JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 31.8.12
A FEW months ago, I travelled north to Dundee to catch the only Scottish date of Reasons To Be Cheerful, the wonderful Ian Dury tribute musical created by Graeae, Britain’s top theatre company led by people with disabilities. Directed by the company’s brilliant artistic director, Jenny Sealey, the show was a riotous celebration not only of the late Mr. Dury, his music, and his radical spirit, but also of something even deeper; of the fierce erotic and theatrical energy unleashed by disabled performers who, through their own experience, have freed themselves from some of our society’s most oppressive assumptions about beauty, body-image and success. To put it briefly, they are people who have learned, in the truth of their own struggle, that we don’t need to be perfect – physically, emotionally or in any other way – in order to deserve love, or our share of desire, pleasure and joy.
So at one level, I wasn’t surprised by the sheer beauty and energy of Wednesday night’s Paralympics Opening Ceremony, jointly directed by Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings, with its fabulous celebration of human curiosity and discovery, of our bold determination to travel beyond what once seemed the limits of possibility, and of what Ian McKellen, in the role of Prospero, called “the glorious diversity of humanity.” As Britain’s great Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson argued in the Daily Telegraph last weekend, these games offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the image of disabled people, and emphasise the positive contribution they make; and as Paralympics team GB entered the stadium, in a glittering shower of ticker-tape, it was hard not to feel both pride in the achievement of those who have fought so tirelessly over the years to transform the lives of disabled people in this country, and hope that these games will mark another turning-point in public attitudes to disabiity, across the world.
Yet beneath the roar of celebration, things are less than rosy, for many of Britain’s 8 million disabled people. Most of the members of team GB, for example, entered the stadium with their white team jackets tightly zipped to the collar; this, so it’s said, was to ensure no television exposure for the team GB lanyards supplied by Paralympics sponsor ATOS, the very company contracted by the UK government – under just one of the £3 billion-worth of government contracts it currently holds – to drive down the number of people claiming disability benefits by subjecting them to rigorous and often humiliating work capability tests.
And it’s arguable that companies like ATOS would not exist at all – scooping up huge government contracts to run public services at a profit, and undertaking to deliver on contracts which simply assume that government spending is excessive, and should be reduced – if we did not live in a political climate that consistently bears down on the most vulnerable in our society. On one hand, the anti-state ideology of the age constantly corrodes and threatens the public provision on which many disabled people depend for their quality of life.
And on the other, it tacitly and sometimes explciitly encourages people to embrace cruel prejudices about dependency culture, and about alleged benefit scrounging, in order to justify policies that are otherwise indefensible. The latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions suggest that less than 0.3% of disability benefits – less than £1 in every £300 – is overpaid because of false claims; and yet for this sum, almost negligible compared with the billions lost to the public purse through tax evasion, disabled people across the country are being made to to undergo a bizarre, cruel and expensive process of collective punishment, delivering huge profits for ATOS while inflicting untold anxiety and uncertainty on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.
The government, of course, will now be basking in the positive image of Britain projected by these games, as a place where disabled people are cherished and supported, and encouraged to be all they can be. Yet as with Danny Boyle’s affectionate vision of a creative and egalitarian welfare-state Britain, expressed in the now-legendary opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympiad, the truth is that both the current UK administration, and its New Labour predecessor, are basking in the afterglow of a kind of society which they have done little to promote, and a great deal to undermine.
For in the end, the protection and cherishing of the vulnerable requires strong public insitutions, which adhere firmly to their own values, stay at strict arms’ length from the massive lobbying-power of big corporations and other wealthy vested interests, and do not – under the guise of “meeting people’s concerns” – pander to waves of ugly prejudice whipped up by the most irresponsible elements in the media, or by the reactionary, victim-blaming “comedy” of shows like Little Britain.
Yet it is now more than three decades since Britain last saw a government that was prepared to embrace that proper role. Instead, successive governments have allowed themselves to be seduced and bamboozled by a theory of social Darwinism that implicitly leaves the weak and imperfect for dead; the idea that unchained market competition meets all needs that matter, that public services should be “reformed” along market lines, and that the needs the market fails to meet are – by definition – mere self-pitying fictions. The presence of ATOS and its “work capability tests” in British public life is a symptom of that ideology, and by all accounts an unpleasant one.
And unless we begin to challenge and reform the many structures in our public life which now reflect that credo, we will struggle to maintain the kind of generous and inclusive society evoked in those two magnificent Olympics ceremonies; to the grief not only of disabled people striving to live full and dignified lives, but of every one of us. For in our hearts, we all know that one day we will be among the vulnerable. And our simmering hostility towards disabled people often reflects nothing so much as fear of our own future, in a society that does not care enough; as well as fear of those living every day with the truth of their own profound dependence on others, which the rest of us often strive so mightily to deny.