Claire Hamilton Russell
Listen to any member of the Westminster government pontificate on their policies towards disabled people and the word “work” will come up again and again. The premier reason given by many of the Tory MPs who voted to reduce the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) entitlement for those in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) to the same level as that of Jobseeker’s Allowance was “to help incentivise those people to enter employment”.
Putting aside the fact that people in the ESA WRAG are those judged even by this government’s incredibly harsh standard as being incapable of working, it may surprise many people who have been exposed to six years of the “scroungers and skivers” narrative that Westminster is so very fond of to know that a huge number of disabled people do in fact “work”. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people in Scotland hold down paid employment, while many more contribute to their communities in equally valuable ways such as by doing voluntary work – particularly using their own experience to advocate for others – and by caring for family members.
And disabled people do this in a physical and social environment which is incredibly – and increasingly – hostile to them. The reason that ESA was a larger weekly payment than JSA, and for the existence of the mobility component of the old Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – now rebranded as “Personal Independence Payments” (PIP) and increasingly difficult to access – was the recognition that many impairments and health conditions make life – and particularly travel – more expensive than for able folks. Without enough money to be able to access suitable transport, many disabled people are substantially more isolated, less able to contribute to their communities, and – oddly enough – less able to access paid work.
It would seem to be strangely incomprehensible to the Westminster government that it doesn’t matter how punitive the measures taken against you are – with most employers, if you can’t travel to where the job is, they won’t employ you.
Therein lies the contradiction that is causing immense pain and hardship to many disabled people living in Scotland today. Ruled fit to work by the DWP, and in many cases genuinely quite enthusiastic to do so, they face huge physical and social barriers to actually gaining – and keeping – a paid job.
I would like to present three measures which could be adopted by a Green government that would genuinely aid disabled people in Scotland to gain and keep paid work.
1) The Universal Basic Income
An existing Green policy, the wide benefits of the Universal Basic or Citizen’s Income have been expounded in a huge variety of other places
What I would like to note is the specific benefit afforded by the UBI to disabled people.
On the most basic level, the Citizen’s Income would afford people temporarily or permanently unable to work the sheer peace of mind of knowing that they do not face destitution. No matter how long they are ill, they are guaranteed enough money to live on without the need to expend what may well be very limited energy reserves on spending hours on the phone to the DWP or travelling to the Job Centre. They are not going to be belittled, disbelieved, treated as criminals or forced to undertake a legal challenge to access sufficient income to survive; they will no longer have to live in terror of a brown envelope landing on their mat every morning. They can focus the energy they possess on recovering, or adapting to their condition.
For people with some capacity to work, the UBI allows them the liberty to find work that is more adaptable around their needs e.g. freelance writing or administration, or running small business from home, without the risk of complete destitution if pay is low or piecemeal, or it takes them time to build up a customer base, and without the fear of now being judged unequivocally ‘fit to work’ and thus losing any right to access the income they need to survive. For people with mental health conditions, or limited energy levels who need to take frequent breaks to lie down, or people who need specially adapted equipment which would be very difficult to accommodate in an office, the liberty to work to their own timetables, adapting their working hours around their energy levels and medication schedules, with the ability to schedule work around medical or therapeutic appointments, can be the factor that genuinely allows them to flourish and thrive in a way that is perhaps unimaginable to many able people.
The benefit of the freedom from stigma also cannot be underestimated here. Attacks – verbal and physical – on people with disabilities have increased year on year since the coalition came to power in Westminster. As with any universal benefit, the UBI would remove the painful label of “scrounger” which now seems to cling to anyone with a visible impairment.
2) Affordable, Accessible Public Transport
One of the primary reasons why having any form of impairment is so expensive is that it frequently involves either buying a specific adapted car or having to use taxis on a regular basis. Public transport in Scotland is, by and large, inadequate and inaccessible. Buses habitually have a single space designated for the use of a wheelchair user or pram – and if that space is occupied, the driver will not allow another wheelchair user on board. Drivers are also not obliged to aid people with mobility issues in getting aboard, or to communicate information about stops with those with visual impairments, and are generally unwilling to do anything which might delay them.
Train stations are frequently full of steps and escalators, and trains themselves are built a step up from the platforms, making them incredibly difficult for people with mobility issues to access without aid.
Imagine a Scotland with an extensive network of solar or methane-powered buses, which were frequent and affordable. Imagine them having been built with ramps and with spacious seats which could be easily moved aside to accommodate wheelchairs; with a speaking system stating the location of the bus and each stop which could be accessed via headphones; where drivers were contractually obliged to give aid to passengers when requested, and it was easy and effective to report those who did not.
3) Part-Time Work with a Living Wage
A significant issue for many disabled people is suffering from symptoms which make a standard 40-hour week difficult to undertake. Unrelenting pain alone is exhausting; fatigue and lack of energy are crippling symptoms of many conditions, while many non-neurotypical people and those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can find the continual stimulation of an office environment or dealing with many other people incredibly difficult.
Many of these issues can be ameliorated by working part-time hours; this can in fact be the difference between the capacity to hold down regular paid employment in the long term, and worsening of conditions to the extent that paid work becomes largely impossible. However, part-time jobs are habitually poorly-paid, low-skilled, and are often based in environments it are difficult to make accessible.
A Green government in Scotland could create a wide number of part-time posts in the public sector which paid a reasonable living wage – say a minimum of £17,000 pa – on the hours worked. This would also increase the number of jobs available, and encourage skill-sharing and a wider range of perspectives and ideas within each post.
It may strike the reader that these three suggestions could significantly benefit other groups of people – perhaps most notably parents, elderly people, and poorer people in general.
It’s almost as if – contrary to the Westminster-approved message of ‘skivers’ in opposition to ‘strivers’ – disabled people are people, with similar hopes, dreams and needs to many other people, and that improving life for disabled people might even improve the standard of living in Scotland as a whole.