The Shadow of the Paralympics

August 26, 2012

With the Paralympic Games scheduled to begin in a couple of days, it’s worth reminding ourselves that, games aside, disabled people around the world are the target of extreme discrimination and exploitation. In London itself, this will be showcased with unashamed clarity, where the government contractor Atos will be displayed as a corporate partner of the Games. Atos, in real life, makes money out of removing disabled people from welfare rolls, a goal that is routinely achieved by categorising terminally ill people as “fit for work.”

But as I said, the phenomenon is global. In America, disabled workers and advocates are mounting a campaign to highlight the derisory wages paid to many employees by the thrift store chain Goodwill, which specialises in finding work for the disabled. This could be seen as a good thing, were it not that the chain is happy to pay those workers far less than America’s already puny minimum wage ($7.25 per hour). Apparently, disabled workers deserve less money, an odd conceit. And the reasoning is pretty vile. Goodwill argues that paying disabled workers a little, is better than them being unemployed and at home, while working for any amount of cash allows “people [to] achieve their full potential through the dignity and power of work.” Of course, paying them less rather strips them of that dignity relative to able bodied workers, but no matter. 

In the UK, the opposite is the case. For years, the government funded a program called Remploy, which found disabled people work in manufacturing workshops. But the coalition government has decided that the “dignity and power of work” of this variety, is not needed, and has shut two thirds of Remploy factories across the country. Instead of making things, which many would argue confers a great deal of dignity, Remploy is now seeking to become a high-street player, placing disabled people in retail jobs, which many would argue carry a lesser weight of dignity. Several Trade Unions mounted strike action at Remploy factories in July. But in response, Remploy had the gall to tell the press that “We deplore attempts to intimidate employees who want to work.” While implementing plans to lay off over 1,000 factory hands.  More action has been announced by the GMB for 28 August, but the decision has been made. In Britain, disabled people are not deemed fit to make things, and must enter the “mainstream”: unfulfilling high street retail jobs. If they’re lucky.

Governments play a key role in altering the economic lives of disabled people. In America, the Goodwill stores can only pay less than minimum wage due to an exemption agreed to by the Department of Labour. The stratification of labour is enabled by government action. In the UK, the government undertook to actively provide work for the disabled in the wake of World War Two. In a period of optimism about publicly funded institutions, and with a wave of wounded soldiers needing employment, the government found an effective way of allowing disabled people to contribute. Now we have the wounded soldiers, but not the optimism. As in America, we are infected by a kind of introspective cynicism about public action. So while those who run governments throw millions of disabled people onto the tender mercies of the market, we are confronted with a spectacle which celebrates the achievements of the disabled, while promoting their corporate nemesis, a firm that is making millions by ruining the lives of those the Paralympics is supposed to celebrate. You can’t get more cynical than that.

Thankfully, there are bright spots. In Australia, the Labour Gillard government is implementing a National Disability Insurance Scheme, which aims to even out the quality of care for all disabled people, which until now has been seen as horribly fragmented. A couple of weeks ago, the government announced that the $5.5 billion scheme would be going ahead, which will raise hopes, although apparently there are battles to be won concerning who will pay. In China, disabled rights are slowly creeping forward, with the country’s first lawsuit brought against a public body for discriminating against blind job applicants, and rising benefit levels. There are also signs of progress in some Indian states, such as Jaipur, where a government program is providing IT education and has rapidly increased financial support for disabled people.

So there are signs of progress, alongside cause for concern. Some countries are moving towards their own forms of support for the disabled, while in the UK, previously established methods are being undermined.

Sadly, one of the great champions of disabled rights died recently. Alf (Lord) Morris, the architect of the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act passed away, aged 84. His energy resulted in much of what we take for granted in the field of disabled rights – access to public buildings, orange parking badges, the Motability scheme and a whole raft of allowances or benefits designed to enhance the lives of disabled people and bring them into the social life of the country. But, as Bert Massie, a past head of the National Disability Council, argues, Morris’ huge legacy is under mortal threat. 

“The huge improvements in social care provision after Morris’s act began to be undermined in the 1980s and continue today with disabled people now carrying a disproportionate share of the reduction in local authority expenditure as a result of central government cuts” Massie says, insisting that, “While the current government insists disabled people should be independent it is withdrawing many of the means to achieve this. Rhetoric is replacing provision.”

Rhetoric is replacing provision. Image instead of action. It is too cynical to write off the Paralympics as a spectacular means of diverting attention from this threat, but it is not a neutral, celebratory event. Not with Atos on the team, nor with this government cheerleading from the sidelines.



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