Dear Mr Maynard,
I watched your passionate defence of sick and disabled people in the House of Commons during the Opposition Day Debate on a cumulative impact assessment yesterday with a mixture of pride and horror.
Just like you, I believe passionately in the abilities and potential of sick and disabled people too. I too have lived life through the prism of a disability all of my life and like you, I have never let it hold me back. Like you, I went to university and fought hard to work and be accepted for my talents despite very real barriers. Just as 60% of sick and disabled people do in our country every day.
When Labour introduced Employment and Support Allowance, I was horrified by how “disabling” I feared it would be. I fought then, as I fight now. Party politics has nothing to do with it. My own experiences convinced me that however determined I was, I would have to accept a little help from society at particularly difficult times. I hated to admit that. I felt like a failure, felt dismayed that despite my boundless belief in the potential of people to do extraordinary things, I was still only made of flesh and blood - and a particularly sulky tangle of intestines.
Every single day, I remembered how lucky I was. Some days didn’t feel very lucky - laying on an operating table waiting for the little-death of anaesthetic or vomiting endlessly over a bowl, delirious with pain and dehydration. But I never forgot that I’d been born to loving parents in one of the wealthiest areas of the wealthiest countries in the world. A country that fought tirelessly to recognise my contributions and tear down barriers to my inclusion. I never forgot the natural gifts that made impairments easier to bear. I never forgot that I had been born with intelligence, determination and a confidence nurtured and tended by the hope and pride of those that loved me.
I used to ponder what my life would have been like if things had been different. Imagine if we were poor, surviving hand to mouth in the baked earth of some third world country. What chances would I have then? Imagine if I was unloved or even more disabled than I was, unable to fulfil any of the potential deep inside me without support. Imagine if I had none of the natural gifts that negate disadvantage. Imagine if my family tore me down rather than building me up, discouraging rather than encouraging. Could I have achieved the things I’d achieved? Can everyone do what I did? Were we all born with the strength and grit to battle on, every single day, even when battles seem lost and hopeless?
And so, I tried with all my will never to judge anyone else. I’d learnt in the hardest way possible that there but for the grace of God go us all. A defective gene, a moment too long in the womb, a skiing accident that breaks bones and futures in an instant - it could happen to anyone at any time and as a society, we owed it to others - and to ourselves - to do all we could to help people achieve their potential. Whoever they were, whatever their impairment or ability.
For some that might mean a full time carer or a little financial support but so be it. I would not for one moment accept indignity where none need occur. What civilized society would do less?
My dear friend is quadriplegic, yet he was the CEO of an international spinal research charity for over 2 decades. However, he only managed it because he had a live in carer, help from the independent living fund and DLA to cover the extra costs of his transport to and from work. A lifetime Conservative voter and supporter, he said the only time he had felt degraded by our social security system was recently, when an “assessor” came to his home and made him feel threatened. Made him feel like a burden when he had always been an asset. Can you imagine how that broke my heart?
Whatever arguments we make, however fervently we believe in the revolutionary brilliance of the social model of disability, however hard we fight for success and with however much determination, we must still exist in a society that is not equal. we must live on an un-level playing field. With all the determination and brilliance in the world, my friend will never manage to heal his own spine.
When cold hard cash is stripped away, for many, our support, dignity and belief are stripped away too. However much we may still want to achieve the miraculous, it simply isn’t possible if - born with fewer of the advantages you and I enjoyed - you can’t get out of bed unaided, can’t wash yourself or escape the confines of home.
I’m sure you know this and so I go back to my opening sentences. I watched you with pride, an MP with with cerebral palsy, just the second in our history. A young man of passion and belief, fighting with all he has to do his best for people.
But I watched in horror a man who has forgotten the help he had along the way. Forgotten that until recently, he lived in a society that urged him on and protected his right to achieve greatness in law. Forgot his great privilege, turned away from those fellow citizens who understand his life better than most.
Courtesy of Sue Marsh at Diary of a Benefit Scrounger