News that attitudes towards people with disabilities are continuing to deteriorate is worrying because it may lead to further rises in disability hate crime, although two of this week’s television programmes are steps in the right direction towards a change in public perceptions.
A survey by disability charity Scope found that nearly half of all people with disabilities believe attitudes towards them have worsened in the past year. This continues the trend from last year, when another Scope survey came to much the same conclusion.
Interestingly, most respondents to this year’s survey said the decline in attitudes is as a result of people claiming disability benefits when they’re not disabled (87%) and negative media coverage about benefits recipients (84%).
This is hardly surprising; the Government’s rhetoric in its drive to reform welfare and disability benefits has focused on ‘scroungers’ and tackling the ‘something for nothing culture’. Some national newspapers have also backed up these impressions, printing regular stories of fraudulent benefit claimants. Sometimes the targets are people on incapacity benefit/employment and support allowance (ESA). Sometimes they’re people on disability living allowance.
I worry about whether this will lead to further increases in disability hate crime.  It’s already at record levels – although the official figures are reckoned to show only a limited part of the true picture – and with deteriorating attitudes, there is the risk that the number of offences will rise.
So it was interesting that on Monday night there were two programmes on television – Panorama on BBC2 and Dispatches on Channel 4 – that looked at ESA claimants and how many people were ‘scroungers’. It concluded that the vast majority weren’t. Which we all knew. Indeed, Government statistics show this: fraud in ESA is 0.3%, according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Fraud and Error in the Benefit System report from earlier in the year [http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/fem/fem_apr10_mar11.pdf].
The programmes also showed how many people fall foul of the work capability assessment (WCA). Panorama had cases studies of severely disabled people having their claim for ESA rejected in the first instance, and being found either fit for work or put into the work-related activity group. On appeal, the decisions were all overturned.
The flaws in the WCA are for another blog. But the programmes highlighted the fact that the vast majority of ESA claimants are genuine. It was heartening to see this confirmed on two major TV channels, because it showed a side to disability benefit claimants that is often not seen, and, as a result, could help to change attitudes.
Indeed, 87% of respondents to Scope’s survey said having more disabled people in the media would help to improve attitudes, while 84% said greater public discussion of the issues facing disabled people would make a difference.
Panorama and Dispatches should be the start of more balanced programming about people with disabilities and benefit claimants and the challenges they face. Giving people knowledge and understanding is a   key way to break down prejudice – and judging by Scope’s surveys – we need to redouble our efforts to ensure the public has the right level of information and awareness about these important issues.