I was asked by Occupy London to find disabled performers to take part in the memorial service and protest against ATOS and the Work Capability Assessment which took place on Saturday 28 September in Parliament Square.
And so my thanks go to Sophie Partridge, Penny Pepper, John Kelly and Dickie Lupton who took to the stage to join their voices with those of many other disabled activists, MPs, GPs, the War On Welfare (WOW) petition and the Dean of St Paul's, the Reverend David Ison, who was instrumental in the organising of '10,000 Cuts and Counting'.
The title of the service acknowledged the 10,600 people who died during or within six weeks of being put through the Atos Work Capability Assessment between January and November 2011. The figures relating to the numbers who have died since that date have not been released by the Department of work and Pensions.
It seems that the climate of silence in the media surrounding the fact that disabled people with the highest level of support needs are being hit 19 times harder than the average person is something the government want to suppress. Why else would the ATOS boss Thierry Breton have been awarded a bonus of nearly £1million in 2012?
Many people have said that the austerity cuts have taken us back to the situation we faced in the 1980s, fighting the struggle to organise and get our voices heard. In truth it feels like we have stepped back further in time into the climate of Victorian England when lives were cheaper than ditch water.
Without the backing of the Church of England last Saturday's protest would have been deemed illegal. The Rev David Ison gave us the parable of Jesus' curing the blind, which was something many of us would have taken umbrage against, but his heart was in the right place, comparing the story of the plight of disabled people now to that of the struggles of disabled people in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
The efforts of those engaged in the event focussed around handing in a letter titled The Downing Street Demand to David Cameron. The letter supported by the British Medical Association and signed by the Reverend Ison calls for an end to work capability assessments.
10,000 Cuts and Counting also gave a platform to the WoW petition, which is seeking another 40,000 signatures to bring it up the 100,000 needed to bring a debate about WCA into the House of Commons.
Please urge everyone you can think of support WoWs demands and click on this link to sign the petition.
I have been preparing for the memorial event in Parliament Square this coming Saturday and have re-read Karen Sherlock’s story on Bendy Girl’s ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ blog. Karen’s story is sadly not unremarkable – judging by the numbers of disabled individuals who have undergone intimidation and dehumanisation as a result of ATOS’ Work Capability Assessment.
From the stories I’ve heard it is pretty much a lottery as to how you get treated by ATOS – but Karen’s story as documented from October 2010 as her impairment issues worsened – is a terrifying reflection on how uncaring and disconnected our society has become.
The process of total and utter dehumanisation Karen recounts as she documents everything she went through in the last months of her life is shocking to read. The levels of bullying to which ATOS are prepared to go demonstrate a slow stripping away of any confidence and dignity to ensure Karen is disabled by the Work Capability Assessment.
As she says in an entry from February 2012 – just a few months before her death: “What frustrates me most is I know how ill I am, but they do not seem to care, and they probably still won’t even after reading [my story].”
The slow drip-by-drip passive aggressive approach of the bureaucrats Karen has to deal with – laced with persistent contradictions – followed by more and more forms – encountering rejection after rejection… all in the pursuit of some recognition of her status as a disabled person and a few pennies to fill the family coffers.
If anything is a testament to the broken state of the Welfare State and that the Work Capability Assessment is not fit for purpose - it is Karen’s testimony.
The plan for Saturday’s 10,000 Cuts and Rising memorial event to all those who’ve died is to have some of these testimonies read publicly to raise awareness. The hope is that with a focus on the WoW petition – that the number of signatures will force the issue of a parliamentary debate on the Work Capability Assessment.
A broader part of the strategy is to gain support from MPs and to propose an alternative to WCA. It’s too late for Karen Sherlock and the ten thousand plus others who’ve died within six weeks of being declared fit for work – but the process of government sanctioned intimidation of the most vulnerable individuals has to stop.
The Disability Arts Movement used to be a political movement, challenging discrimination and promoting ideas of the social value that our experience brings to the world. Now, it seems that impetus for using art to change society is in a lull. A bigger question for disabled artists is how to reinvigorate the kinds of questions that Disability Arts posed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Over the past week or so I’ve been working on helping get a memorial event together to mark the devastating impact of the Work Capability Assessment on the disabled community.
Sometimes awareness of adversity can bring together the most unlikely bedfellows. I’m not sure who made the first move but campaigners from Occupy London - famous for camping outside St. Paul’s, have been meeting with Michael Meacher MP and the Cathedral’s Dean - The Reverend Dr David Ison - to organise a ceremony of remembrance and solidarity for those who have had their lives devastated by the austerity programme, including more than 10,000 people who died within six weeks of undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment between January and November 2011. These figures were released by the DWP. Up-to-date figures have not been released under the freedom of information act.
I’m pleased to say I’ve been able to muster a few disabled poets and performers to take part at the 10,000 Cuts and Rising event in Parliament Square and help us to raise awareness.
Graeae’s Reason’s to be Cheerful star John Kelly will MC on the day and the enigmatic Sophie Partridge has agreed to read a testimony from the ATOS Stories. DAOs own rhyming rapper Bonk and the irresistible Penny Pepper have also agreed to perform in a spot after the handing into Parliament of the War on Welfare (WOW) Petition which calls an end to the Work Capability Assessment. If you haven’t signed yet, then please do so by clicking here – as we are hoping to get the number of signatures up to 100,000.
In a recent meeting Michael Meacher told us that he had received over 2,000 unsolicited emails from people telling their tales of discrimination at the hands of Atos and the WCA. On the day there will be a 2 minute silence to remember those who’ve died, after some reflective ‘prayers’ from the Dean, calling for a new deal for disabled people.
The Press have largely been pretty unhelpful in recent years, but one or two journalists have raised their heads above the wall of misinformation to counter the lies. Ros Wynne-Jones has written an article in the Daily Mirror today about the background to the event which is to happen in Parliament Square on the 28th September from 12am onwards.
Lastly I’d urge you to look at Liz Crow’s InActualFact website of bite-sized, but well-researched facts. Tweet them. FaceBook them. Counter the misinformation, which has allowed the terrible state of affairs to go unnoticed.
There’s something about the word catalyst that I find exciting and inspiring. It’s evocative of hope and change but also science and chemistry. The Arts Council’s Catalyst programme “offers organisations the opportunity to move their fundraising and development expertise onto the next level” Through a consortium project DAO, Salisbury Arts Centre, The Point Eastleigh and Stopgap Dance Company are using this programme to attempt exactly that. Each organisation has its commonalities and differences, meaning that many of the fundraising challenges we face are very similar but exist in the context of a unique set of circumstances.
The Point, utilising its excellent facilities, hosted our first day together as the wider consortium of staff and board members. Fundraising consultant, Rachel Beer, who has been working with each organisation on brand and development of a case for support was on hand to offer insights as an impartial observer. The explorative, getting to know each other session was hung together by a group of questions, which we agreed were fundamental to addressing in order to move this experiment into innovative income generation forward.
Firstly, a look at the wider motivations for giving highlighted some common understandings that those of us who spend a large proportion of our time in fundraising were already of. It was unsurprising to hear that the arts tend to be sidelined as non-essential, that crisis and aid appeals are the most successful and that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to give. I found it particularly intriguing to hear that even people working in the arts don’t often give to the arts on a regular basis, in fact those crisis and aid charities, cancer and animal charities appeared far more frequently on the list of supported causes. In many cases that sense of giving so much of one’s time and energy was sufficient personal support for the arts. Where people do choose to donate hard cash was centred on well-explained campaigns at point of sale for tickets to performances and events. Even then, if the combined ticket and booking price were not seen to be good value for money, or the campaign was unclear then a donation was unlikely.
These facts might be more helpful for the venue-based organisations that actually sell tickets. So where does DAO fit into the concept of individual giving? Who would be compelled to donate to DAO to support our work? How do we inspire them to do so? It was fully recognised that to nurture individual donors requires a significant investment in human resources to develop those relationships. How can we make this work at DAO with just two people working just three days per week? Perhaps the simple answer here is that we can’t? Perhaps it doesn’t make financial sense to invest time in this type of income generation?
A spark of something – hope? Imagination? Inspiration? Emerged when we discussed sponsoring friends to take on challenges. The JustGiving model. It’s not a new idea, people have been doing ‘sponsored somethings’ for years. What came up in the discussion was the idea that we are more likely to support a charity because someone we know is willing to take on a challenge for that cause. Just last week another leading disability arts organisation raised over £4700 through its staff and volunteers taking on the London to Brighton cycle challenge. I can see how this method of fundraising might work for DAO. As Rachel says, we need to work on our brand and present clear messages about our purpose, our vision and mission in order to make a persuasive case for support. One step at a time.
The true value of working as a consortium is becoming clear through the process of sharing our ideas and experiences. Sometimes our methods may not match as each organisation operates within a unique set of circumstances, but the overlaps in need and ambition will pave the way for an interesting and hopefully successful collaborative future. For me, Catalyst is a chance to change the way we do things, to hope for a successful future but also to use the science of brand and fundraising to achieve that change. In recent years the emphasis on partnerships within the arts has grown into an essential element of how we exist. I approach our next session with curiosity and excitement as a consortium, together we explore ‘Making the Ask’.
I found myself wondering what David Morris - one the key people involved in the creation of the Liberty Festival - would of thought of last Saturday's event? In 2010 the festival was dedicated to his memory and the festival banners had his words: “Together we can change our world” – emblazoned across them.
True, last Saturday was a good day out. I was grateful for the opportunity to see old friends - some of whom I hadn't seen for years. And there were some stunning performances. I really enjoyed seeing Marc Brew and Rachel Gadsden's Collaboration 'Cube of Curiosity'. Brew's visceral presence as a dancer - literally breaking out of a box in his wheelchair - was aptly complemented by Gadsden's role in the performance as a visual artist, recording his impression on the box made of a canvas using stylised expressive marks. Their scratch performance showed great potential for development.
I was also pleased to see Graeae's 'Limbless Knight' had moved on a pace since its outing at the GDIF Festival earlier this summer. The narrative behind the theatre/ dance performance was much more cohesive as the testimonies of the disabled soldiers - 'the limbless knights' - were integrated more reflectively into the script. This time there was also a bit less pinging of 'knights' on sway poles, which for me detracted from the important message Graeae were trying to get across in the show, that as a society we need to decide whether or not we value human rights?
In 2011 I wrote an editorial proclaiming that Liberty was no longer a festival about disability rights. I raised concerns that the branding of the festival had become anachronistic: it having become a fun, family day out, rather than an event that attempted to challenge or to educate. This year the subtext of the festival - with Liberty having been subsumed by National Paralympic Day - it was clear that the over-riding message of the idea of 'liberty' was that as disabled people we have all the rights we need. The argument follows that we should stop complaining and die quietly - or at least out of earshot of anyone with power or influence.
I've nothing against disabled people doing sports and have much admiration for paralympians. However, I agree with Penny Pepper who wrote on her blog that "this is how the government wants disabled people to be. Get sporty and then you can get work…" The work ethic was the principle behind the creation of the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville under Dr Guttmann. So, when you consider how much Access to Work and other policies designed to give disabled people the opportunity to work, have been cut back, it really is hard not to be cynical about the underlying message being promoted to the public.
And judging by the audiences, very few people were there for disability art. The tiny performance and music stages had maybe 50 people or so attending each show, in comparison with the thousands we've been used to at Liberty Festival's in the past. The main act on the music stage - BBCs winner of 'The Voice' - Andrea Begley, didn't even realise she was performing at the Liberty Festival and kept referring to it as National Paralympic Day.
Disappointingly, she did a series of cover songs by bands like Semisonic and Bruce Springsteen, rather than presenting herself as a folky singer-songwriter. It seemed that the dilution of the event had even subsumed the will to present something original.
Where will 'Liberty' go next. Butlins perhaps…