Disabled people forgotten again on ‘Freedom Day’

“Lockdown Protesters” by michael_swan is marked with CC0 1.0

In March 2020, we were advised to stay at home to protect the NHS and those deemed ‘vulnerable’ to the COVID-19 virus. Mutual aid organisations sprang up across the country to ensure that nobody was left unsupported or without vital resources such as food. Many people spoke to their neighbours for the first time and made eye contact when passing others during the one hour permitted outside for exercise. We had ‘clap for carers’ to show our appreciation for the vital work of key workers. There was a sense of the country pulling together to take care of each other and, in particular, those who were elderly, had a disability or long-term health condition or their carers.  

And then it all changed. Mask use declined as people grew tired of wearing them. The real pivot in attitude, however, was when Dominic Cummings refused to apologise for his infamous trip to Barnard Castle to “check his eyesight”. It suddenly felt like a spell had been broken. Grumbles over lockdown became increasingly louder, with some using Cummings’ actions to justify their own law breaking.

Fast Forward to now. Since the vaccination programme began to be rolled out at the start of January 2021, there have been increasing calls for restrictions to be lifted (as well as anti-vaccination protests). Where once we had clapped for the NHS, people now attack healthcare workers because they want their second jab early so they can go on holiday. Watching Euro 2020 football matches, many fans in the stadia or watching in pubs were not wearing masks (those that did often wore them incorrectly). Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, tweeted it was “devasting” as she was “watching transmission happening in front of my eyes”. 

Since the announcement of ‘Freedom Day’ the government has emphasised that wearing masks and maintaining social distancing is a “matter of personal choice”, although Boris Johnson has urged people to exercise “extreme caution” in his most recent press conference. Employers are increasingly pressurising staff to return to work, reversing the freedom many disabled people and carers had by being able to work remotely and giving many the impossible choice between work or death. At the same time, attacks on employees for enforcing mask wearing will likely increase if their establishment continues to require customers to wear masks. 

Where does this leave the ‘vulnerable’ (a contested term) who the government urged people to protect? The emphasis has switched from wider society to individual protection and responsibility. There have been a number of reports that when the government were making their reopening decisions they had not considered those who have been shielding since March 2020. The most recent government guidance advises those who are “extremely clinically vulnerable” to take extra measures such as limiting close contact with others, although it stops short of saying they should continue shielding. When announcing this change, Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated that it was the “right time” for the UK to get “closer to normal life”, despite Dame Sarah Gilbert, who led the team who created the Oxford Astra/Zeneca team, warning that the ‘vulnerable’ may need to start re-shielding if all measures were removed. The government’s response is astounding given that people with disabilities or underlying health conditions make up the majority of people who have died from COVID-19. One study found that 58% of those in England who died from causes involving COVID-19 were disabled. 

Disabled people have been consistently forgotten in all major policy decisions from the very beginning of the pandemic with no serious plan in place, such as who was placed on the ‘vulnerable’ list to qualify for online food orders or additional assistance. The government seems to have initially decided to focus on herd immunity and now on vaccination as the primary method of controlling COVID-19 and re-opening society fully. However, children and many working age people with disabilities have been left out of the vaccination rollout or not placed in the highest priority groups, which was highlighted by BBC DJ Jo Whiley when she campaigned for her sister Frances, who has learning disabilities and diabetes, to be vaccinated. It should also be noted that those deemed ‘vulnerable’ are not a homogenous group and so may not all view the rule changes and full reopening in the same way, and so all voices need to be heard. 

‘Freedom Day’ will mean further confinement, fear and anxiety for many people. Nevertheless, the government continues to stand by its timetable. What is the price they are willing to pay and how many lives will be sacrificed in the name of ‘freedom’?

Has the pandemic shone a light on income disparities in the UK?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions being placed on the everyday lives of people in the UK. Social distancing guidelines have meant that we have been unable to go wherever we want, or meet and see people in large social gatherings. These changes have been easier for some than others, as demonstrated by the regular ‘anti-lockdown’ protests in cities and towns across the country. While for most people the last 14 months have been a steep learning curve, people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, and their carers, are well accustomed to experiencing limits on their mobility, struggling to get access to essential services and juggling caring responsibilities with work. Many are also too familiar with the struggles of living on a low budget and navigating a complicated benefits system.

There were initial signs that the pandemic had illuminated the experiences of disabled people in the ‘old normal’, especially during the first lockdown period. One key area was regarding the social welfare system. There was an increase of 2.7 million people (90%) claiming Universal Credit (UC) between 12 March 2020 and 8 October 2020, and a doubling of the number of UC payments in London and the surrounding regions. As more people came into contact with the benefits system for the first time, many of the problems experienced by legacy benefit claimants (such as tax credits) and UC became more widely recognised. Most notably, it was not well-known that the first UC payment is typically made 5 weeks from the initial claim. 

There had also been a widespread assumption among many people that benefits had become ‘too generous’, fuelled by government and media framing during the ‘austerity’ drive to reduce government spending by shrinking the welfare state. This was seen in 2010 when then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne justified further cuts because some people “believe that living on benefits is a lifestyle choice” so what is needed is “[a] welfare state where it always pays to work”. However, with wider demographic claiming UC there has been broad recognition that benefit rates are much lower than average incomes. Until March 2020, a single person aged over 25 received a ‘standard allowance’ of £317.82 per month (pm) UC, or £498.89pm for a couple (help with rent is an additional application and is capped at a set local rate). In comparison, the median weekly income for full time employees was £586 per week (pw) in April 2020, and the national minimum wage at £8.72ph (age 25+). In response to political and public pressure on the level of support being provided by the government, the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak increased the UC standard allowance by £20 pw resulting in a single person over 25 now getting standard allowance of £409.89 pm, and a couple £594.04 pm. While this narrowed the gap, it is still a substantial difference especially when recent ONS figures show that the cost of living under the consumer price index continues to rise, with inflation growing from 0.3% in November to 0.6% in December 2020 (due to an increase in clothing, transport and petrol prices). The Joseph Rountree Foundation also found that if the £20pw uplift is withdrawn at the same time as the furlough scheme ends, 500,000 extra people (including 200,000 children) would be pulled into poverty. Moreover, the decision to increase these benefits was a tacit admission by the government that it was difficult for people to live on the initial rate.

While the increases in UC and tax credits were welcomed by many, there remain 2.5 million people on legacy benefits such as Employment Support Allowance (ESA). The majority of these claimants are disabled or have long-term health conditions, whose exclusion from this uplift is currently being challenged by way of judicial review in the courts. Furthermore, government statistics show that before the pandemic the proportion of disabled people living in poverty was 23% before housing costs (BHC), and 27% after housing costs (AHC), compared to 15% and 19% respectively for families without a disabled person. However, this does not take into account the additional costs that having a disability or long-term health condition entails. The Social Networks Commission found that half of all people in poverty (7.2 million people) live with someone who has a disability, and while 17% of families live in poverty this rises to 28% for disabled families. 

Why does the government continue to discriminate against disabled people when it comes to welfare provision? At the start of the pandemic everyone was told to stay at home to protect the most ‘vulnerable’, NHS volunteers were sought to provide additional help and mutual aid groups sprang up to help those most in need within local communities. However, no additional money was allocated, there was little to no protection for care homes, and working age disabled people were often not given priority to health services or vaccinations. Now that everything is being unlocked as part of the government’s ‘roadmap’, disabled people are once more feeling left behind and disregarded. While we were previously hopeful that the pandemic might produce long-term empathy towards those with disabilities (especially of working age), a return to the ‘old normal’ of indifference and, in some cases, hostility appears more likely.

IWD and WHM: Interview with Dr Anne Graefer (Gender IQ)

Throughout March the Women’s Research Centre (WRC) are talking to a number of women who will share their expertise, specialism and experience to mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Our first guest was Dr Anne Graefer, who is a Researcher and Founder of GenderIQ and provides training, workshops, lectures and advice on all aspects of gender, diversity and inclusion. A key part of the conversation she had with Sarah Reilly, the WRC’s Director of Research, was on the differences in attitudes towards women in the UK (where Anne has studied, researched and worked) and Germany (where Anne is from and now lives) and how their role and contribution in society is viewed and how gender roles have changed. A large part of this focused on the world of work such as the gender pay gap and the impact of having children on a woman’s career. Covid-19 was also a dominant topic of conversation, in particular how it has regressed the progress of women and has reasserted many traditional gender roles such as who has primary caring responsibilities or home-schooled children during the pandemic.  

The conversation with Dr Anne Graefer was fascinating and raised many important issues. We hope to explore these in more detail and provide a more thorough examination of them as part of our ‘Is Inclusion an Illusion?’ series, so watch this space.

If you are interested in learning more about what GenderIQ offer, please check out their website or contact Dr Graefer via TwitterInstagram or LinkedIn

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day is on 8 March. The IWD campaign theme for 2021 is a call to challenge gender bias and inequality, and to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. To mark WHM, we have organised a number of interviews with women who will share their expertise and experience in related areas. Guests include Dr Anne Graefer (Research and Founder of GenderIQ), Molly O’Brien (disability advocate and researcher), and Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan (Zinthiya Trust).

John Coster and I discuss IWD in the video below:

Is Inclusion an Illusion? Issue experts discuss International Day of People with Disabilities

Disability Newsroom 3 December 2020

Sarah Reilly & John Coster

International Day of People with Disabilities 3 December 2020

The Women’s Research Centre held a virtual Newsroom to mark the International Day of People with Disabilities on 3 December 2020. The IDPwD (originally called the ‘International Day of Disabled Persons’ until 2007) was created by the UN in 1992 to promote a wider understanding of disability, advance the rights of disabled people and address the inequalities they face. It also aims to mobilise the support of wider society to achieve these aims and to enable disabled people to live with dignity. The theme for 2020 was split, with the IDPwD website concentrating on ‘not all disabilities are equal’, whilst UNESCO focused on ‘Building Back Better: towards a disability inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World’. These themes do overlap in many ways, which we highlighted in our interviews with Molly O’Brien, Hannah Webber and Dr Tiffany Webster.  

Hannah Webber 

Hannah Webber is the Disability Sport Officer at the University of Nottingham. She has been nominated for the BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) Unsung Hero Award, as well as the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Award. Hannah has been instrumental in developing and widening access for students of all abilities, and promoting wider equality and inclusion in the University’s 45 sports clubs and societies through initiatives such as the Rainbow Lacescampaign. We discussed how sport is not just about fitness, but has wider social and holistic benefits such as building confidence, improving mental health and providing social interaction and support. Hannah spoke about the supported fitness scheme she established at the University, which involves a student being assigned a fitness instructor ‘buddy’ to assist them. This can be tailored to suit the needs of the individual, such as meeting them at the door of the gym as well as helping them to use the equipment. We also had a broader discussion about disability sport, and how Hannah tries to encourage people of all abilities to try new forms of exercise, and not just have a focus on elite sport. The interview concluded with Hannah’s account of how COVID-19 has changed the way the University delivers these support services.

Full interview here

Interview with Hannah Webber, 3 December 2020

Molly O’Brien

Molly O’Brien works for Deaf-initely Women in Derbyshire, and is passionate about disability rights and related issues. We spoke to Molly about how accessibility issues have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included the exclusion of disabled people, especially those with sensory impairments, from important COVID-19 information; for example, the Westminster daily briefings have had a British Sign Language Interpreter present and shielding letters have not being made available in accessible formats. The inaccessibility of wider society was also discussed, such as infrastructure and housing. We also talked about the depiction of disabled people in the media e.g. disabled characters being played by non-disabled actors, which we will explore further during a planned event later in the year.

Full interview here.

Interview with Molly O’Brien, 3 December 2020

Dr Tiffany Webster

Dr Tiffany Webster is the Service Manager of the Autism Information and Advice service, which covers the county of Derbyshire. They provide a holistic service for individuals living with autism, as well as parents, carers, professionals, friends and relatives who support them. As they are based at Citizens’ Advice Mid Mercia they provide advice on all aspects of a person’s life including housing, neighbours, benefits, finances. They have delivered Autism Awareness Training to 300 people working in relevant organisations in 2020, covering issues such as the Autism Act changes due to come into force this year. We discussed how services and organisations are predominately ‘neuro typical’ and how important it was for service providers to become more autism aware. Key issues include the use of language, auditing facilities and space, and amending policies and procedures. However, it was agreed that the priority should be to respond to what each person with autism wants and requires and to recognise that every person had different needs. We also considered the portrayal of people with autism in popular culture and how there has been a movement towards better understanding and inclusion. Nevertheless, those living with autism are still incorrectly categorised as if they have other more commonly recognised learning difficulties, special educational needs and mental health conditions. We also discussed the importance of preventing a repeat of the shutdown of the respite and care services that people living with autism rely on.

Full interview here.

Interview with Dr. Tiffany Webster, 3 December 2020

Throughout the day we acknowledged the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, which put into law measures to combat the widespread discrimination experienced by disabled people, such as the requirement to make reasonable adjustments by making a building wheelchair accessible so a physically disabled person could visit, work or live there. However, although the DDA has been replaced by more comprehensive laws by the Equality Act 2010, many of the rights that disabled people were fighting for remain elusive. Indeed, in some cases, they have regressed due to the austerity measures introduced by the Coalition and Conservative governments since 2010; these drastically reduced many of the services that disabled people rely on to live independently and with dignity (such as the abolition of the Independent Living Fund and the changes in social welfare including replacing Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments). These are issues we will follow up on in future WRC events as we consider whether inclusion is an illusion– stay tuned!


Welcome to the Women’s Research Centre’s website! By creating the site we aim to bring together researchers, activists, practitioners or anyone who is really passionate about an issue affecting women. We aim to do this via research, projects, events, blogs or any other way to document women’s lives. We are primarily focused on issues that impact women, but are also keen to work with our allies from other minority identity groups. The WRC is interested in working with people from a variety of backgrounds, so if there is a topic you want to highlight please do get in touch.