroad over the last few years is because of UKDPC and the UN Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities].

“I find it appalling that I go to Europe and I contribute a UK disabled people’s organisation’s perspective, as part of an ongoing dialogue about inclusive society, and then I come back and I am treated like a piece of shit.”

A spokesman for BA, the “official airline partner” of the London 2012 games, said: “We are extremely sorry for the inconvenience and distress experienced by Ms Newman on this occasion, and a member of our customer relations is contacting her to apologise directly and to offer a gesture of goodwill.”

He said BA was continuing to introduce new measures to improve its disability assistance programme, including improving the consistency of returning passengers’ wheelchairs to the aircraft door.

Other measures include providing seat maps on BA’s website, so disabled passengers can choose a seat that best meets their needs; and offering space to stow wheelchairs and mobility aids in aircraft cabins.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has published new guidelines to clarify the rights of disabled air passengers.

The commission said it had published the guidelines as thousands of Paralympians and disabled spectators prepare to travel to London for the 2012 Paralympics.

It said that many disabled air travellers still face problems of “unjustified refusals” to allow them to board aircraft, and other “unfair demands” when attempting to travel.

The guidelines cover travellers at all EU airports and the operations of EU airlines anywhere in the world as well as non-EU airlines within or leaving Europe, and clarify existing EU rules on the rights of disabled air passengers.

Xavier Gonzalez, chief executive of the International Paralympic Committee, said: “Just like the many passengers with a disability who fly on a daily basis, our athletes regularly experience unnecessary problems travelling through airports and with airlines. This should not be the case when we are striving for equality in society.

“This summer, 4,200 athletes will be travelling to London for the biggest ever Paralympic Games.

“The experience they have travelling on airlines and through airports could shape how they view the success of the games, regardless of their athletic performance.”

Bus protest brings fears over DLA cuts to heart of Westminster

A direct action protest in the heart of Westminster has demonstrated the mobility problems that hundreds of thousands of disabled people across the country could face because of government cuts to spending on disability living allowance (DLA).

Scores of disabled campaigners occupied a bus stop, following a meeting inside Parliament that had been addressed by four Labour MPs, and was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and the accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA).

The aim was to demonstrate how inaccessible bus travel can be, and show the huge problems that will be caused by planned cuts of 20 per cent to spending on DLA, which could force hundreds of thousands more disabled people onto the public transport system.

Because the kerb at the bus stop was too high, wheelchair-users were unable to board the bus, while the driver said there was no space inside because the wheelchair bay was occupied by a pushchair, despite Transport for London (TfL) guidelines which say wheelchair-users should take priority.

One disabled activist, Adam Lotun, managed to throw his wheelchair onto the bus and crawl on after it, while another somehow managed to jump in his wheelchair onto the bus.

When it became obvious that the bus was inaccessible, several activists protested by sitting in front of it, while others occupied the vehicle and a second bus that had pulled up behind it. The protest was peaceful and no-one was arrested.

A small group of protesters later moved to a Westminster bus stop which was more accessible and travelled by bus to the nearby headquarters of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.

They handed in a letter which demanded improvements and said that disabled people had “had enough of being denied access to buses in the UK; of being treated like second class citizens”.

A TfL spokesman admitted that the driver of the first bus should have asked for the pushchair to be folded away, and added: “It was a training issue that needs to be addressed (with the driver).”

He said that most London bus stops were the responsibility of local authorities, rather than TfL, although councils can approach TfL for funding, while the accessibility of the bus stop targeted by the protest would be raised with Westminster council at a meeting next week.

But he said that because the kerb at that stop was one of just six in London that were on two levels, it would be more expensive than usual to make it accessible.

He said 14,000 of London’s 19,000 bus stops were now accessible, with 63 per cent of council bus stops accessible, compared with 77 per cent of TfL bus stops.

One of the protesters, Roy Benjamin, chair of Merton Centre for Independent Living in south-west London, told Disability News Service that many of his members had not even been able to attend the protest because of inaccessible public transport.

He said many members were concerned about potentially losing their DLA, but also losing benefits that some claimants are automatically entitled to, such as membership of the Taxicard scheme.

Benjamin said: “The reality is that more and more people, if these concessions are withdrawn, are going to be forced to try to get around on public transport and if they cannot they will become prisoners in their own home.”

Christine Chidzomba, a former member of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), who travelled from Birmingham for the protest, was one of those who sat in front of the bus.

On her journey that morning with London Midland, the train company had failed to provide her with the accessible seating she had booked and needed, while she was also unable to access the toilet in her scooter.

She said: “Independent living is something that people take for granted. Disabled people have been fighting since 1985 to get accessible transport, and 27 years on we are still fighting.

“I am really disheartened and saddened that we are back to the drawing board again.”

Another protester, TfA volunteer Richard Pill, who has Asperger’s syndrome, said he had faced discrimination at the hands of bus drivers in his home town of Bedford who did not believe that he and other disabled people under retirement age should have a bus pass.

Faryal Velmi, director of TfA, had earlier told the parliamentary meeting: “We want to make a patient and vociferous case for the right of disabled people to ride on buses, the tube, trains and trams in London and across the country so we can get from A to B, and find work, keep work, enjoy our high streets, spend time with friends and family, travel and live independently in freedom and choice.”

Labour MP Lisa Nandy, who last year secured a Commons debate on accessible transport, called on the government to ensure that future contracts with transport providers guarantee accessible travel.

She said: “This is not the sort of society I want to live in when people cannot get about and conduct themselves with dignity. I am ashamed that we have made so little progress on this.”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, said that the government’s thirst for cuts was seeing “those things that help accessibility being seen as optional add-on extras and luxuries which can be the first thing to go”.

Labour MP John McDonnell called for more direct action protests over cuts to disability benefits and services, and added: “You have gone beyond conversations. They are not listening anymore. You have to be in their face.”

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told the meeting: “It is great to see disabled people getting organised, vocal and visible. That is exactly what we have got to do if we want to protect what we have achieved over the last 30 years.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on our rights, on our inclusion in society, and our dignity and quality of life.”

Paralympian stresses need for DLA, and praises activists

A member of Britain’s wheelchair tennis squad for this summer’s Paralympics in London has spoken passionately about the importance of disability living allowance (DLA) to her and other disabled people.

Louise Hunt was speaking to Disability News Service as she was named in the ParalympicsGB team to compete at London 2012.

The announcement of the squad came just hours before disabled people gathered outside parliament to protest at how cuts to DLA are likely to make disabled people’s mobility even more difficult.

Hunt, who is 21 and has been playing tennis since she was five, said: “I think it is great that there are people who are standing up for us.”

She receives the higher rate mobility component of DLA. “I think it’s important for people to know that that money is used to buy me a wheelchair, to buy medical things, to basically help me stay alive, and live a normal life, so I greatly appreciate the money I receive.

“That bit of money does help. That money I do receive goes towards helping me live my life in a wheelchair. It really does make a difference.”

She says she is “passionate about disability rights”, but until the games are over her focus will be solely on her sport.

After her career is over, she hopes to follow in the steps of Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who has moved from elite Paralympic sport into campaigning for disability rights.

Hunt is an ambassador for the charity Get Kids Going, which supports young disabled people to participate in sport, and which has Baroness Grey-Thompson as one of its vice-presidents.

She said: “I look up to her quite a lot. I want to go down her pathway. I want to do well in my tennis career but Tanni, she did really well, and after that she used it to make a really big difference.”

She said she saw London 2012 as an opportunity “to change people’s attitudes, not just to disability sport but to disability in general”.

She said: “We get to showcase our talent and how hard we have worked on a world stage.

“I want to change that old-fashioned perception that disabled people cannot do anything. I am here because I have worked equally as hard as an able-bodied athlete. I have trained and trained and trained.”

Hunt, who lives near Swindon, only secured her place at the games by winning last month’s Israel Open, which lifted her world ranking into the top 20.

She said she was “absolutely buzzing” and “screaming from the rooftops” when she was told she had been selected.

But she is not setting any targets for London 2012, other than for her performance. “As long as I leave there knowing I have played the best tennis I have ever played, that’s my aim.”

Paralympians speak of dreams of tennis gold

Two of Britain’s medal hopes for this summer’s Paralympics have spoken of their dreams of winning wheelchair tennis gold at London 2012.

Gordon Reid and Andy Lapthorne were speaking as ParalympicsGB announced the 10-strong squad who will compete in two months’ time.

Reid, ranked 10 in the world, is easily the youngest of the top seeds in the men’s division, at the age of just 20.

Despite his age, this will be his second Paralympics. “The dream since Beijing is to be on top of the podium with a gold medal round my neck. I don’t see any reason why that can’t happen. I am working so hard to make that possible.”

He takes confidence from two victories over the world number two. “I am up there with these guys and I know I can beat them with the home crowd behind me.”

He said the home support would be a “huge advantage” for Britain’s Paralympians. “I am hoping for a huge reception, a buzzing atmosphere, the louder the better.”

He wants to be a role model for young people, disabled and non-disabled, as he is inspired by fellow Scottish tennis star Andy Murray, who will be competing at the Olympics and grew up close to where Reid trains in Stirling.

Reid sees the Paralympics as an opportunity to “prove to the British public when we are going to have the most exposure to them that just because you are disabled, just because you’re in a wheelchair, you’re an amputee or whatever, you can lead a normal life and play sport at high levels.”

Fellow squad member Andy Lapthorne is targeting a gold medal in the quad division that has been dominated for the last two Paralympics by his team-mate and doubles partner Peter Norfolk.

Currently ranked four in the world, his “dream” is to beat Norfolk in the final. Although he has never beaten him, he says he is “getting closer and closer” and won the first set 6-0 the last time they played, while he has also taken a set 6-0 off the world number one, the American David Wagner.

He said: “If I can just put it all together for two sets there is no reason why there can’t be two gold medals in my pocket come the end of London.”

Another advantage and motivation is that his dad lives near the Olympic Park, in Hainault. “There is no second chance. I want to win in London, I want to win at home. Winning four years later [in Rio] would not be the same.”

He is already experiencing huge levels of support when he goes out near his home in Ruislip, west London, with strangers telling him to “do it for us” and “do it for Ruislip”.

He said: “It’s really nice to see people from the local area really supporting what I am trying to do and being proud of what I am. It’s quite a nice feeling.”

As for the future, he said many people see him dominating the sport for years to come and “taking the mantle” from Norfolk, but he is keen eventually to move into the media, and raises the possibility of quitting the sport if he was to win two golds at his home games.

He said: “When I have set myself a goal, I achieve it, and then I move onto the next goal.”

The other members of the squad are Jordanne Whiley, Louise Hunt, Lucy Shuker, Marc McCarroll, Alex Jewitt, David Phillipson and Jamie Burdekin, who won bronze alongside Norfolk in the quad doubles in Beijing.

Government has ‘built a nuclear power station on a fault-line’, suggests disabled peer

A disabled peer has told a minister that her government’s failure to assess the impact of its policies on disabled people was like building a nuclear power station on a fault-line and then waiting for an earthquake.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, why the government had still not carried out an assessment of the “cumulative” impact of its policies on disabled people.

Three months ago, a report on disabled people’s right to independent living, by the joint committee on human rights – in which Baroness Campbell played a major part – called on the government to produce an assessment of the cumulative impact of its reforms on disabled people.

The crossbench peer was appearing in the Lords for the first time in six months, following serious health problems, and was co-chairing a meeting in which Miller answered questions about progress on her delayed disability strategy.

Baroness Campbell told the meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group – and other disability-related groups: “I left [six months ago] saying ‘impact assessments, impact assessments, impact assessments’. I am interested in where is the analysis of the cumulative effect of these changes.”

She added: “For me, it is like building a nuclear power station on a fault-line without thinking about what would happen if there was an earthquake.”

She said she had relatives who worked in aviation and shipping, industries which would “make sure people can fly without danger and sail without danger” before allowing a plane or boat to be built.

Miller admitted that her last conversation with Baroness Campbell six months previously had been about the need for a cumulative impact assessment, and said that her “words continue to ring in my ears”.

But she claimed that a number of disability-related policies were still “under development”.

And Miller appeared to blame the failure to carry out such an assessment on the need for “co-producing” policies, or consulting with disabled people and their organisations.

She said: “Because we are committed to co-production… it makes it very difficult to do cumulative impacts on policies that have not yet been finalised.

“They haven’t invented something where I can do an impact assessment when I haven’t finalised all the parts within it.”