Just after 10 morning, a group of around 40 blind people gathered by Paddington's platform 5, guide dogs helping them make their way through the crowds. Many had got up well before 5am, packed food and water for their dogs, then caught the first train from Plymouth to attend a march through central London in protest against cuts to disability benefits and services.
It is not easy travelling to London to take part in a protest if you're blind, but the demonstrators, many marching for the first time, said they were determined to rise to the challenge to express their anger about a series of cuts and rule changes affecting disabled people, who are disproportionately dependent on state support. "It is stressful going on a march like this, the noise and the crowds. It's an enormous effort for many people who find getting through life one day at a time quite difficult," said Doreen Taylor, 59, one of the blind protesters who travelled from Cornwall. "But people feel very worried about the changes to disability benefits."
If the size of the Hardest Hit march was relatively small compared with last autumn's student demonstrations (with police estimates ranging between 3,000 and 8,000), consider the hurdles facing many of the participants – the everyday problems of inaccessible public transport, and the high cost of rail travel for those dependent on disability benefits.
The protesters from the West Country said they were already so acutely conscious of the consequences of local authority funding shortages, and anxious about the impact of changes to the benefits system, that making the choice to come and protest was not difficult.
Kathryn Harrington, 57, also registered blind, said staffing levels at the supported housing where she lived in Plympton had been cut by about 40% over the past year, making it difficult for residents to find someone to help them in an emergency. Despite being an experienced computer programmer, she had found it difficult to find work, and was worried about benefit changes that would increase the pressure on claimants to find work. "When I apply for jobs, I'm seen as a health and safety risk," she said.
As she made her way along Victoria Embankment, led through the crowds by her guide dog Liza, Siobhan Mead, 27, from Great Yarmouth, said she voted Conservative last year, but had subsequently been dismayed at the impact local authority cuts have had on the availability of funding to help her live independently. Last year her needs were classified as "critical", meaning she was eligible for around £8,000 to pay for help getting to college, shopping, travelling to job interviews. This year, as the council made substantial cuts, she was told she was no longer being classified as in critical need, and would therefore not be eligible for any money.
"I've come here to get my voice heard, to make politicians realise that they are targeting the most vulnerable people in society. It's totally unreasonable," Mead said. Several blind protesters carried posters with expletives in braille, declaring: "We're being [something in braille] by the government."
Dino Goldie, 33, travelled by train from Bath to register his anger at changes to the incapacity benefit system, which will see hundreds of thousands of claimants reassessed and declared fit for work, and therefore eligible only for considerably reduced levels of weekly benefit payments.
"Research by the RNIB shows that nine out of 10 employers say they would not employ someone with visual impairment. We are being punished for not being able to find work," he said.
Marching through the crowds, Lisa Jones, 37, who has been looking for a paid job for 15 years, said: "I'd give my right arm for a job, but I can't get one. I think the government is encouraging the idea that disabled people are all scroungers. I want the government to realise that cutting benefits will not help us get into work."
She was marching with her husband, also registered blind, to try to make the public aware of the new difficulties facing disabled people. "Disabled people are invisible in society. That's why this march is so important," she said.
Further along the street, Vicci Chittenden, who was diagnosed with MS when she was 17, was in a wheelchair with a cardboard box on her head, marked "Don't Box Me In" in felt-tipped letters.
She felt there had been a radical shift in how society viewed disabled people. "Before we were portrayed as poor dears, pathetic creatures. Now there's been a complete turnaround and we're seen as benefit cheats," she said. "But the opportunities just aren't out there to enable us to work."
Protesters are angry about a myriad of issues that have arisen over the past year, as the government has simultaneously cut budgets to local authorities, begun changes that will hit the disability living allowance, and started a radical reform of incapacity benefit payments designed to reduce the number of claimants.
Along with the blind protesters were parents marching with disabled children, aghast at how quickly local authority funding shortages had reduced the support available for their families.
Fiona McHale travelled from Newry in Northern Ireland with her six-year-old son Jamie O'Connor, who has Down's syndrome, angry that family support grants that used to be available for families with disabled children were no longer easily available.
Jo Stubbins from Cambridge was dismayed at cuts to the care package received by her 23-year-old daughter Victoria, who has severe learning disabilities. "I've never marched before. We need to all join together and show that people with disabilities are not easy targets. It makes me so angry that vulnerable people are the first ones to be affected by the cuts."
Alex Ozansoy had travelled from Norwich to express concern that her six-year-old daughter, who has a learning disability and global developmental delay, was not getting the specialist support she needed at school. Ozansoy is battling with her local council to formally recognise her daughter's difficulties, and channel more resources to her education.
"She needs support now; it's a critical time in her development but she's overlooked in a class of 30 and we can't afford extra tuition," Ozansoy said. The chances of her daughter getting that support had dwindled in the past year, she said, because of cuts to the local authority budget. "I can't sleep at night because I'm so worried about it. It seems so short-sighted because if she doesn't get help now, she's going to be dependent on the state all her life, which will be a huge cost to the government."
Some demonstrators were anxious that the combined effect of changes would end up seeing disabled people more isolated and less able to participate in society. Pepe Martinez, 58, arrived in a wheelchair by train from Huntingdon, where he is a resident at a Leonard Cheshire home, hoping that the protest would help persuade the government to rethink its plan to cut disability allowance payments.
A former nurse who spent 35 years caring for others in the NHS, Martinez had not expected disability benefits to be affected when he voted Tory last year. Without the mobility component of DLA which the government plans to cut, he worries he will no longer be able to participate in "life generally", and instead will be stuck inside the care home, unable to visit friends and family outside. "We'll be like zombies," he said.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The Guardian in the UK. In the picture, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the Commons, and Jane Asher, the actress and activist, on the march.
Posted by BA Haller at 7:03 PM