TUC Disabled Workers' Conference Report

This report was written for the quarterly magazine Asperger's United by Caroline Henthorne who was a delegate to the TUC Disabled Workers' Conference

Report on the 2013 TUC Disability Conference Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd May 2013

By Caroline Henthorne

Aren’t Unions for People with Jobs?

Yes I know most autistic people are unemployed, but you don’t have to have a job to be in a union. Unions are the voice of the workforce. That’s people who are working and those of us who would like a job if we could get one.

I attended the TUC conference as a community member of a trade union. Joining a union as a community member is an affordable way to get involved in a trade union now before I’m in work. Community membership means I can keep up to date with work place issues and sources of disability support as I look for work. My plan is to return to education and work part-time so I’ll need a disability plan both to study and to work.

The conference was great. I met other disabled people and heard how they coped with work. Why not join a union and ask your branch, either at your workplace or in your local area, to send you as a delegate or visitor to next year’s conference?

Aren’t Conferences for People Who Like People?

The TUC disability conference empowers disabled people. It’s a friendly place where disabled people encourage each other. Anyone speaking for the first time is applauded no matter what their views.

All kinds of people are there, some autistic, some with other disabilities and we as autistic people can learn form both just as we can learn from those whose skills are like ours and those who work in completely different sectors of the economy. Different resources are available, hearing speakers, discussions and books; the range of issues covered was inspiring.

Types of Work


A large number of disabled people who are in work work part-time. Conference discussed if this was really a choice or an attempt to say in work and struggle without enough money. Working part-time is tricky if one also needs to claim benefits.


Many disabled people and our carers are able to work by being self-employed. This can mean doing freelance work where an agent asks for disability support on our behalf and not all agents know how to do this without undermining our abilities. So disabled people can be tempted to hide their needs and then struggle to cope or are simply not hired. This is one reason we don’t see more disabled people in the entertainment industry. Which means disabled people become invisible to the public.

If we need time off for medical appointments, if we are self-employed we loose pay and have to pay someone else to cover out business. So we can loose out twice. Self-employment also makes it harder to claim benefits.

Axing Tax Advice

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has 281 local advice offices. But they are scheduled to close. Instead of a face-to-face service tax advice will be offered on-line or over the phone.

You’ve noticed the snag hear haven’t you? The number of people answering on-line and phone enquiries is not rising and it’s the caller who pays the phone bill when they are stuck on hold.

Many autistic people either have no internet access or find it hard to communicate over the phone. We may however need tax advice, especially if we have found that the best way to work is to be self-employed.

The risk is that many vulnerable people will get their tax returns wrong.


Sometimes I dream of working in a company where everyone is autistic. I imagine it to be some kind of paradise where I won’t be misunderstood, bullied, stressed or have my skills ignored.

Some people think that disabled only business are divisive and that an integrated society is better, but I don’t think so. I think disability only businesses free us to be ourselves and bring all we have to offer to our work. I need autistic friends, people who are like me, just as I need to be friends with other women. A girls’ night out isn’t divisive it gives me a chance to be a woman among other women, and it isn’t a girls’ night out if a man comes along however nice that man is.

So I have great sympathy with the Remploy factory workers who have been told that the government isn’t going to support their businesses anymore and that they need to find jobs in the wider economy. Remploy just isn’t fashionable – banks can get bail out funding but not Remploy. But integration hasn’t worked. Of those who have already been made redundancy 80% have not found other jobs. There are no jobs to find, and it’s extra hard to find a job if you are disabled.

Remploy has been going for generation employing 2000 disabled people in 54 factories. All these factories will have closed within the next year.

The workforce at Remploy want their factories to stay open. Rochdale was the first factory to be run by the workforce and now the factories in Leeds and York have followed suit with support from Unite and GMB trade unions. This is a small victory given the scale of the Remploy factory closures but one I find encouraging: a small beginning in the road to disabled workers running our workplaces our way.

Disability Work and the Law

Tesco Ergo Sum

Rights for disabled workers are being eroded. Employers are getting the message that discrimination is ok. Tesco is closing its Harlow depot and moving staff to Dagenham, staff will have their pay cut by a third and the disability support staff have had in Harlow will not be available in Dagenham. 30 people will loose their support, and be put on trail to see if they can meet tough performance targets. The targets take no account of people’s disabilities but if they are not met the member of staff will lose their jobs.

Third Party Harassment

The government have watered down equality law, sending is message that disabled people don’t deserve respect. Over 70% of consultation respondents said to keep third party harassment illegal including the Law Society. But the government removed this protection all the same.

Third party harassment is about the culture in your workplace. Even if all the employees in an organisation have an inclusive attitude other people may not. Third party harassment is harassment from clients, customers, and contractors.

This matters, one woman cited in the research commissioned by the TSSA union said that she was sack for being dyslexic when a client laughed at a spelling mistake she made. Harassment from third parties is part of the atmosphere in every workplace and needs tackling if we are to work in environments where we feel respected.

Working Carers

Where rights were weak to start with employers have no reason to do the right thing. Employers are reducing access to flexible working during the recession. This is making staying in work harder for disabled people and our careers. We need the right to have, not just to ask for, flexible hours.

We also need access to time off to deal with emergencies. Currently, if we can get this time off it is unpaid which leaves us struggling financially. We need paid time off for emergencies.

What is actually happening is that disabled people and our carers are being told to cut our hours if ‘we can’t cope’. The fact is we can cope if we have the support we need. What we can’t cope with is life without work. Cutting our hours doesn’t help deal with emergencies that happen during the hours we do work or leave us with enough to live on.

Access to Justice

Even when we do have the law on our side it is getting harder to access justice. Funding to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has reduced. Legal Aid has reduced. Access to Employment Tribunal has been reduced. Despite consultation responses saying these were bad ideas; fees must now be paid up front; cases can only be taken by those who have been working for their employer for two years; tribunals are less able to make representation and the statutory discrimination questionnaires have been scrapped. Employers are being given the message that discrimination is ok.

Health and Safety

Work places are also becoming more dangerous and the risk of becoming disabled at work is increasing. The Health and Safety Inspectorate has been privatized. There are fears that this means inspections will be less effective.

Legal requirements for health and safety have also been reduced. Small businesses don’t have to follow the same requirements as bigger companies making small businesses dangerous places to work.

And bear in mind that the NHS is becoming more privatized and that this will have a negative impact on disabled people and those that become disabled.

Bradford Factor

And if you are disabled it is all too easy for employers to get rid of you. As employers make redundancies in the recession or outsource services, sick leave records are being used to get rid of disabled staff. The Bradford Factor is a way of looking at sick absence where several short absences are seen as being an indication of abuse of sick leave – people extending weekends. However, repeated short absences is exactly the absence pattern of someone with a mental health condition or needing to deal with carer emergencies. Sick leave patterns are being used to get rid of disabled workers and carers. Conference discussed the need to have disability leave recorded separately from sick leave not just as good practice but as a right.

Disabled and Unemployed

The Scrounger Myth

So if it’s hard to find and stay in work what are we living off? Not much. Society believes we are out of work because we choose not to work. Roddy Slorach’s booklet Disability Austerity and Resistance which I bought from the conference bookstall quotes research showing that focus groups think disability benefit fraud is 50-70% of claims, this is due to irresponsible press coverage. According to the Department for Work and Pensions it is less than 1%. Disability benefits has the lowest level of fraud compared to other benefits, the money lost in fraud is less than the amount of unclaimed benefit.

Most welfare benefits are paid to those in work on low pay, not to people too lazy too work. Most disabled people want to work and should not be made to feel guilty if we can’t because of our disabilities.

We should also not be made to feel like a financial burden on society. We have something to offer and just need to be treated fairly so we can offer it. What we have to contribute far out ways the costs of support. The average disability adjustment costs £75 with many adjustments being free – organizing work differently (according to Slorach). The UK can afford to support us. More money is lost in unpaid tax than is spent on supporting disabled people.

The Scrooge Reality

We have one of the toughest benefits application processes and eligibility criteria in Europe and disabled people are especially hard hit.

The purpose of re-testing disabled people for benefit eligibility is not to tackle fraud. ATOS who are contracted by the Department for Work and Pension to conduct Work Capability Assessments to assess new claims and re-assess existing claims for Employment and Support Allowance (it is believed that Personal Independence Payments will have a similar test) are driven by targets to cut the number of claimants and save money, assessors have targets to meet on the number of claims they refuse, so these assessments are not objective. This means assessment don’t tackle the less than 1% of cases which are fraudulent. Although ATOS themselves have been convicted of fraud in the USA (Slorach).

The assessments are carried out by people with no training in mental health and the assessment does not take account of fluctuating conditions. During the conference news broke that a judicial review had found that the Department for Work and Pension were failing disabled people through Work Capability Assessments as the assessments were not in line with the Equalities Act. The case found that the assessments were unfair to people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and autism. More can be found on the MIND website.

What to Do if You are Refused Benefits

Conference was pleased to hear that the civil service union the PCS who were having their conference at the same time as we were having ours, decided to stand behind civil servants who challenge unfair assessments of disabled people.

Many civil servants want a fair deal for disabled people. So if at first you are refused benefits remember that the assessment might be stacked against you but the people who work for government departments are not. Appeal.

Other Benefits

Disabled people face 25% more unavoidable expenditure than non-disabled people (Slorach). All disabled people face these costs not just those with ‘severe’ disabilities. But disability benefits are being cut back. This leaves us dependent on other benefits which are also being cut.

Black Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…

With George Osborne in charge of the economy we don’t so much have Black Sabbath as black Monday to Friday. This is the man who in 2006 said of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he was “faintly autistic” using autism as an insult. This man is now running our economy without respect for any disabled person.

Several different welfare changes will impact disabled people at the same time. The government’s impact assessment has only looked at each change individually. Scope have looked at the combined impact and it isn’t a happy picture.

Personal Independence Payment law was rushed through in a debate lasting less than an hour. It does not offer independence, or offer personalized support, the assessment system is rigid, and aims only to reduce the number of disabled people receiving benefits. The government’s own figures say that 100,000 children will loose support. Support is also being removed for older disabled people who will now not get mobility support. Lack of mobility is not a part of aging to shrug our shoulders over. Older people need to participate in society. For people who were disabled before retirement age our mobility issues are not part of aging and will not improve with age. As I age my issues will get worse I will be autistic and old.

Universal Credit is being introduced. This new benefit abolishes the disability element of child tax credit, the severe disablement premium, the disability element of working tax credit. The move to Universal Credit means that 450,000 disabled people and their families could loose up to £58 per week, one in ten disabled households with children could loose their homes no longer able to afford them. Universal Credit can only be claimed on-line but only 58% of disabled people have access to a computer.

If we do manage to claim any benefits they will not be enough to live on. Benefits have not kept pace with inflation. They haven’t for some time. Job Seekers Allowance has fallen in value to just 11% of average earnings. When we move to Universal Credit benefits will rise not with inflation as they are supposed to do now, but with the consumer price index which does not consider all living costs. But all living costs are rising. Yet these meager benefits are what disabled people must live on in a job market that rejects us. Some of us will end up with nothing, as benefits will be available for a shorter length of time.

As one speaker so rightly noted the reason 80,000 people boo-ed George Osborne at the Paralympics was that you couldn’t fit any more in the stadium. Roddy Slorach says in his booklet that “Within days of the Games ending, reports told of the first Paralympian whose Disability Living Allowance claim had been rejected. Wayne Fisher, who played for the GB wheelchair basketball team, was told that he was no longer eligible, leaving the family to survive on the £109 a week his wife earns in maternity pay.”

Bedroom Tax

Meanwhile the government have capped housing benefit, “The Bedroom Tax”, so housing benefit is limited to paying for the size of home the government thinks you need.

A family with two children of the same sex will have a two bedroom home. This means that families with an autistic child cannot give this child their own space away from overwhelming stimuli or give their other child space away from their sibling’s challenging behaviour. Nor is there anywhere for families to store disability equipment.

So families are having to move to homes which are less suitable for them. They may loose renting from a public sector landlord and need to appeal to a private landlord as good tenants. Not easy with a child who has challenging behaviour. They will loose their social support network. So much for the big society.

And where are the smaller homes to rent? Is your local area suddenly full of smaller homes? The poor are being priced out of London. So who will do their work? Or will the poor have to travel long distances to work? Such travel would be impossible for disabled people or carers as well as expensive for people on low pay. But there will not be lots of jobs in the areas with cheaper rents? All this makes staying in work harder for disabled people and our carers.

The Bedroom Tax has been challenged in the High Court by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile advice on how to avoid eviction from your home is available on the Shelter website.

Council Tax Postcode Lottery

Where you live makes a difference in another way too. Council Tax benefit is being changed. Local councils will now set their own level of support. This means that instead of all of the tax being paid for by the benefit up to 20% might not be covered, depending on your local council’s policy. People can apply for help at the council’s discretion, which lasts for three months and must then be applied for again until the council runs out of money.

My guess is that councils in poor areas, receiving people affected y the Bedroom Tax, will be unable to offer help to all those moving into their areas.

Living on Fresh Air

So the government are cutting benefits all round and want disabled people to go and look for those non-existent jobs that the rest of the unemployed can’t find. One idea being discussed in government is that disabled people should be paid below the minimum wage to make us more attractive to employers.

Such a move will only make us more attractive to those who want to exploit the vulnerable. It does not create more jobs, but leaves the able bodied out of work, or competing with us by agreeing to work for illegally poor pay. This undermines the need to have a wage below which no-one should be expected to work. We do not want everyone competing for work which doesn’t pay the bills. Nor should disabled people be asked to undermine the value of the work of our colleagues, this will make us even more of a target for bullying.

The minimum wage is not enough to live off, it was never a high wage and has not kept pace with rising living costs. So the government is offering disabled people a choice between no benefits and poverty pay. They are saying that our work is second rate and that we should not aspire to be paid fairly for what we do.

People claiming Employment and Support Allowance, the disabled person’s equivalent to Job Seeker’s Allowance are now being asked what we can do to make ourselves attractive to employers. As if their prejudice is our problem and it is the disabled person’s job to whisk it away and prove we are marvelous, at the same moment we ask for support at interviews. I think it’s clear what the government thinks is attractive to employers and it sucks.

Nutrition A’La Skip

One speaker, a college lecturer, was not earning enough to live on. She has found a way to survive by collecting food from skips and has started workshops where she teaches other disabled people how to do this.

I am not going to recommend this approach, firstly because I don’t think anyone should have to scavenging in skips for food. And secondly because I don’t think it will offer a viable gluten and dairy free menu.

Living gluten and dairy free has been the right diet choice for me and I have seen my health improve. However, as the NHS does not recognize autism as a reason for adopting this diet I cannot get gluten free bread on prescription. Living gluten and dairy free is more expensive than eating the poor quality mass produced food which is affordable on benefits.

The speaker went on to note how more and more disabled people were becoming reliant on food banks. Again I have gluten and dairy free reservations, as well as other reservations about fairness, about this approach to feeding the most marginalized in society.

Disabled people are managing complex health needs and we need access to not only the dignity of buying our own food, but to choosing the foods which will keep us healthy.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learnt In Grange Hill

Entertainer Francesca Martinez, formerly a star in Grange Hill gave a rousing presentation in which she pointed out that the Human Rights of disabled people was what was being attacked in the government’s welfare reform.

She said that disability affects us all, while an estimated 17% of people are born disabled, 100% of people develop disability as we journey into old age. Yet we want to pretend that we can get rid of disability. Recently a councillor in Cornwall expressed the view that disabled children should only be allowed to live if it can be demonstrated that they will not be a financial burden to society. But how do we know who will be a burden to society? Did disabled people cause the economic downturn?

Francesca dismissed the idea that disabled people are a burden. There is no need for the world’s seventh richest nation to fail disabled people. Writing us off as having nothing to offer.

She said that the word ‘benefit’ suggests we are getting something extra for nothing. But it is our basic needs which are being met. Removing the Independent Living Fund means people loosing the support that allows them to be independent an not trapped at home in isolation or shut in institutions. We are going back to warehousing disabled people after all that decades of campaigning have done to shut them, and ensure disabled people have full lives in the community. And this at a time when we have seen what these institutions are - Winterbourne View.

Francesca said that re-testing disabled people to see if they are still disabled according to a new a skewed set of criteria is thieving from disabled people, a third of whom already live in poverty. She called this class war. She questioned the motives of the reassessments which costs money to carry out, the numbers don’t stack up. Reassessing disabled people aims to save money and with this motive evidence is ignored. Another speaker said that a child with one leg was denied continued Disability Living Allowance – just how disabled does someone have to be to get help? But we are expected to magic up jobs that don’t exist, we cannot do this in a recession any more than the government can.

Taking Action

Direct Action

Many speakers at the conference said it was time to move on from legal protests to direct action.

There were some interesting stories about Disabled People Against the Cuts going to the home of Ian Duncan Smith to evict him from his mansion which he was no longer entitled to according to the rules of the Bedroom Tax.

One speaker spoke about blocking a road and being arrested only to be de-arrested as soon as the road was clear because the police office agreed with what she was saying.

But is direct action a good idea? To risk arrest one has to be prepared to be arrested and we all know that the criminal justice system is far from disability friendly.

Wednesday afternoon had me put my questioning to the test and I took part in an illegal protest for the first time. The conference voted to abandon our discussions and go and block Tottenham Court Road. We blocked the road for about an hour and the police turned up, arrested no one and the protest passed off peacefully with many passers by I spoke to being in sympathy with our cause.

Nonsense Sentencing

The government is privatizing the probation service. This is bad news for autistic people. It is all too easy for us to end up on the wrong side of the law when we think differently from the rest of society.

Prisons are not autistic friendly places. You may be locked up in a small room with people you don’t know for 23 hours a day. Prisons are violent and one needs social awareness to survive. Prisons are noisy with clanging doors and overwhelm the senses. Yet a large number of prisoners are autistic and the alternative – community sentencing - is becoming less autism friendly.

One-to-one work with disabled people on probation is ending with the only alterative being offered, working in large groups supervised by someone without disability training.

With probation carried out by private companies and voluntary sector groups there is now no consistency. Not all services are being delivered according to the public sector equality duty where the needs of all sectors of the community are considered in delivering services.

Some service providers are trying to make a profit from probation contracts so the amount of taxpayers’ money going to service provision is being cut and the quality of the service reduced. Staff have been made redundant using a view of sickness records which has disadvantaged disabled members of staff. The very people who are best placed to work alongside disabled probationers.

Some members of staff have been told they cannot take their assistive technology with them to a new job. It is always the disabled person who owns this equipment. Equipment is highly individual and moves with the disabled person from job to job.

Privatizing the probation service is not saving the country money. There have been reports of some companies over charging for tagging probationers. Taxpayers’ money is being wasted but business confidentiality makes it hard to investigate the companies involved.

And yet now is just the time when we need to break the law and protest.

Standing Together

Hard Pressed

Of course we are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators. As reports of disability scroungers fill the gutter press hate crime is on the rise. And it is now harder to be compensated for a criminal injury.

Following the Leverson enquiry into press standards the government needs to decide how to regulate the press. Leverson recommended that third parties be able to make complaints. This would mean that a group of autistic people could complain about how the story of an autistic person was reported in a newspaper, and the newspaper would have to look at the impact on autistic people not just the impact on the person whose story was being told. But the government is not keen to make this measure law.

Journalism is changing, staff are now too busy to investigate stories so government messages go to press unchecked. This undermines our rights and our democracy.

It’s also all too easy for well meaning journalist to get coverage of disability issues wrong and speak about disability disrespectfully because most journalists haven’t been trained on how to value diversity in their writing. It is telling that when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law ten years ago there was no press briefing because officials knew that they would spend the whole briefing explaining how to talk about disability and not the issues in the Act.

Right now in the UK we desperately need to change the story on disability away from the polarized coverage which give us both the so called scrounger on the one hand and the super hero in no need of help on the other, or as comedian Liz Carr described the Paralympic coverage ‘Inspiration porn’.

As Not Seen on TV

Conductor Charles Hazelwood created the Paraochestra which played at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics, he said, “This is not about the therapeutic value of music. I have no interest in a Paraochestra as a warm fuzzy feeling that is a good end in itself. I am not interested in some disabled ghetto. It is the means to a bigger end. By creating a platform that gains attention because of the virtuosity of the musicians, I want to see if we might approach integration.”

But warm fuzzies have not materialized into work for disabled musicians. One delegate, a blind singer, told conference how she had been refused both auditions and gigs on the supposed grounds of health and safety, in other words because she is blind. She has also had gigs cancelled when venues realize she is bringing a guide dog. She faces the barrier of being assumed to be incapable.

Arts subjects are not seen as productive and are being left out of the school curriculum this leaves students with an impoverished education. It also means disabled children won’t have access to entering the arts which provides so many role models. The future of disabled performance is at risk and this is our voice, it changes the way disability is understood.

Members of the acting union asked us to consider how disability is portrayed and to question whether disabled parts are realistic and why they are not always played by disabled actors. If realistic portrayals of disability are not seen the vacuum is filled with propaganda.

Lessons Learnt

It isn’t just art subjects that are off the curriculum its disability support.

Full Marx

A raft of changes is happening in education against which disabled people must make a stand.

Disabled Students

Mainstreaming has been used as the rhetoric of inclusion to remove specialist disability services. In practice disability support is not available in mainstream schools. There is massive under diagnosis of neruo-diverse disabilities, the hidden disabilities which affect how someone learns.

It is hard to get funding for a statement of special educational need and without a statement support is not available. One delegate shared how her son who has neruo-diverse disabilities has been excluded from school seven times and still the funding isn’t there to get him a statement of special educational need – the failure to support him effectively surely costs society more than the support would.

Special needs education funding, already inadequate, is being further cut. The government say it is unnecessary – they think that students are not really in need of support and poor learning is the result of lazy teaching. Currently teacher training includes a one hour optional awareness session on dyslexia. A disability affecting how 10% of the population learns. Teachers cannot spot neuro-diversity nor do they have techniques with which to respond. This is not laziness, it is ignorance and yet the answer the government funds is unqualified volunteers.

Often disability support means being taught by a teaching assistant, these low paid members of staff who are increasingly paid nothing but are volunteers, have no disability or even teaching training.

The government wants schools to make profits and for teachers to have performance related pay. This means leagues tables and targets. Working with students who have complex learning needs does not lead to easy success in leagues tables, so schools face a disincentive to support disabled students. Such students if offered a place by a school will be discouraged by the school from sitting exams. Their results must be hidden from the league table.

It is becoming harder for disabled students to get through a school’s front door literally as well as figuratively. School building and maintenance is underfunded, with overcrowded and dilapidated schools being both dangerous, which creates disability, and unsuitable for including disabled students. Free schools are being set up in inaccessible and unsuitable buildings.

But once inside what are disabled children learning? The government is changing the national curriculum. They have ignored consultation responses and are making changes which cannot be made accessible to disabled students. But one lesson is very clear. Whether disabled or not, children are learning the lie that disability is an expensive nuisance. We are not creating an inclusive society through cutting disability support and expecting mainstream schools to cope.

Sibling Learners

The bedroom tax means that the siblings of disabled children with complex needs must share a bedroom with their disabled sibling. They have nowhere quiet to do school work and if their sibling has a disturbed night they also go to school without having slept.

Child Carers

If support for disabled children is inadequate cuts will also impact on the education of children who care for a disabled family member. If you are caring for your parent who looks after you, your parent can’t fight the system for you.

Disabled Parents

Disabled parents must fight the system for their children. Neuro-diversity runs in families. We were failed as students and must now fight the system as adults with poor communication skills so our children get their needs met.

How does a partially sighted parent hear their child read? Funding for large print books goes with disabled children not disabled parents. We are capable parents if supported, and don’t want someone else to parent on our behalf, but the support isn’t there.

Parents of Disabled Students

There are not enough school places, as parents compete to get their children into a good school the school will think of their need to complete on league tables and it will be harder for parents of disabled children to get their children into a school.

As the Bedroom Tax hits, families are being forced to move to cheaper areas. Schools in these areas are ill prepared for a flood of new students. Any child with special needs starts again at square one seeking and waiting for disability support in a school whose resources have been stretched to breaking point.

The mother whose son was excluded seven times, no longer works, she had to leave work to care for her son, who was failed by the school system.

Disabled Teachers

Teachers are being expected to work longer hours as schools stay open longer, to cope with higher workloads, and to do so until later in life as teachers must now work until 68 to receive a full pension. This is bound to impact disabled teachers even more severely than non-disabled teachers.

Local planning is being removed from education which means that each school will decide how much to pay teachers. There are suggestions in government that disabled people should be paid less to get us into work. Why should our effort be worth less than those of someone without the barriers of disability? We actually work harder to be in work. Our skills are no less and our living expenses are more than for a non-disabled person. Why should we be those resented in the staff room for undermining the already low pay of teachers?

Pay rises will be discretionary, that means based on subjective perceptions of the performance of disabled teachers. Disabled teachers are being referred to capability assessments rather than supported effectively. There is no way for us to succeed however hard we try. School head are making these decisions when they have had no training in equality law.

The workforce is aging but instead of wising up to disability support, disabled teachers are being forced to retire on part of their pension and live in poverty. These are motivated teachers and disabled role models that schools need.

The NUT will at long last strike. First in the North West on 27th June and then nation wide in November.

Students in Higher Education

Busy teachers who are under ever greater demands and who have little training in disability are failing disabled students all the way through their schooling. Issues continue for anyone who survives school and makes it into further or higher education.

The government have abolished EMA. These payments helped keep students from poorer families in school after the age of 16. Disabled parents are those who will struggle to keep their children in education because so many of us live in poverty.

The government is changing education so that more education takes place in the workplace. This means employers decide who to develop, so disabled people who have work must overcome poor perceptions of disability to access education.

For those in formal education aged over 24 year it is now necessary to have a student loan. If you are starting a course later in life due to an episode of ill health you will pay for it.

Physiotherapy training used to have a support service for visually impaired trainees which was so successful it was expanded to help trainees with other disabilities. It offered support from application to train, through to employment. It was funded by the Department of Health via NHS London. NHS London has disbanded in NHS reorganization and the service no longer has funding. So we are no longer helping disabled people into work. But it is disabled people who are best at delivering services to disabled people, including those needing physiotherapy.

With tuition fees rising higher education is becoming unaffordable. There is an additional impact on disabled people. It takes longer for me to process information so I must work hard at my studies and will learn little if I am also trying to hold down a part-time job (for which I will need disability support). This means education is even less affordable for me.

I also risk running up high levels of debt and then finding that I am discriminated against and cannot build up the well-paid career I need to pay back my loans.

But can I afford not to go to university? I am even less employable if I have poor qualifications.

It is vital that every one can learn throughout their life, to learn to their full potential and go on developing through their career so that our knowledge based economy can thrive with everyone offering all they are capable of throughout their working lives.

If higher education is closed to disabled people then we can’t ourselves become teachers and lecturers. We know best how to support disabled learners, we are the role models for success, we can empower disabled people with knowledge and we are the ones who can change attitudes in the education system and in society through learning.

Disabled Lecturers

It is becoming hard and harder for disabled people to work in education. Many lecturers are on zero hour contracts, so are working without office space. Such terms of employment with irregular hours and no space for support equipment cannot offer support to disabled people.

Autistic lecturers are fairing particularly badly. Teachers are assessed by student feedback and this does not always reflect disability awareness.

The Road to Nowhere

A Dead End

So we’re not going to college or work. In fact we’re not going anywhere at all.

Passenger Spotting

We all know the cliché that autistic people are typified by train spotters. I do hope some of us have the sense to move off the platform and get on board a train. The transport system isn’t just for looking at, but I fear that before long this will be all we can do – watch the trains go by and wave.

Janine Booth who supervises Bank tube station, Europe’s largest underground railway station, spoke at a workshop on travel and said that we would be horrified if we knew how few staff she has. It is these few who keep one of the world’s busiest cities moving, deal with unattended luggage and keeping us safe. Yet few is about to become fewer.

There are plans to cut 20,000 rail staff many from stations and on board trains both above ground and on the underground network. This has worried many people, the TUC and Women’s Institute wrote a joint complaint against this proposal as reducing staff puts women at risk of sexual attack.

Personal safety is also an issue for disabled rail passengers. A recent survey of disabled passengers conducted by Survation found that disabled passengers were unsafe both at stations and on trains, 27% had suffered abuse or hate crime rising to 43% for wheelchair users. Yet planned staffing cuts will remove guards from trains – currently 70% of trains carry guards, and mean that many stations have no staff or no staff at night. (It is proposed that tube stations in the outskirts of London will have no staff at night). So when your boss (if you have a job) asks you to work late it now means travelling home via a station without staff.

Safety isn’t the only reason disabled passengers need staff at stations and on trains. We need staff to sell us tickets. But the planned staff cuts will lead to half of ticket offices closing. Instead tickets will be sold on-line or through machines. But many disabled people have no internet access and will find it hard to use ticket machines. Often it is not clear how to buy disability discounted tickets at machines or these tickets are not available from machines. But confusion over which ticket to buy won’t stop you being thrown off a train if you have the wrong ticket. You could end up stranded somewhere completely unfamiliar to you.

We also need staff for travel information – we may not understand information on display boards – I find the moving text hard to read. And of course if there is any disruption or change of schedule I need to ask a person if I am unsure what announcements mean.

Without staff there is no disability access even in modern stations and on modern trains. Not that modern stations are all one might have hoped for. London’s newest transport link is Cross Rail, which is currently under construction. It is being built with stations that do not have step free access. It is shocking that this is the case in this day and age. Newcastle built a step free underground system in the 1970s. But this system is being built to exclude disabled people as both a workforce and passengers.

Cross Rail will be inaccessible to anyone with wheels of any type, a baby in a pushchair, a suitcase on wheels, a briefcase or laptop on wheels, as well as being inaccessible to wheelchair users. So whether you are coping with a bad back or a fractured spine your needs are not catered for.

As new stations are being built which are not step free, old stations remain inaccessible. Of 270 tube stations only 45 are accessible and this is only because they are in parts of the city where tube lines do not run underground.

If something as obvious as wheelchair use is being disregard the needs of autistic people haven’t even been seen – we didn’t even get as far as being ignored. But we do have issues finding travel information, finding our way, coping with crowds on the transport system and getting around. Without transport we can’t get to work, see our friends, and are cut off from social support network, in other words isolated and trapped.

Things are bad enough now with different train companies offering difference standards of disability support and can only get worse with no staff to offer any kind of help. But what will we do if we can’t use rail? Autistic people and the parents of autistic children are finding we are now ineligible for a Blue Badge, motability funding has been cut so people can’t access adapted cars, fuel costs are rising, driving isn’t an alternative for disabled people.

As the population ages and becomes more disabled this policy of staff cuts is short sighted. As we face the green reality that pubic transport matters we need more not less investment in public transport.

Autistic Alternative

Underground Activists

Janine Booth, an autistic woman who supervises Bank underground station, was diagnosed autistic last year. She ran a lunchtime workshop which drew attention to the high levels of bullying autistic worker’s experience.

She spoke about Andrew Beck a golf club green keeper who had worked for over 30 years without incident until a new manager arrived who changed his duties, and bullied him including ridiculing him in front of other staff: giving Christmas gifts to everyone and a child’s toy to Mr Beck. Mr Beck left his job and won an Employment Tribunal case for constructive dismissal.

Another case is the autistic chef Adam O’Dee. His boss paid him half the minimum wage, threatened to sack him for something as petty as cutting too much off the end of a cucumber and threw bread rolls at him. Mr O’Dee won compensation at Employment Tribunal.

Janine also described the case of Nikki whose son Christy, is autistic. Nikki found it impossible to stay in work when a new manager arrived and removed her fixed shift pattern which disrupted her son’s routine. She was signed off work with stress and her manager responded by threatening her with a competency assessment.

All these people needed to have their cases heard in Employment Tribunal. But access to this justice is being blocked in reform of the tribunal system.

Autism is not well understood by the public and most autistic people have been bullied. I personally have been bullied at both school and in the workplace and have needed to use the law to protect my workplace support. I found that courts do not need to make disability adjustments because they are exempt from the law and that judges do not know much about disability. We need access to justice. Don’t wait until you are being bullied to join a union join a union now and help fight for access to justice.

As well as seeking justice for people who’ve been bullied at work Janine is working to make sure that work is a positive place for autistic employees. One of the key barriers to autistic people being in work is lack of understanding from colleagues and managers. Janine has written a training programme on autism which is being used by the RMT union in the transport sector and is being approved by the TUC for use in other sectors of the economy.

The course covers:

· What autism is

· Autism at work

· What autistic people and our carers need at work (better management practices which would help everyone, much of which is inexpensive)

· Autism and the labour movement (trade unions)

Why not ask your union to run this course where you work?

One Out All Out

One person at the autism lunchtime workshop shared some good news. He had been brave enough to come out as dyslexic in his workplace and this gave others the confidence to come out. His workplace could then become much more supportive for people who think differently.

Someone else shared his experience that being a Prison Officer was a type of work that suited him as a dyslexic person. The staff magazine GateLife had raised awareness of dyslexia. I note something of an irony here as many neruo-diverse people who are failed by the education system end up in prison and are failed all over again.

Neuro-diversity at Work: the Facts

Sarah Hughes is a Learning Officer in Neuro-diversity in the TSSA union. She educates the workforce on neuro-diversity. That’s all thinking difference disabilities – autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit (hyperactivity), and Tourette’s.

If you have one thinking difference there’s an 80% chance you have another. Although getting several diagnoses is a drawn out process.

Issues facing neuro-diverse people are common across the different diversities to a large extent and the issues in the workplace are worth looking at from the point of view of neruo-diversity as a whole.

The TSSA Union commissioned research from Heriot-Watt University’s, Centre for Research on Work and Wellbeing. Their report, ‘Neuro-diversity in the Transport and Travel Industry’. The report will be of use to anyone who is wondering how to manage their disability at work. Having evidence to show to your boss is always helpful. The report also helps managers respond.

The Issues We Face

How to ask

· As funding for special education is cut more children will miss being diagnosed neruo-diverse and have to seek diagnosis as adults via the NHS bureaucracy or asking their workplaces to pay

· Is it safe to ask for help at work: disclosure - whether, when, who to, how?

· People are less likely to disclose if they are already disadvantaged by gender or race

· Poor awareness of any support available at work, support accessed through line manager and these managers have no awareness of neruo-diversity

· Having to seek support by battling bureaucracy: support needs to be offered

· Need the right to union representation or external specialist

· Equality and inclusion posts are being axed in the recession

Getting support

· Occupational health is not relevant for neuro-diversity, (nurses can’t assess dyslexia)

· Funding for support, too many people in the support process – HR, IT, etc.

· Need for managers and colleagues to be training in neruo-diversity and not just for the disabled person to be supported insolation of other people’s attitudes

Workplace culture

· Employers not providing managers with information on neruo-diversity

· General equalities training does not equip managers to handle neuro-diversity

· Workplaces have no cultural awareness of neruo-diversity just individual managers with awareness

· Everyone expected to do all tasks not just be good at one thing

· Managers have no time to offer support

· Managers assessed on delivering projects have no incentive to manage neuro-diversity staff differently

· Performance management and promotion systems don’t reflect our abilities – just our managers’ misinformed opinions

· Colleagues think we get special treatment

Review of the Autism Act

The Autism Act, which recently became law, is being reviewed. It’s time to see if local councils are delivering. Check what your council is doing and challenge what does not make sense.

Ask you local council:

· How have autistic people been involved in the council’s response to the Autism Act?

· Who is their autism lead officer?

· Were autistic people involved in selecting this lead officer?

· Is the lead officer autistic?

· What expertise does the lead officer have in autism?

· What training have the council provided he lead officer with in autism and did autistic people deliver this training?

· What team in the council does the lead officer work in and why?

· Who does the lead officer report to and why?

· What are the lead officer’s responsibilities?

· What partners are on their autism partnership board?

· Were autistic people involved in selecting the partners?

· How do the partners consult with and work with autistic people?

· Are those on the board autistic?

· What expertise do they have on autism?

· What training has the council provided them with in autism and did autistic people deliver this training?

· Who does the board report to any why?

· What are the board’s responsibilities?

· How are autistic people being consulted on their diagnostic pathway?

· Does the proposed pathway follow the social model of disability?

· Even when the pathway is not medical, local NHS staff need autism training. How are they being trained and how are autistic people involved in delivering he training?

· What issues is the board looking at?

· What is the council doing about issues like the bedroom tax and council tax benefit?

· What are the council doing about autistic people’s access to; education, jobs, housing, transport, health services, leisure and social opportunities – our disability is an isolating one so our social needs are important, other to meet other autistic people and to participate in wider social activities

Disability History Month

Disabled History Month was mentioned in the conference report. It is in December each year. An opportunity to do something other than send your nearest and dearest cards sold in aid of those less fortunate (you know how the usual disability rhetoric goes at Christmas) and remember that we have a proud history and a proud history of campaigning for our rights. Ask your local council what events are planned in your area.

The Long Road to Liberation

The 2013 TUC Disability Conference was a great and inspiring conference in these dark times. We have a long way to go before we have a society which includes disabled people. One delegate who had a mix up with her hotel booking found that there were no other accessible rooms available in a city as big as London and slept in the waiting room of Euston station. Determined to be here. One day hotels will be accessible because we will live in an accessible world. It’s time to make our mark.


Asperger United doesn’t usually have an obituaries section but there are those that we as autistic people must remember.

Speakers at conference revealed the impact of welfare cuts. More than ten disabled people are killing themselves everyday due to welfare cuts and the worst impact of those cuts is yet to come.

Roddy Slorach’s booklet say that in September 2012 Disabled People Against the Cuts compiled 85 pages of horrifying stories about how people had been treated at Work Capability Assessments. Assessments which are dehumanizing. To find out more the Daily Mirror asked the Department for Work and Pensions for more information. They discovered that between January and August 2011 1,100 claimants died after being wrongly assessed as able to work with many coroners’ reports citing loss of benefit as contributing to their deaths.

When you are called to a Work Capability Assessment wear black to honour the dead.

A Second Stephen

The government would like disabled people to be seen as benefit ‘scroungers’ because then the pubic don’t care if disability benefits are cut. The gutter press is only too happy to spread the government’s message that we are lazy scroungers because the people that own these newspapers are benefiting from the government’s tax cuts. But telling the pubic to look down on disabled people as cheats is a message some people have taken to heart. Hate Crime is rising.

Last summer on 23rd July a student called Steven Simpson gave a party in his flat in Barnsley to celebrate his 18th birthday. It was gate crashed by Jordan Sheard who bullied Steven to death for being gay. He verbally abused Steven, stripped him, scrawled crude anti-gay slogans on his body, doused him in tanning oil and lit his crotch with a cigarette lighter. Then Sheard ran away. Neighbours tried to put the flames out but Steven died the next day of 60% burns.

On 21 March Sheffield Crown Court hear the case. Judge Roger Keen said that the case was ‘good natured horse play’ that had ‘gone too far’ and sentenced Jordan Sheard to three and a half years in prison. Sheard’s lawyer said the case was a ‘stupid prank that went wrong in a bad way’.

But there is more to this story. When the RMT union spoke on this issue they made a link which the judge and Shear’s lawyer did not: that setting fire to the crotch of a gay man is a direct attack on his sexuality. The RMT called on the TUC to campaign for the judge’s description of the case as ‘good natured horse play’ to be legally over turned and for Keen to be removed from the bench. Gay rights groups are campaigning for Sheard to serve a longer sentence.

If the TUC do campaign we might get rid of one judge who can’t recognize hate crime but there is more to this case. Steven was autistic as well as gay, vulnerable because of a double difference. He would have to have defended himself against bullying when he had a communication disability. Neither Sheard’s lawyer nor Judge Keen considered how vulnerable Steven was.

We need to remember Steven. Stephen Lawrence’s parents campaigned for their son’s murder to be seen for the hate crime that it was and for the police to take responsibility for being racist at an institutional level. Now we must campaign for Steven and make sure that the courts too can see hate crime for what it is. Every part of the justice system must recognize hate crime, the police the courts and the prison and probation services.

When hate crime is described as ‘horse play’ or a ‘prank’ it is trivialized. Society denies that there is a problem. It is all too easy for society to close its eyes to invisible differences like sexuality and autism. The courts need to open their eyes.

Barristers and judges need training on difference and diversity.

The Law Society is the professional body for lawyers. I will be contacting them and I ask you to do the same.