Knock her back

It is a still, bright morning so I decide to get a quick breath of air before breakfast. As I carry more recycling outside to my box awaiting the kerbside collection, the air around me smells sweet and fresh. While negotiating our high front step and smiling into the low sun, I twist my knee rather painfully, which takes me by surprise. This seems to be a new problem. Waiting to admire the cool morning quietness, I tumble backwards and land with a squawk in the patch of tidied-for-winter dwarf primroses that our downstairs neighbour carefully plants each year to catch some warmth against the brick wall. I hope she does not see me and conclude I am being careless.

Later in the day, while I am getting out of my car in town, I trip over an ancient paving stone and fall again, this time grazing my forearm. If you care to look, you will notice that our forearms are not particularly well padded. But that pain is nothing compared to the sheer agony of the painful knock to my left hip which follows, an impact that goes right in to the bone but leaves no external marks, only, after a few days, spectacular bruising. That agony is so intense that, mute and praying, I am frozen into disbelief, waiting to regain my breath and some small enthusiasm for movement. I walk rather gingerly for a while afterwards.

Falling is fairly routine, especially outside on unfamiliar ground. I wonder if the damage inflicted by two sudden and unpredictable falls – sore feet, sore neck, aching joints and painful wrists – is a fair price for the freedom of getting out and about.

The new assessments for Personal Independence Payments (which replace DLA) measure our lives against a series of set questions, but, as with most tests based on a lengthy form and a cursory examination on the day, little account is taken of impacts which spread like spores through the body after the main event. If our able-bodied colleagues who examine us fell the way we do, they would be in hospital and would probably feel entitled to sue someone for compensation. We manage, just as we always have, and for our efforts and stoicism it seems that we are to be punished with questions asking whether we can sit, stand, walk twenty metres and so on – how little we can manage before we surrender the unequal struggle and sign ourselves up for twenty-four /seven incapacity.

The most frustrating things about disability are that it comes with extra pain, with extra humiliation and with extra costs, which we are less able to recoup by joining your average labour market. Of course, it is no longer politically correct to suggest that work place discrimination is a problem, but that doesn’t mean that a level playing field has magically appeared from the lumps and tussocks that constitute the average barriers to workplace employment. For now, though, it is these extra costs of disability that assessments should focus on, rather than the precise or exact nature of what we can and cannot do, which is difficult enough to articulate at the best of times.

It is a double loss that we, and many other marginalised groups, try so hard to be like other people and then find our efforts rewarded with misunderstandings, when what we would most value is a fair assessment of the costs of living near the margins. I don’t care if my neighbour has insomnia and three legs. I am not interested in whether one may be shorter than the other two. That sort of interest is mere prurience. But I would be interested if her three legs disadvantaged her in finding work and meant that walking took her twice as long as her two-legged contemporaries. The effect of disability on “normal” life is what matters, not the precise nature of our incapacities. These should remain a private matter for us to manage as best we can. The costs of these incapacities are the only legitimate concern of social welfare assessments.

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