The language of ‘cuts in disability payments’ is extreme. It is left versus right; Labour fluffy hearts versus Tory stony hearts; adversarial and impassioned. Benefit scrounger versus tax payer. There is no middle ground, no meeting place for calmer debate. It’s ‘give us the money’ or ‘you’re an evil bastard’.
Sue Marsh in particular has written a series of eloquent impassioned articles describing wheelchair bound claimants marooned for all eternity in their ‘homes’ by the heartless decision to leave payment for mobility cars to the local council – who prefer to provide a vehicle for all the residents rather than individual vehicles. She complains that:
More to the point, they never consider who will employ us! With our vomit bowls and syringes and blackouts and seizures, do they really think an army of employers are just waiting to take us eagerly into the workplace?
That paragraph stuck a particular chord with me. It was a Labour government who drew up the battle lines – if you ticked the right number of boxes you could claim disability living allowance, and you were officially unfit to work. The expectation of modern life that everything was perfect, rosy cheeked employees who could be portrayed on the front of the business plan, in open plan offices, efficiently carrying out their duties in a risk free environment. Or sick, below par, dependent, reliant on the state. It was not always so.
Let me introduce you to Maddog. I had called on Maddog several times. He lived in a row of five or six terrace houses hidden in a forest, high above a disused coal mine. The house was always silent, no sign of life. On perhaps my fifth attempt, a neighbour was washing his car outside. He expressed surprise that I was knocking at the front door – did I not know that Maddog ‘lived out back’? He led me round the side of the houses, past an immaculate, truly immaculate and prolific, vegetable garden, to what appeared to be an ordinary garden shed at the bottom of the patch.
‘Have you met Maddog before’ he asked. ‘No’, I replied. ‘I’ll stay and help you understand if you like’ he volunteered.
Inside the shed was a vast Coalbrookdale range belching smoke. I dream of it still, an architectural masterpiece. A pan of bacon sizzled on top. Two foot away was a cast iron bath of the double ended variety, with a hot water cylinder balanced at one end. The top was covered with a board and a collection of bedding. Wedged between the two was Maddog, a tiny, possibly less than five foot, wizened Welshman with a profound curvature of the spine. He did not speak but waved happily at me and gave me a thumbs up sign by way of greeting before turning his attention back to the bacon.
My ‘guide’ told me Maddog’s story, interrupted only occasionally by Maddog pulling some piece of paper out of a drawer to authenticate a claim made by his neighbour, or bounce in his seat and give me another thumbs up when something said pleased him. It was obvious that he could understand every word spoken.
The front door that I had been knocking on had belonged to Maddog’s grandfather. Bought with his life savings from the coal board when the mine had closed. Maddog’s Mother had been granddad’s much loved daughter – the Father was reputed to come from a ‘good neighbourhood’ but now’t else was known about him. Maddog was not her only child, she had given birth to another child; both she and the child died shortly afterwards.
It so happened that the coal board, still the owner of the house at that time, was about to commence substantial upgrading of the houses, just at the time that daughter was pregnant for the second time. The old man was not enamoured of the idea that strangers should encounter his family shame. He moved the range and the bath and hot water cylinder into the garden shed with the aid of his neighbours and commanded his daughter to remain out of sight whilst the work was carried out. He took Maddog to work with him.
Maddog was then fourteen, old enough at that time to work legally, but physically disabled, and suffering from profound, as we describe it today, learning disabilities; there was not a lot he could do in the tough world of coal mining. Never mind. Grand Dad had a plan.
Deep in the mine was a canteen that the miner’s would retire to when the whistle blew for a scant ten minutes tea break. Little enough time to sear parched throats with tea, never mind make it and clear up afterwards. Maddog was commanded to make himself useful in the canteen. When the whistle blew, the tea was ready, the cups from the last break washed and refilled, and every man had his ‘bate box’ carefully laid in front of his usual seat. The foreman was delighted – and Maddog was given the job of canteen manager.
He was paid, by the mine owners. Probably the lowest possible wage, I cannot remember the figures, but sufficient to attract National Insurance payments, which 40 years later had allowed Maddog a full pension. Every Tuesday Maddog would walk to the nearest post office, make his mark, for he did not write, and transfer the money to his saving account, as his neighbours had told him to do. Once a year he would withdraw sufficient to pay his rates bill, as his neighbours had told him to do. The balance amounted to several thousand pounds.
For Maddog had no need of money. His grandfather, who had died shortly after his Mother, had left him the house. He had continued to maintain the immaculate vegetable garden – and knowing of his interest, the miners had continued to give him seeds; letters were produced from as far afield as New Zealand and South America from long emigrated Welsh miners who thought of Maddog every Christmas and pushed a few seeds into a Christmas card for him. He kept them all. Neighbours traded bacon for vegetables.
The few miners who remained in the area, continued to call for Maddog en route to the mine, and he worked until the day he was 65, and collected his pension.
I was curious about the house, and my guide asked Maddog if he could show me. We entered through the back door, and the first thing I saw was the kitchen, brand spanking new, down to the blue cellophane covering the stainless steel sink. A perfect example of 1950s modern kitchen (economy version) right down to the electric cooker. Sited next to it was a bathroom – obviously never used. The sitting room and the bedrooms upstairs were as Maddog’s grandfather had left them, the family bible still on the bedside table – but all was freshly polished and spotlessly clean. One of the miner’s wives came in once a week and cleaned it all – with a bucket of water she brought with her – for the water supply had never been connected to the house again, it still ran to the garden shed.
Maddog, you see, had decided that he was happier in the environment he knew, and in the total absence of social workers or outside interference, his neighbours had respected his wishes. He slept on top of his bath – rarely used bath, I suspected. He was warm, he was financially independent, he was well fed, he was happy – and he continued to be protected by his neighbours and be a viable part of his little community deep in that forest.
I was very torn when it came to writing my report – it was my job to report what I had seen, but I was terrified that this might lead to the Nanny state interfering in Maddog’s life. Whether it did or not, I know not. I hope not. Nor do I know whether Maddog is still alive today.
You cannot imagine such a tale occurring today. A disabled man with profound learning disabilities working down a coal mine? An employer giving a job in such dangerous surrounding to so vulnerable an individual? Living in his garden shed? Never drawing a penny of his ‘entitlement’ as a victim of a cruel and heartless society? The Daily Mail would have a field day, the Guardian disappear up its own vortex. Today, Maddog would be living in a council run facility, drawing his full disability benefits, taken to the garden centre once a week in the council provided mini-bus; costing the tax payer thousands – and be profoundly unhappy.
I am not suggesting that as a result of the ‘cuts’, the disabled should all be usefully employed down the nearest coal mine – but I am saying that perhaps the gulf between being an employable member of society and being ‘disabled’ could and should be bridged without the divisive rhetoric we currently employ.