Continuing with my look at the Penlee Cluster’s Lent book (A Bigger Table – Building messy, authentic and hopeful spiritual community by John Pavlovitz) to set us thinking during the run up to Easter.
Yesterday didn’t go as planned and I found myself in need of medical assistance (things are much improved today) and not able to be of much use to my family or anyone else. And that got me to thinking about this bigger table, and the welcome at it for those who are less able, differently abled, than the majority.
I got to thinking about a church I was once a part of. The issue of access for the disabled came up and the church voted to spend some money to put in a ramp so that users of wheelchairs or others with restricted mobility might avoid the steps they would otherwise have to negotiate. To achieve the correct run the main ramp had to be directed not to the main entrance but to the very similar, but rarely used, one at the other side of the church. No problem as both led directly into the main lobby. The ramp was constructed, railings fitted, and all was well. I arrived at the church one Sunday morning and thought I’d check if the doors opposite the main entrance were open, the doors at the end of the ramp. They weren’t, and I asked the steward on duty if we opened them as a matter of course. No, he said, implying that it was unlikely people would use them (probably true most of the time) and that they would knock if they needed to get in. I believe the doors were opened more regularly after that. Now, these were not bad people. They had spent a considerable sum on installing the long concrete ramp and fitting a new gate and rails. Somehow or other, however, the indication of welcome that was the ramp was never quite matched by a mindset that could occupy the less mobile shoes of another. If it was a lack of respect, which in effect it was, it was not intentional. But the situation asked questions. No one else needed to knock, only those using the ramp. Were they really welcome? Was there really a place at the table for them?
In Methodism we call our churches (the congregations rather than the buildings) societies. And there are parallels here with the place of the place of those outside of mobility norms (whatever they are) in wider society. Things have changed, on the surface at least. Things have improved. Take a look at our roads: crossings beep and talk to us; pavements are dimpled to indicate the presence of crossings, kerbs are dropped. In public buildings “disabled” toilets are the norm, while paint schemes cater for those with visual impairments and loop systems for those with hearing impairments. Well, not everywhere, I accept. Go back just a few years, however and you’d think that nobody ever had to use a wheelchair so absolutely impassable to such people were almost all our public spaces. But, despite these changes, despite the public equivalent of that church’s ramp, are those with disabilities really welcome at society’s table.
The reality is that the mindset of large parts of our society, including those with political and public power such as government and press, suggests they are not.
Play a little word association game. What word goes with benefit in your mind? Scrounger? I don’t subscribe to the view that everyone, not even a sizeable minority of those on benefits are scroungers, but scrounger is the word that came to my mind. Why? Because we have seen so much of it of late, and particularly under an austerity agenda that has targeted the poorest and least able of society (even if those people had no part in the creation of the events which it is said necessitates that agenda).
Googling those two words netted 15,000 hits; Googling them alongside the name of a best selling British newspaper netted over two thirds of that number. The scrounger narrative although predominantly in right wing papers was not confined to them according to the report Benefits Stigma in Britain, … commissioned by Turn2us, part of the anti-poverty charity Elizabeth Finn (Link to article about it at footnote 2)
Yes, I’m certain that there are people claiming benefits who shouldn’t. (I’m equally certain that there are people dodging their societal tax obligations, but it appears that’s not as much of a problem for many of us) And there are policies and procedures in place to deal with them. I am currently off work due to illness but thankfully am in a position to receive sick pay. Were I not in that position and had to claim sickness benefit, would that make me a scrounger? Of course not, the vast majority of you would say. But still those two words stick together, and the result is that many of those with disabilities, despite the changes to pavements and toilets, do not feel part of society, do not feel welcome at society’s table. That table is not big enough to include them.
A Guardian article from 2012 shows the effect such talk has on people with disabilities and why it makes them feel excluded.
It included these paragraphs: Hundreds of thousands of poor people say they have been put off applying for or collecting benefits because of the perceived stigma generated by false media depictions of “scroungers” – leading many to forgo essentials such as food and fuel, a new report claims.
Analysis by researchers, led by the University of Kent’s social policy team, said polls and focus groups had revealed a quarter of claimants had “delayed or avoided asking for” vital welfare payments because of “misleading news coverage driven by [government] policy”.
This “climate of fear” means 1.8 million people have potentially been too scared to seek help they are entitled to from the state. Such is the scale of successive governments’ disinformation that the report calls for ministers to abandon briefing journalists ahead of their speeches and asks Whitehall departments to seek corrections “for predictable and repeated media misinterpretations”.
Let’s just take one part of that false narrative that circulated the previous year when government sources briefed on the numbers of people with various ailments who were claiming benefits. Under a headline including the word “scandal” an online “news” source gave the shocking statistic that “1,360 (are claiming benefits) because they have diarrhoea.” I ask you. Who hasn’t had a dose of the runs and made it into work the next day? Turns out, however, as government sources later admitted that these people had severe bowel diseases and cancer.
The article also said, A 2011 survey showed that nearly half of disabled people had experienced a worsening of attitudes towards them and in February, the six major disability charities issued a warning about “an increase in resentment and abuse directed at disabled people, as they find themselves being labelled scroungers”.
The welcome of those who contribute differently to our shared lives, of those whose health curtails their options for contributing materially is about more than ramps and visible light switches whether we are churches or wider society. If there is to be a place at table for us all, we must begin with making places in our hearts and minds.
PS. I have blogged on this issue previously. See http://www.thecentrenewlyn.org/disability-popes-shirkers-workers-and-human-value/