October 2010 seems a distant memory now, the early spring sunshine having eclipsed the bone achingly cold winter so difficult for many to tolerate coupled with the most significant attack on the welfare state since it was formed. Six months is a long time - not just in politics but in the sheer volume of misery and despair heaped upon Britain's chronically sick and/or disabled people by the Coalition government.
Whilst Conservative MP's whooped and cheered to each announcement of cuts to disability benefits and services, disabled people shook and shivered. We watched in horror as proposal's to remove the Mobility component of Disability Living Allowance from care home residents were championed under the banner of removing double funding. A decision hypocritical in the extreme from a government determined to embrace the personalisation agenda of increasing individual's control of their own care. Were there any genuine concerns about double funding, the more sensible option would have been to ensure those few local authorities who actually provide transport funding to care homes ceased to do so.
Although the removal of the mobility component for state funded care home residents was one of the smaller cuts announced, it triggered a wave of fury from the disabled community never seen before. Understanding that this payment was to fund powerwheelchairs or adapted vehicles the lack of humanity and cruelty in such a decision seemed incomprehensible to us, particularly from the father of a profoundly disabled child. I made a video letter to David Cameron which rapidly went viral as it seemed to reflect the wider feeling of horror that the very most vulnerable in society had been targeted by his cuts, and an article was independantly written in the Guardian by Rhydian Fon James confirming that the Coalition's targetting of disabled people was the wrong fight.
From those humble beginnings The Broken of Britian was born. Like many of the cuts groups we evolved on twitter, extending our existing networks to decide upon a name and a purpose. Within a few days another video had been made, encouraging disabled people to come together for the forthcoming fight, a blog was started and a forum created for people to have a discussion space.
Our first task was to ask people to send us their stories of how they became to be sick, disabled and reliant on benefits. The tales were harrowing; we heard from parents who's children had been so severely injured in car crashes they couldn't tell their own story, ex servicemen still mentally ill years after the conflict they were involved in left our news screens, couple's who had avoided claiming benefits for as long as possible, until they had no choice but to claim and were refused support as they were deemed 'fit for work', people who had repeatedly attempted suicide as a direct result of being refused benefits and many more. The common theme amongst the personal histories we were sent was how many people had worked all their lives, had paid their taxes and National Insurance in the expectation the state would care for them in their time of need, and how bewildered and betrayed they all were to find that was not the case.
Slowly the media began to contact us and ask for our opinions on the allegedly compassionately conservative cuts. More videos were made challenging the accuracy of the government's claims about benefit fraud. The stories continued to pour in from people as diverse as full time journalists to GP's explaining the problems with the system as they see it. We were so overwhelmed with the number of people contacting us to tell their stories that we struggled to cope alongside managing our own health situations and some of us were seriously unwell as a consequence. Particular thanks are owed to Helly Copeland and Emma Crees for their support during the early days and to Rebelgrrlzine for her bravery in posting her own video story.
By December we were preparing our response to the government's Disability Living Allowance Consultation. Rhydian had recovered from a period of ill health that kept him bed bound into a seemingly unstoppable political powerhouse and proceeded to demolish the case for DLA reform before moving on to create a write in campaign for people to contact their own MP's and the Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller. Rhydian also challenged the government about the abolition of the Independent Living Fund and submitted the first of our complaints to the PCC about the Daily Mail.
December also saw the first of our more media friendly social media sourced campaigns, our topical take on the traditional Christmas Carol The 12 Days of Cripmas, sung by the hugely talented Imana who's Broken of Britian member mum has Multiple Sclerosis.
Our social media and marketing expert Lisa J Ellwood was also on board by Christmas and wrote this piece, Disability Activism: A Just And Worthy Cause, espousing the philosophy of The Broken of Britain, using the words of Albus Dumbledore to make our point clear;
"it is our choices my friends, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. These are dark times and the moment is already upon us when we must choose between what is easy and what is right. We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided."
Christmas brought a much needed rest break for us all, but all too soon the New Year was upon us and we returned with a New Year's Message and our call for contributions to be included in the Broken of Britain submission for the Consultation on DLA reform, originally planned to close on February 14th. As Valentine's Day is traditionally associated with love and romance we planned a campaign called One Month Before Heartbreak to highlight the damage which would be done to the lives of sick and disabled people if these 'reforms' go ahead. Despite the government disgarding their own consultation by announcing the details of DLA reform before the consultation officially ended, One Month Before Heartbreak, run by Emma Crees was a huge success with hundreds of contributions from individuals and publications such as Community Care magazine and Society Guardian also participating.
Also in January we had our first major political successes with the Welsh Assembley coming out in support of our concerns about DLA reform. This was closely followed by Daffyd Wigley's promise to be a champion for disability rights as he took up his seat in the House of Lords and Hywel Williams tabling of an Early Day Motion on the Disability Living Allowance Consultation.This was followed in February by the Scottish Parliament tabling a motion to condemn DLA reform.
January was a busy month for The Broken of Britain, we also called for the Cabinet Office to investigate Chris Grayling's potential transgression of the Ministerial Code for politicised press releases from the DWP and again called for the PCC to investigate the Daily Mail. At the close of the month we issued our final call for submissions to the DLA consultation.We produced an extensive but by no means exhaustive list of the cuts affecting sick people, disabled people and carers and finalised our petition against the flawed DLA reform consultation, signed by over 5000 people.
There was no let up in the frantic pace during February as we announced Project V asking people to send Valentine's cards to their own MP's and Maria Miller to remind them not to break our hearts and continued collecting MP's signatures for our EDM against the reform consultation. The Welfare Reform Bill was introduced on the 16th of February and Rhydian put together a prompt and damning analysis of it's impact upon disabled people. This was followed by the announcement from Professor Paul Gregg, the designer of Employment Support Allowance brought in by the previous New Labour government that the current Work Capability Assessment was not only"badly malfunctioning" but that "The current assessment is a complete mess" Strongly backed up by the Social Security Advisory Committee questioning the governments motives for reforming DLA. A few days later the first of the open letters backed by The Broken of Britain as well as MP's such as Jon Cruddas and John McDonnell was published in The Guardian.
In early March we started counting down to our national campaign launch, part of which included a debate in Westminster Hall prior to the second reading of the welfare reform bill. On the 7th of March we launched Left Out In The Cold using a stark image of a naked disabled woman on a snow covered beach lying just out of reach of her wheelchair, described by one PR professional as 'stopping them in their tracks'. As the sun came out and the snow melted moving towards spring, the woman, representing disabled people was left out in the cold, reaching for vital equipment.
Left Out In The Cold also featured an open letter published in the Guardian, signed by 100 MP's, members of the House Of Lords, doctors, academics, artists and disability rights campaigners as well as template letters for people to send to their MP's, articles and information about why we are opposing the Welfare Reform Bill.
Also in March, The Broken of Britian received an invitation to a meeting held at the House of Commons on the direction of welfare reform. As this meeting was to be held under Chatham House rules we did not accept the invitation until we had checked with all our members that they were happy for us to an attend a meeting we weren't publically allowed to discuss. The overwhelming response was that was what our members wanted us to do and so we went ahead. Although we couldn't discuss what was said at the meeting, you can be assured we made all the points you wanted us to as eloquently and knowledgably as we could. With one of us (no mention who) informing a senior politician they'd have to become a prostitute if DLA is removed. Fortunately no-one in the meeting asked that person 'how much?'!
We also used the meeting and travel situations to highlight the sheer ridiculousness of the proposed Personal Independence Payment's 'ability to mobilise' definitions and show the extent of time, effort, money and goodwill it took for us to be able to travel to London.
All the hard work and efforts of the many people involved in The Broken of Britain was highlighted by this article in the Guardian by Amelia Gentleman about how disabled people are coming together to use technological tools to find our protesting voice.
The efforts involved in all that campaigning and travelling meant the core Broken of Britain team were exhausted and unwell. As much as we battled on the realities of our own situations meant we had to slow down somewhat, but as TBoB is such a strong group effort, those who are involved just by retweeting links or posting blogs stepped up and kept the momentum going while we took some much needed rest.
Although Rhydian has the most support needs amongst our core group, he fortunately receives the most support which meant he was soon back in action asking people to submit their evidence about the migration from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance, whilst the rest of us without support provided by the local authority took far longer to recover and catch up.The government's whitewash response to the consultation on Disability Living Allowance whilst disappointing to us all, came as no real surprise and just strengthened all our determination to fight harder.
On the 4th of April we launched our #fitforwork campaign, a day or so accidentally early. Which is what happens when people have to take morphine strength medications first thing on a monday morning. The campaign was picked up by both local and national media and as of three hours ago is still going strong on twitter A few days later we formally launched it, including the #dwp45 hashtag to allow people some much needed humour. Some of us wrote the stories of our working lives to illustrate the difficulties faced by both disabled people and potential employers. We also issued our brief on the government's response to the DLA consultation and heard some heartening support from Margaret Curran (shadow minister for disabled people) and Kate Green MP. We continued to ask people to send in their evidence for the Work and Pensions Select Committee enquiry into ESA
Also in April, Rhydian investigated the impact of cutting care provision on human rights and I was visited by the Robin Hood Tax Tour. The fabulous Sue Marsh appeared on BBC Radio London to talk about the constant media attacks demonising benefit claimants as scroungers and yet again The Broken of Britian had to complain to the PCC about the Daily Mail.
More support came from Hwyel Williams in the form of two EDM's against the abolition of DLA and the time limiting of ESA which we are currently urging people to email or write to their MP's asking them to sign. Even if your MP won't sign, it is still worth sending them the EDM's as it demonstrates the level of opposition to the WR Bill.
It's been an absolutely exhausting six months for us all, and the pressure is still on if we intend to acheive our aims of reshaping welfare reform in an equitable, workable manner. We have gained skills, knowledge and experience, perhaps most importantly in the way disabled people can work together and what we need to enable us to do so. Using a small core group and a much larger group of volunteers able to give their time as and when it suits them, dropping in and out according to the dictates of their health conditions has demonstrated the potential possibilities for disabled people in employment. By using the tools available to us from our homes, and often from our beds we are able to do as much or as little as we can manage. We are learning to adapt to the very different needs of disabled people, chronically sick people and those with mental health issues, all of which require their own solutions to make working viable and seek alternatives to the traditional workplace roles. It is disappointing given this insight that none of those options are currently being explored by any of the main political parties, as something as basic as incentivising employers to employ disabled people to work on a part time, from home basis would be one of the simplest, cheapest and most welcomed actions to involve disabled people in the paid workforce.
The battles to come will make those we have already fought look easy. Some time ago we were asked how we have made the Broken of Britian such a successful force in such a short space of time. The answer is simple. As sick, disabled or mentally ill people we all recognise that we are not just fighting for financial benefits but for our continued existence. The road which starts with labelling us as financially unsustainable ends in our persecution. Dramatic though it may seem, history demonstrates this to us over and over again. When one group of humans is labelled as less worthy, less human than another, whether that be because of the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, sexual preferences or disability the lessons are clear. No group of people are of innately less value than any other, and in circumstances where they are labelled as such, blood is always shed along the path to freedom.
We return to our founding principle. "Alone we whisper. Together we shout"