Disabled but not yet dead

Deaths from austerity make me sick. I’m fighting back using art.

Vince Laws
25 April 2019, 12.29pm
Vince Laws’ shrouds, from A Very Queer Nazi Faust.
Richard Shashamané. All rights reserved.

Since 2010, when a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took over from Labour Party in the UK, a squeeze on public finances has been linked to nearly 120,000 excess deaths in England according to a study published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Cambridge University Professor Lawrence King, who contributed to the study, has said that “Austerity does not promote growth or reduce deficits, it is bad economics. It is also a public health disaster. It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder.” The United Nations describes this as “a grave and systematic abuse of disabled peoples’ human rights.” If nothing changes, that figure will rise to 200,000 excess deaths by 2020.

If anything the situation is getting worse. There have been more cuts to social security payments, alongside more tax cuts for the wealthiest. As a disabled person I feel I am treated as an enemy of the state. I’ve just had my own claim for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) turned down, despite support from my GP, my HIV consultant, a psychologist and five support workers.

Despite widespread protests and some mainstream media coverage, resistance to the cuts and the subsequent deaths is brushed aside by the current UK government, while disabled people and their organisations are ignored. The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) response to concerns regarding the mortality rates of disabled claimants was to refuse to publish them anymore.

Government Ministers insist that the statistics cannot be used to link claimant deaths to its welfare reforms. Nonetheless, the statistics have drawn attention to the government’s Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which have been shown to be flawed and harmful to many claimants.

Work Capability Assessments are a lottery. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve had. They are full of trick questions and designed to refuse your claim. A so-called trained health professional asks you to tick boxes in response to questions which are then inputted into a computer. It’s all outsourced to private companies, so money that used to stay within the health service disappears into shareholder profits in tax havens. It’s a scam.

The cruel Work Capability Assessment is not fit for purpose,” said Marsha de Cordova MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Disabled People. “More than two-thirds of fit for work decisions are overturned at appeal, revealing the shocking inaccuracy of assessments that have a huge impact on the lives of disabled people. This Government is forcing disabled people through traumatic appeals processes to access vital social security they need. Labour in government will scrap this punitive assessment and introduce a tailored and personalised framework that treats disabled people with dignity.”

Not that Labour is blameless. They introduced the WCAs in 2008, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s current leader, voted against them then, and has been a staunch ally of disabled people. Once the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took power in 2010 the attitude of the DWP changed from a mostly benign and helpful organisation into a hostile environment for all claimants.

But this trend has a longer history. It began with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s desire to dismantle the welfare state and replace it with private healthcare insurance. Then in 1992, John Major’s Conservative government invited the American corporate giant UnumProvidentTM Insurance to consult over future welfare claims management.

American readers may be familiar with UnumProvidentTM Insurance who, as covered by Mo Stewart in an article for Welfare Weekly in January 2019, “were fined $31.7 million in 2003 in a class action law suit in California for running ‘disability denial factories’ and $15 million in 2005.” California Department of Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi has stated that “Unum Provident is an outlaw company. It is a company that has operated in an illegal fashion for years.”

In 2015 there was a General Election, with David Cameron’s Conservatives up against a Labour party lead by Ed Miliband. Many people felt Miliband wasn’t radical enough. I was out protesting an inaccessible WCA centre when I bumped into the prospective Labour MP for Norwich North and told her that WCAs had to stop. OK she said, but what should we replace them with? We don’t want them replaced I explained. Why can’t sick and disabled people see their doctors like they used to? Why do we have to jump through hoops that make our health worse? She was like, ‘oh we have to keep assessments…’

That’s when three of us with disabilities started a political party, the DANDY Party (Disabled And Not Dead Yet), to highlight the plight of disabled people. Mental health activist Mick Hardy stood as our candidate in Norwich North, which we knew we’d never win, but we naively tried to pressure Labour into agreeing to end WCAs, end benefit sanctions, end austerity, and save the Independent Living Fund.

The Conservatives won the 2015 election, with David Cameron reinstated as Prime Minister. Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the Labour Party after disappointing election results. Much to most people’s surprise, Jeremy Corbyn was then elected to lead the Labour Party on a much more radical agenda which included - wait for it - an end to WCAs, an end to benefit sanctions, an end to austerity, and the reinstatement of the Independent Living Fund. Bravo! Now all we’ve got to do is get him into power.

Whilst starting a political party might be considered one of the more obvious political statements to make, art has given me a platform to engage with, and challenge, an even wider audience. Put simply, art taps into the emotional rather than the logical. By using art to respond to these issues, I want to share a message with people who might not otherwise engage with them during such politically turbulent times.

I became a poet and an artist after testing HIV positive in 2004. I always did a bit of art and creative writing, but never really gave myself permission to have such a financially unstable career. I always thought ‘I’ll do that when I retire.’ Suddenly I wasn’t so sure I’d still be around at retirement age, so I made the decision and got on with it. By 2007 I’d moved from a flat in a block in the city of Brighton, to a rural picture postcard cottage in Norfolk, and I love it.

One of the first things I wrote there was ‘A Very Queer Nazi Faust,’ which began life as a ‘depression diary’ (something which would have been too expensive to publish and another example of the barriers faced by disabled or otherwise marginalised authors and this kind of protest art), and developed into a play protesting against the press and government’s ongoing violence towards disabled people in the UK. After receiving some funding and support from Disability Arts Online and The Literary Consultancy, I gained the confidence to build the diary into something more ambitious.

My next project was “DWP Deaths Make Me Sick,” a series of shrouds that began as giant pages in the Faust play’s “blasphemous book of state sanctioned torture,” and were used on stage as the backdrop in 2018. They highlight the deaths of people dealing with the DWP in the UK.

I felt that the shrouds deserved to be seen in their own right, so I’m concentrating on that this year. They’ve been on street protests, in Parliament, and hung on gallery walls. They definitely attract attention. They’re bold and vibrant, and when people read them they are shocked or sad or angry, or pleased to see their story represented.

A lot of people know someone who’s been affected by the Tory government’s cuts and thank me for making them. The shrouds now have their own Facebook page where some images have been shared over 200,000 times. I make them very much aware that one day it could be my name that people see etched onto the fabric.

Vince Laws’ DWP Deaths Make Me Sick can be seen at Cambridge Junction on 26th and 27th of April as part of I’m Here, Where Are You?, a new arts festival celebrating disabled artists across theatre, comedy, dance and visual art. For more information, please visit the website.

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