LONDON — Britain’s physically and mentally challenged athletes are preparing to take on the world at the Paralympic Games opening in London this week. But across this host nation, disabled citizens are also rallying against an opponent closer to home: the government.
Headed by a Conservative-led coalition on a fiscal crusade, Britain has fully entered the age of austerity in which governments across much of Europe have made dramatic cuts. As a result, advocates here are decrying what they describe as the harshest gutting of aid to the disabled since the “golden age” of independent living in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when ramped-up benefits began offering them an exit door from assisted-care homes.
Hundreds of thousands of disabled Britons are seeing their benefits cut or facing the prospect of diminished or eliminated aid. More than 15,000 unemployed disabled people a week are being reassessed by a contractor to determine whether they are fit to work. New, stricter guidelines mean that Britons who can roll themselves more than 200 yards in a wheelchair or read Braille could be considered able-bodied enough to find a job.
At the same time, the government is sending letters to nearly all disability beneficiaries, including those gainfully employed, warning that they will also soon need reassessments for other types of aid that help them cover a variety of costs, including home health-care workers and wheelchair-accessible cars.
By 2015, the government anticipates a 500,000-person reduction in those receiving Britain’s primary disability benefit. The number of claimants now stands at 3.4 million, up threefold since 1992. The vast majority of recipients, officials note, have gone on benefits without ever having face-to-face assessments to test their level of need.
“It is a gauge of your capability,” Britain’s Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told London’s Telegraph newspaper, referring to the reassessment requirement to substantiate disability claims. “In other words, do you need care? Do you need support to get around? Those are the two things that are measured. Not, ‘Have you lost a limb?’ ”
But rage over the changes is running so high among disabled Britons that a week of protests has been planned to coincide with the start of the Paralympics here Wednesday.
“The irony of all this happening around the Paralympic Games is extraordinary,” said Tara Flood, 46, a former Paralympics swimmer and gold medalist for Britain at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Flood, who was born with shortened limbs, received an official letter a few weeks ago warning of a pending reassessment, leaving her “terrified,” she said, of losing the $512 in aid she receives monthly to cover the cost of her car, which she drives to work.
“I would argue this is not about trying to get disabled people back into employment or off aid,” she said. “This is simply about going after a group of people the government has now decided is too expensive in these times. They are using the kind of ‘burden on society’ argument that is dehumanizing us. We have not seen this kind of talk here since the 1970s.”
Such government cuts are raising a fundamental question in Britain and across Europe: In an era of reduced spending, will historic gains made by vulnerable groups begin to ebb?
Stung by a debt crisis and dangerously high deficits, Europe is embracing waves of austerity, and those who are disabled have not been immune. In Italy, the cash-strapped government is moving to trim assistance for disabled people earning more than $20,000 a year. In the Netherlands, lawmakers are cutting “social work places” that provided jobs to disabled people with little or no hope of finding jobs elsewhere. Greece has suspended a program providing signlanguage interpreters for the deaf, making it harder for them to report crimes or defend themselves in court.
In Britain, advocates for the disabled warn that cuts could lead to a reversal of the trend toward independent living. At least one English county, Worcestershire, is studying plans to cap aid for home care that could force some disabled residents back into institutional living. Others fear that the reforms will force those on full-time disability for mental disorders such as schizophrenia and severe depression back into the job market in the middle of a national recession.
The Conservative-led government, however, has said it is high time for an audit of a system it estimates is overpaying beneficiaries by at least $1 billion a year. Smelling a story, Britain’s tabloid press is regularly “outing” disability cheats, such as a 51-year-old Portsmouth man who claimed $160,000 in benefits as a wheelchair user, until officials found photos of him dancing the hula on vacation. Others are doing the same. In Greece, for instance, the mayor of Zakynthos — now known as the “Island of the Blind” — recently exposed widespread scamming in which 600 of the 650 residents who were claiming sight disabilities were declared fakes.
Yet advocates in Britain insist that all the talk of “scroungers” and “useless eaters” is not only overblown, but is also a principle cause of a sudden leap in hate crime against the disabled here, which reached nearly 2,000 cases in 2011, the highest since records began in 2008.
“These days, we are being portrayed as either medal-winning athletes or work-shy benefit scroungers. There is no in-between,” said Tanni Grey-Thompson, Britain’s most decorated Paralympian and an independent member of the House of Lords.
Britain’s tighter guidelines on benefits have brought new hardships to those such as Mike Cowley, a 59-year-old who has been mostly sightless since birth.
After 34 years as a clerical worker, Cowley was laid off in 2010. He then went on an incapacity benefit for the disabled and unemployed that, in the past, could largely have been counted on for a lifetime.
But after a medical reassessment — and despite a recent stroke — he was told this year that his ability to read Braille made him employable enough to live without the benefit, which was eliminated in April. The weekly cost to him in lost aid: $615.
With jobs scarce for even the most skilled workers, his résumé has been rejected repeatedly. He has had to dig into his meticulously saved nest egg to survive in his one-bedroom flat in Bristol, on Britain’s southwestern coast. That money had been reserved strictly for his retirement six years from now, which, he says, “might not now go quite as planned.”
“I know the government needs to take certain steps,” Cowley said. “But what I object to is that now you’ve got to make yourself appear totally useless in order to get aid. I want to be independent; I want to be a doer and not a taker. But I do need some help. People don’t understand that having a disability costs more. You pay more for equipment. It is harder to find a job. Why are they not thinking of that?”
Karla Adam in London, Elinda Labropoulou in Athens and Alessandra Pugliese in Rome contributed to this report.