by Gareth Bromhall, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)
This article was originally published on socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International, on September 3rd, 2020.
Covid-19 has disproportionately hit disabled people. This is one of the effects of capitalist society, which is disabling and puts profit before lives, including the people it disables.
Around one-fifth of the population of England and Wales has its “activities limited because of a health problem or disability” to some degree. But this group has represented almost three-fifths of official Covid deaths!
These figures are from the Office for National Statistics, for March to May, released earlier this summer. The analysis in that report found the mortality rate for the most disabled men was 1.9 times higher, and women 2.4 times higher, than those with no disability.
An earlier ONS report confirmed what had been apparent to everyone as the Covid crisis developed: disabled people living in care homes are particularly vulnerable. 29% of all deaths in care homes have been officially attributed to Covid. The most common pre-existing condition here was Alzheimer’s/dementia.
England’s health service regulator CQC has also published findings that show a 136% increase in deaths of people with learning difficulties since 2019. Of those extra deaths, a majority were in residential care.
These studies and their findings will not come as a shock to disabled people and carers. We have suffered a decade of attacks on our wellbeing, and indeed our life expectancy, through austerity. These also make us more susceptible to Covid-19.
Cuts to local services, access to grants and disability benefits have had a huge effect on the lives of disabled people and carers. Charities and third-sector organisations are often left trying to plug huge gaps where they can. The current economic crisis and its threat of further austerity will only make this worse.
On top of the coronavirus death rates for disabled people, the effect of the virus on our lives will be far-reaching and multifaceted.
In 2019, just over half of all disabled people were in employment, compared to 88% of the working-age population as a whole. The endless onslaught of redundancies and job losses means that in a job market not designed to accommodate us, disabled jobseekers face an even greater challenge.
There are studies ongoing to find the long-term effects of Covid in general, and lockdown in particular, on the mental health of disabled people.
Pre-Covid there were estimates that up to 40% of people with a learning disability also suffered from a mental illness. This number was higher for autistic people, and Public Health England has acknowledged the likely effects of the experience of the pandemic on these groups.
The capitalist system, and the neoliberal agenda that has been its status quo for decades, leave barriers in front of those who aren’t sufficiently ‘productive’ of profits. However, the crisis has meant, for example, a significant amount of office-based work being done from the employee’s home. Remote working has become the new norm for many companies.
While enforced remote working has both positives and negatives for workers, it has apparently led to higher productivity for the bosses. But the right to work remotely is something disabled activists have long been fighting for. Until it became a necessity for profit, most bosses regarded it as unreasonable.
Likewise, there are many practical adaptations and allowances that employers and services could make to allow disabled people to live fuller, more independent lives – in and out of the home and workplace.
Technology now allows for physical adaptations to the workplace, and useful aids, adapted systems of work, and different ways of accessing resources. These could make the lives of disabled people a lot easier. But they aren’t implemented – because they cut into the profits of the capitalists.
This is how we, as disabled people, are disabled by capitalist society. It’s a society that is built with profit as its ultimate goal. It does not prioritise adaptations and attitudes that would allow disabled people to contribute more fully to society, and lead more equal, independent – and healthy – lives.
The trade unions must take up the fight for the right to more adaptations and allowances for disabled people. The changes forced on us by the pandemic hint at what’s possible. But ultimately, if the capitalists continue to control the economy, these reforms will not last and society will continue to disable us.
A socialist programme to transform society must include:
- Nationalising and fully funding the health and social care sectors – to provide universal care without the profit motive.
- Investing in technologies and allowances to permit disabled people to participate more fully in society both in and out of work, with requirements for employers to supply them.
- Democratic working-class control of work and services, as part of a democratic, socialist plan for the economy – with representation for disabled people in running and planning services: nothing for us, without us.
Disabled during Covid: “It’s as if we don’t exist”
by Vikki Walton-Cole, Disabled members’ officer, Unison union Surrey (personal capacity)
Disabled people often shop online as this is the safest, and sometimes only, option. As a part-time wheelchair user, I can tell you first-hand of the difficulties, especially with pandemic measures. It seems that the Equality Act and disabled access have been forgotten and ignored in the rush to reopen society post lockdown.
On a recent shopping trip I found disabled toilets supposedly in use but actually blocked off by cones, with no soap or toilet roll. I found shops where the ramp doesn’t quite meet the door, and yes, this meant I was stuck in the doorway, half in and half out.
Shops have one-way systems that have not left enough room for wheelchairs (or prams) to manoeuvre. And please tell me how I get my wheelchair in, down a flight of steps, as the ramp is out only?
Yet more shops have decided that social distancing means they will only allow one of the double doors to open – but many wheelchairs need wider entrances and both doors to open. Some shops have locked them shut, which prevents wheelchair users from entering, with no staff nearby to unlock. I was physically prevented from entering.
Access fails after access fail while going around shops – and this is not new to Covid-19 life. Some shops have removable ramps, but no way of alerting the shop that you’re outside and need to use it, even after emailing in advance.
There are many more barriers for some disabled people – such as sensory barriers from noise, lighting, and smells. Very few shops, I believe, have loop systems for hearing aid users, never mind how few people can use British Sign Language. Then there are mental health barriers that can make it near-impossible to go shopping or even leave home.
Add all these barriers together, and many disabled people shop online as it’s infinitely easier. But earlier this year, Rishi Sunak was considering a tax on online shopping to help the high street.
Clearly bosses would pass the tax onto consumers. That sounds like a tax on disabled people to me. Our cost of living is already higher – by thousands of pounds per year. Many disabled people already go without essential items due to cost.
According to Scope’s 2019 Disability Price Tag report, the average additional costs faced by disabled people were £583 per month! A new tax on one of the few things that we can easily access, online shopping, could push this even higher.
With access to benefits and services a postcode lottery at best in austerity Britain, how are the majority of disabled people expected to absorb these costs? Personal Independence Payment, the main disability benefit, is an absolute joke, with many still refused what little we are entitled to.
Less than a third of new claims are approved, and so many are forced to go to tribunal to get what we are entitled to. Around three-quarters of tribunals are successful. The stress of trying to claim benefits – and reclaim them every two to three years – is astronomical. Yet still, they do not meet the additional costs of disability!
The Equality Act offers very little actual protection or rights to disabled people, and a lot of protection to employers and businesses if they can prove they have made some sort of ‘attempt’. This is about penalising people who sometimes cannot work, cannot work full-time, or are in lower-paid jobs – the disability pay gap is very real.
The lack of any attempt to continue adhering to the Equality Act for businesses and employers during these current times demonstrates the disregard and weakness of the act.
Disabled people are being penalised even more, and those in power don’t even consider how this might affect us. It’s as if we don’t exist, we shouldn’t exist, or at best, we are an afterthought.