We seem to live in a strange world. We’re all meant to love the idea of charity, we’re encouraged to give generously, yet very few of us want to be on the receiving end of charity. We repeat the old saying ‘no man (or woman!) is an island’, yet more and more we are encouraged to be individualistic and to think of ourselves as being in competition with others. I remember the time when I was most isolated, although I was still lucky enough to have my family round me, at the height of my mental distress, when I couldn’t leave home without great difficulty, and everything frightened me. After years of this, I had to learn how to go out again; taking a few steps, then building up to walking some yards and eventually managing to make it round the block. I have never felt so isolated or so different as then.
Yet we seem to live in an age, where we are meant more and more to be able to manage on our own and not to look for support beyond the individual or the family group. This is a very different way of thinking to that I grew up with, when there was an expectation that we’d all pay direct and indirect taxes and that this would make made it possible to have all sorts of free services, from libraries and swimming baths, to university education and grants to help with the additional expenses of life-changing events like marriage, births and deaths.
But these supports have been whittled away over the years and instead a growing sense has been imbued in us, that its wrong to expect such routine collective help and support but instead that it is a mark of responsibility to ‘pay our way’. Yet strangely enough this seems to have coincided with the wealthiest individuals and organisations being able to find more and more ways out of paying the same level of taxes as the rest of us do, while there are heated arguments about whether there should still be travel passes and winter heating payments for all, although the evidence has long highlighted that this is the most efficient and cheapest way of ensuring that everyone who needs help will actually get it.
What I am talking about here is a process of social engineering, or put more precisely a process of re-education; getting us used to expecting less public help in our lives – although you may have noticed that strangely enough, we still seem to pay as much tax and indeed pay more for many things which once people didn’t pay for at all – like parking outside their own homes!
And what is especially interesting is that some groups who face particular barriers and discrimination in our society – for example, disabled people – instead of being treated more fairly under these changes, have actually come under particular attack. Billions of pounds have been taken away from disabled people through ‘welfare reform’ and discriminatory assessment procedures by governments which are ideologically dedicated to cutting public spending.
It can be difficult to make sense of all the changes happening around us, some of which can impact very unpleasantly on our day to day lives, particularly as disabled people, and undermine our ability to decipher them and deal with them effectively. It is especially difficult to do this, if you are on your own, if life-changing events happen to you and it’s difficult to get any advice or guidance about how to deal with them – a kind of catch 22 as services are pruned further and further back.
That’s why I believe it is so important to try and make contact with and build links with other people facing similar issues and problems as yourself. That can really be a light bulb moment, when you realize that this isn’t just happening to you, it’s not all your fault, that there are others out there who know the same feelings have the same difficulties. That is empowering in itself. But getting together with others is also the route to being much more able to do something about such difficulties. When I was just beginning to come out of the worst time of distress I had experienced, I was lucky enough to go to a meeting of other mental health service users. It was great to be able to talk about things openly and honestly that we all knew about; experiences, feelings and worries we all had.
And if we want to build a better Britain, a less selfish country more committed to us all playing a greater part in looking after each other and paying for it, then I think this is how we will best do it. We need to link up with each other around the issues and concerns and difficulties that we face to do something about them together; maybe we’ll start modestly, but I believe that’s the way to go, rather than just reading and believing what the newspapers say about us and what the big politicians (whose experience is too often miles away from ours) say needs doing. This is the real meaning of taking responsibility; of citizenship and of a socially just and democratic society in my view.
By Peter Beresford OBE
Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex and Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled peoples’ and service users’ organization and network.
Author of All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy, Bristol, Policy Press.