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Austerity: The Reality For People With A Learning Disability

Since 2010 successive governments have made it a priority to ‘clear up the financial mess left by Labour’ through a wide-ranging programme of cuts intended to reduce the deficit.

As those austerity-driven cuts were biting, I began working as a volunteer advocate for adults with a learning disability, going into day centres, running a drop-in advocacy session and visiting people in their homes.

My initial impression was that nearly everyone I met seemed poor, as if poverty was an almost inevitable part of having a learning disability. I wanted to see if that impression of poverty was accurate by looking closely at five of the men I was working with.

All of them were very different: they were aged between nearly 30 and over 60. Their family support varied from nothing to comprehensive back-up; some attended a day centre while others received support at home; and they had a range of conditions (including autism and brain damage at birth) to contend with.

I compared their spending not just with UK and Cornwall medians but also with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard, which is what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society. Or, to put it more bluntly, a minimum is about more than survival alone.

The men’s spending averaged 48% of the UK median, 55% of the Cornwall median and 71% of the Minimum Income Standard. It goes without saying that their income was below the relative poverty threshold. 

In my analysis, other common features stood out as well as relative poverty.

All the men had their support hours at home or their day centre attendance cut. The three who had support hours saw them reduced by an average of 27%. The other two attended day centres: one had the funding of his place halved; the other had Adult Social Care funding removed completely.

Three of the men had their benefits cut. One who was receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was transferred from the support group to the work-related activity group. Another failed to have his Disability Living Allowance transferred to Personal Independence Payment. The last, a man called Danny who suffered a life-changing brain injury in 1980, was suddenly deemed 36 years later to miraculously have changed and therefore be fit for work without his ESA.

To state the obvious, their quality of life suffered. They lacked the friends that most of us take for granted and loneliness was a real problem. As Les, one of the five men, said time and again: "It’s the evenings I can’t stand."

For all of them, their lives fell a long way short of the ‘wellbeing’ that the 2014 Care Act says they should be experiencing. One component of ‘wellbeing’ is ‘personal dignity’. Danny’s tears at the initial outcome of his Work Capability Assessment showed how little ‘respect’ (another word from the Care Act) he was given. ‘Personal dignity’ didn’t even come into it.

And yet the government continues with its pronouncements - for example, Theresa May in her 2017 Conference speech pledged her determination to ensure our economy and society work for everyone in every part of this country, not just the privileged few.

Her words seemed like a clarion call for social reform and a commitment to fairness. And yet, of course, the apparent commitment bore no relation to reality, nor to the impact that austerity had on people like Danny.

As long as it continues, for anyone with a learning disability – and Danny is one of approximately 1,000,000 in this country - such ‘fairness’ is a lie.

Much more detail can be found in ‘Austerity’s Victims’ on which this article is based. 

By Neil Carpenter