On Saturday 26 September, 1,000 deaf, disabled and non-disabled marchers from all over the UK took to the streets of London to protest against the government’s cuts and caps to Access to Work funding. Jen Dodds shares what happened.
Organised by the Stop Changes to Access to Work (SC2ATW) campaign group, the loud and lively march started at Parliament Square and ended with a rally opposite number 10 Downing Street, passing the Department of Work and Pensions on the way.
Joined by many different supporters, including Disabled People Against the Cuts, Unite the Union, the British Deaf Association, the National Union of Sign Language Interpreters, Deafway, Visual Language Professionals, the Socialist Workers Party, Unite the Resistance and Equity, the march made it clear that access to work is an issue that is important to everyone, not just deaf and disabled people. Indeed, everyone was talking about the value of deaf and disabled people’s contributions to society – without AtW, everyone loses out on our input.
At the end of the march, a group of six people handed in SC2ATW’s petition, signed by 20,000 people, at 10 Downing Street. One of the group, SC2ATW co-founder Geraldine O’Halloran, explained; “Our petition asked the government to stop destroying the resources that help us to get into work and to stay there. What would we be doing if we did not have it? Would we go back to the bad old days where deaf and disabled people either did not work, because they could never get a job, or had to do poorly paid jobs with no prospects of improving their working conditions, in environments where they never knew what was going on because no one could sign?”
The rally was kicked off by compere John Walker, who got the crowd signing “STOP” in the direction of Downing Street after each speech. The atmopshere was electric, with lots of whistle-blowing and applause (both the clapping and hand-waving kinds)!
The speakers were a mix of deaf and disabled people and allies: Jane Aitchison from Unite the Resistance, Jeff McWhinney, former Managing Director of Significan’t, Sean McGovern from the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee Co-Chair/Unite the Union, Tracey Lazard from Inclusion London, Dawn Marshall from Becoming Visible, Ray Johnson from People First, Jen Smith from NUBSLI, Jane Cordell from Result CIC and Roger Lewis from Disabled People Against the Cuts. SC2ATW were represented by Jenny Sealey (Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company) and Ellen Clifford, who read out messages of support and thanked everyone for marching.
Most of the speakers talked about their personal experiences of AtW, and how we must fight back against the cuts. A lot was said about working in solidarity, because we are more powerful together. We want to be able to allow our deaf and disabled children to dream about what they want to do in the future – with AtW support, they will be able to do whatever they want, but without it, their options will be limited. Jane Cordell, who lost her job at the Foreign Office because of a lack of access, asked how we can be the role models that young people need without access to work.
After the speeches, it was announced that Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Teresa Pearce MP, the Green party’s Romayne Phoenix and Jonathan Bartley, actors Cherylee Houston (Coronation Street), Liz Carr (Silent Witness) and Julie Fernandez all supported the march and were sorry they had been unable to attend.
A message of support was also read out from Debbie Abraham, Shadow Minister of Disabled people, who said she shared many of SC2ATW’s concerns about the government’s proposed changes to AtW. “It is clear that Access to Work is an important programme which helps disabled people to function in the workplace,” she wrote; “Labour will ensure Access to Work funding enables disabled people to work, or to be self-employed. We will work with Disability Employment Advisers in Jobcentres to promote it, working with disabled people to ensure that everyone who needs it can get the support they need to take up, stay in or progress in a job. I am also committed to asking disabled people to advise us on how the scheme needs to improve.”
SC2AtW want to thank everyone involved in making the day a success. They will continue t
o campaign until AtW returns to being a fully inclusive scheme and provides support regardless of level of need.
“AtW has been shown to make a return on investment for the Treasury while at the same time supporting deaf and disabled people into employment and off benefits, but it is being made harder and harder to access,” said SC2AtW’s Ellen Clifford. “Last year the government underspent on the AtW budget at the same time as deaf and disabled people were being denied support under it and hounded out of employment. If the government actually wanted us to have equal access to jobs none of this would be happening.”
SC2AtW’s Nicky Evans added; “As co-founders of Stop Changes, Geraldine and I reflected that our short/sharp three month long campaign hadn’t quite turned out as expected! The numbers involved – over 1,000 people at the march and over 20,000 signing the petition – were quite overwhelming. The support from such amazing speakers – each of whom were incredibly inspiring – also made us realise what this campaign has achieved. A whole community came together to give a very clear message to government: that we are here to fight together. We will not be divided!”
Finally, as Jenny Sealey said at the rally; “This is not over. We have handed our petition in to Number 10, but the fight goes on. We want to be able to tell our children that they can dream. We all need to share the responsibility to fight the government and support each other. The future is going to be fantastic, because we will do it. And we will do it together!”
WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
Stop Changes to Access to Work is releasing a survey to find out more about what’s happening for AtW users. The survey will be for people who have claimed AtW in the past, are claiming now or who have applied for AtW funding but were refused. You can help by filling it in when you see it, and passing it on to any AtW users you know. More information at stopchanges2atw.com
WATCH IT IN BSL:
As the #StopChanges2AtW march neared 10 Downing Street, BDA Chair, Dr Terry Riley OBE gave regular updates in BSL.
BDA asked Geraldine O’Halloran co-founder of #StopChanges2AtW about the march.
Jeff McWhinney, SignVideo founder, shared his concern over Access to Work at today’s #StopChanges2AtW march.
John Walker revealed why the march was so important at the #StopChanges2AtW rally.
What the BDA said:
The BDA are supporting the ‘Stop Changes to Access to Work’ march because it believes the Department of Work and Pensions’ process has led to many decisions which will put Access to Work Deaf applicants and BSL users at a disadvantage.
The BDA want to show solidarity with those members of the Deaf community who are being negatively and unfairly affected by these changes. From our community’s feedback, we can see that restricting support budgets, cutting hours and imposing unrealistic ceilings on interpreters’ fees are making it even more difficult for Deaf BSL users in employment. It’s of concern to us that the jobs of many Deaf BSL users, whose support needs now cannot be met, could be at risk.
“We’re encouraged to see the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, campaigning against these Access to Work changes and hope other MPs will also listen to the Deaf community’s needs. The BDA is currently researching the effects of the new cap policy on any new Deaf applicants and hope the government will be open to listening to our findings,” said Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chair of the British Deaf Association.