“If Rod Liddle really wants M.E., he can have mine”

Picture of Rod LiddleYesterday, Rod Liddle had a venomous article printed in the Sun newspaper on page 13, which suggested that he might like to become disabled so that he could claim money off the state and use disabled parking places (“you park where you want. Right in front of the cashpoint for example”) and toilets. In his opening paragraph, he said that his disability might be “nothing too serious, maybe just a bit of a bad back or one of those newly invented illnesses which make you a bit peaky for decades – fibromyalgia, or M.E.”. The article is no longer on the Sun’s website, but Political Scrapbook reproduced it in image form here. James Delingpole weighed in on the Telegraph blog section in his favour with a piece titled “The fake disabled are crippling our economy”, alleging:

There really are far, far too many people sponging off the taxpayer right now with their fake or exaggerated disabilities and they’re one of the reasons we’re in the financial mess we’re in. … Every time the disability lobby squeals for more another few jobs are lost, another few basis points are lost from GDP growth. But these people don’t care; they know better than that: the government owns a magic money tree and its ability to distribute the fruits thereof is boundless.

Picture of Lynn Gilderdale, a white woman in her early 30s with severe ME, in blue pyjamas with nasogastric tube and Hickman lines visible.The notion of ME being ‘fashionable’ goes back a long way — at least to 1992, when a paediatrician outside Tunbridge Wells diagnosed a sick and frightened 14-year-old girl named Lynn Gilderdale (left) with it and told her that she had a fashionable illness. As I think I’ve proven on here over and again, ME is not a “fake disability” which “makes you a bit peaky”, it’s a serious illness that can lead to very severe physical disability, ongoing sickness and severe pain. There is too much evidence of physical pathologies, including demonstrable damage to the central nervous system and other systems in the body, to entertain any theory about it being psychological either in origin or in continuation. If you develop severe ME, as about a quarter of sufferers do (like the already mentioned Miss Gilderdale), you might not be able to use your special parking space as you might well be bedridden. You might have to settle for a bedpan rather than a nice big disabled loo. You might not even be able to speak, which for the rest of us would be a good thing if it happened to him (as well as Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle and all the other miserable excuses for comedians who make a living mocking disabled people). Most of them would be only too happy to work (or to get an education, or to do the things the rest of us call fun). As someone I know who has severe ME said in reaction to Liddle’s rant, “if Rod Liddle really wants ME, he can have mine”.

The statistics have already been well argued over, and the fraud rate of DLA, by the government’s own statistics, is 0.5%, and the statistics referred to in Liddle’s piece (that 80% of those claiming Incapacity Benefit (78%, actually, as reported in the Mail) — or rather, Employment and Support Allowance as it is now called) are fit for work most likely refers to those found fit for work by ATOS’s test, and many of their decisions are overturned on appeal, so the real figure is probably much less than 80% or even 78%. ATOS has been known to fail people who are undergoing chemotherapy or are otherwise manifestly unfit by using a tick-box assessment, as this investigation showed. The Mail’s report at least acknowledges the criticisms of high appeal success rates and of seriously unwell people being wrongly refused; Liddle simply repeats the rounded-up 80% figure as fact.

Liddle concludes by claiming that “the people fraudulently claiming sickness benefits are doing a disservice to those who really deserve it: The people who really become disabled or ill. It has become easier to claim these benefits, partly as a consequence of the disablement (sic) charities who, out of their own self-interest, insist that an ever-greater proportion of the population is disabled”. First, over-emphasising the issue of fraud, for example by misrepresenting the number of people turned down by a government test (regardless of future appeal results) as the number of people fraudulently claiming the benefit, is an easy way to make sure that many of those who do really deserve it will not get it, because it will make disability more difficult to prove but this does not necessarily mean it is not there. Second, people tend to think that “real” disabilities are the very visible ones everyone knows about: blindness, paralysis and cerebral palsy, for example. Other conditions may not affect someone getting to the test on their own, but might result in them being unable to do pretty much anything for the rest of the week, or they might still hinder that person working (or finding employment) in a way the test might not allow for. These include employers’ prejudices, for example, particularly if the disability affects someone’s appearance or manner of speaking.

Picture of Sue Marsh, lying in a hospital bedJames Delingpole’s article puts the “disability lobby” among a number of causes which allow for taxpayers’ money to be siphoned off to “hard-left organisations like Friends Of The Earth and the New Economics Foundation” so that they “can campaign for more encroachment in our lives by the overweening state”. My own observation of the disability campaign is that it is non-partisan, and while its current campaign is against attacks on disability benefits by a Conservative-led government, it responded warmly when the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, supported their position (as with senior Tories in the House of Lords more recently). The campaign is about empowering disabled people to live independent lives as much as possible, not funding large charities to care for them on an institutional basis, as some of them once did. None of those I’ve worked with are charity bosses on “fat cat” salaries; they are severely disabled people who have worked very hard without remuneration, often at great risk to their own health (as the picture accompanying this paragraph demonstrates; it is of Sue Marsh, a co-author of the recent Spartacus Report, who was hospitalised with complications of her Crohn’s disease late last month).

He also quotes a figure which traces back to the Family Resources Survey, namely that 11 million people in the UK — “that’s a quarter of the adult population” — qualified as disabled. However, this figure was for the whole population and included those of pensionable age; the figure for the working age population was half that. The problem is that these figures do not estimate those who are entitled to claim benefits, let alone those who actually do — they include anyone who has anything that could be termed a disability. For example, 1.5 million people reported incontinence, which does not always occur alongside other physical disability and need not impair someone’s ability to work. (You can see the DWP’s breakdown of these statistics in this PDF, and you might notice the substantial “Other” section in “Disability prevalence disaggregated by impairment” — this would include sight impairments, for example.)

It is, in any case, not “fake disabled” people who have “crippled the economy”, but bankers and others in the financial sector who bankrupted several large banks with their irresponsible lending practices, and the rich and large corporations who find ways of getting out of paying their taxes while expecting the rest of us to pay for at least some of their healthcare and other public services. The small number of “fake disabled” are an unfortunate consequence of making sure that real disabled people are not forced into beggary, indignity and early deaths; we need some means of detecting them but not at the expense of making sure those who need the support, get it. As for ME being fashionable, I’ll believe that when I see a woman in lilac pyjamas with a nasogastric tube and dark glasses being carried on a stretcher down a catwalk in Milan. Until then, that’s just a bad joke.

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