It is a gorgeous day…
…for a protest march. High blue hanging tapestry of sky with crisp, cold air just enough to make your breath mist as you shout obscenities at the government. Not that we would of course. Most of us haven’t go that much breath to waste, confined as some of us are in wheelchairs or strapped into various bits of engineered exoskeleton, hanging on to guide dog harnesses or canes or friends or a combination thereof. For many of us just moving forward makes us gasp for air.
The police mill around looking sheepish. ‘They are just here in case the rowdy element kick off,’ I say to my friend C as she surveys the frail looking folk in their assistance scooters. ‘That guy in particular,’ I whisper, pointing to a dummy in a wheelchair ( noooo… I am NOT doing a Ricky Gervais. It is an actual dummy) with a David Cameron mask on. Oddly, as people pass it they make little signs with their hands that look suspiciously like ‘warding off devil’ signs…if a ‘warding off devil’ sign involves an extended middle finger.
The protest march kicks off
The lovely folk in the lead make us practice chanting before we set off. For 99% of us, shouting for anything is an entirely new experience. Most people with an impairment or a chronic illness are quietly stoic. The older generation in particular often settle into that ‘Blitz’ mentality of ‘keeping calm and carrying on.’ But now keeping calm and carrying on might kill you. Certainly it will lead to further exclusion and greater poverty. It is with a shocking sadness that we are rallying, accused of ‘scrounging’ of ‘leaching off the state’ and ignored almost entirely by a society warped by the recession.
‘Shout louder!’ we are told and we do, until our timidity disintegrates and we are ready.
The march route is short and takes us from the central park though a corner of the cathedral forum, with the wonderful library to the left and back to the park again. We chant lustily at about a dozen tourists, several irritated shoppers and a murder of crows that are looking rather too intensely at a few of the limping stragglers in our group.
What do we want?
When do we want them?
We try to shout loudly enough to disturb the rest of Norwich city but most of them have disappeared off to the Top Gear Road Show that is blasting pop tunes from behind the shopping centre. Ironically, there is probably more engineering technology in amongst the blinged up wheelchairs and motorised scooters in out raggedy group, but, undefeated we shuffle and skip, roll and scramble back to the park and listen to the speakers tell us not to give up. To fight on for compassion and equality. To fight on for fairness.
‘I am blind, my husband in visually impaired. I have two visually impaired children,’ says B. ‘I work hard and I want my kids to have every opportunity. Last year, we had a special bus service and I paid £250 getting the kids to school. Now the service has been cut and we have to find over £2000 a year. How?’
Her son stands up. ‘I want to go to university. The fees are so high now that most kids are having problems finding the basics. Given I would also need additional equipment, transport and access finance I am immediately excluded.’
Another woman with cerebral palsy, asthma and learning difficulties says her care has been cut from 10 to 3 hours a week. She still needs the care though.’
Other people talk about being excluded, passed over, dismissed, and judged useless. The changes in benefits, cuts to services, rescinding of the basic mobility component of the DLA means that more and more of us are unable to get out of the door, let alone to work. There are no good stories. Only one MEP has sent a message of support. In the distance the duff duff bass sound from the Top Gear Road Show wafts over briefly and disappears like a bad smell.
‘Was it a good march?’ my friend asks when I get back.
‘It was a beautiful day,’ I must admit. ‘But no. No, there was nothing good about such a march.’
Only a few generations ago, in another recession, in another part of the world, people with disabilities and illness were called parasites too by a government propaganda machine. No one stood up and shouted. The government of the time felt vindicated and their second phase involved wide scale sterilisation. Again, very few people in the society of the time reacted. The government smiled and ticked the next box and we were the first to be exterminated. We, the disabled, were the canary in the coal mine. We still are.