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Austerity In The United Kingdom Leaves Disabled In Fear For Their Lives

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Lisa Egan
Lisa Egan

This article is part of a Huffington Post series on the global impact of austerity -- "A Thousand Cuts" -- from affordable housing funds lost in San Francisco to increasing class sizes in New York, food inspector cuts in Canada, disability benefits taken away in the United Kingdom, decimation of France's solar industry, and more. Click here for information on how you can help people affected by these measures.

LONDON -- “The big problem for me is fear,” said Lisa Egan.

Since birth, the 33-year-old has dealt with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. The condition has caused more than 60 fractures in Egan's lifetime, including five separate breaks in 2011.

“I once broke my back sleeping in an awkward position,” she said. Because her disease is “wearing out her joints,” doctors told Egan to use a wheelchair.

“I can walk a very short distance and very slowly,” said Egan, who lives in Camden, North London. “But sometimes things happen, such as my knee dislocates or I will tear a tendon out of a metatarsal and pull the end of the bone off with it. … So I use a wheelchair most of the time.”

Despite her condition, Egan said she does not like to be seen as “vulnerable.” Intelligent and articulate, she has written extensively on disability and politics, and has even tried a stint at stand-up comedy.

As one of nearly 500,000 people in the United Kingdom who rely on welfare benefits, however, Egan now experiences fear daily: fear for her future, fear for her ability to live independently, even fear for her life.

The global economic crisis cast a shadow over the 2010 general election in the U.K., and the new coalition government, led by the center-right Conservative Party, introduced sweeping austerity measures, to the tune of £80 billion over five years.

The reductions are widely regarded as the most severe cuts in any developed Western nation so far. The London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies described them as “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since the Second World War.

The cuts have touched nearly every part of the state, from public sector jobs to the military. But welfare recipients have been the hardest hit, with upwards of £18 billion slashed from the welfare budget in 2010 and an additional £11 billion per year scheduled to be cut by 2014. The Tories have long criticized Britain’s "something for nothing culture," and since coming to power, they have clamped down on those perceived to be leeching off the system.

As Prime Minister David Cameron explained in a recent blog post for The Huffington Post, “By reforming welfare we will get people into fulfilling jobs, not abandon them to poverty and dependency, save billions of pounds of taxpayers' money and make sure those who really need help get it.”

The Welfare Reform Act, which Parliament passed earlier this year, replaced a number of benefits with a "universal credit," which is capped at £26,000 annually.

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HuffPost readers: Do you worry about losing disability benefits, or have you lost them? Tell us how you cope by emailing offthebus@huffingtonpost.com, and include a phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.

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The new scheme for disability benefits has left people like Egan in limbo. She currently collects around £95 a week in Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which she uses to pay for her car. Egan said that if she is no longer eligible to receive the money, she may be forced to give up the vehicle.

“If I lose my car, I lose everything,” she said. “I’ll be rendered virtually housebound. Without it, I can’t go shopping. … As a manual wheelchair user, I don’t have spare hands to carry shopping bags home. If I lose my car, I lose my social life. And what about my frail, elderly father? I can’t drag luggage to the train station. And I won’t be able to afford a taxi. If my car goes, how am I going to visit him? My car is everything to me.”

The government is evaluating each welfare applicant to determine how much money the individual needs, a process that will continue through the end of next year. Claimants must pass a series of activity tests, ranging from food preparation and communication to dressing and bathing.

Egan has yet to receive a date for her evaluation, but the prospect hangs over her head like a sword, ready to sever the payments that have allowed her to lead a full and independent life. “They are currently reassessing everyone on incapacity benefit, finding a third of people fit for work even if they’re suffering from suicidal depression,” she said.

Government figures back this up. In March, following the first round of reassessment, the Department for Works and Pensions found 37 percent of 141,100 individuals who claimed incapacity benefit were “fit for work.” Despite the government's contention that it is now saving money by weeding out cheats, official estimates published in 2011 found fraud and error within the DLA system accounted for only 0.5 percent of the total cost.

Separate from the welfare system, social care, which is provided by local authorities (not the central government), has also undergone dramatic change. The old system was split into three parts -- moderate care, substantial care and critical care -- with claimants receiving help depending on their needs. The reforms did away with the moderate care category.

Even before the cuts, not all local authorities provided moderate care. Egan was lucky: Camden did. But not any more.

“People rely on this moderate help," said Sue Marsh, a 38-year-old with severe Crohn's disease and a campaigner for disabled causes. "They are terrified."

"People with fluctuating conditions, such as Crohn's or Parkinson’s, could get help during prolonged periods of suffering," she explained. "Now that has completely gone.”

“This when combined with the loss of the Disability Living Allowance is absolutely catastrophic,” Marsh said.

Cameron's support for welfare cuts has baffled many because he has firsthand experience with the problems of disability. The prime minister’s son Ivan, who died in 2009 at age 6, had cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.

“It’s an aspect I’ve thought a lot about,” Marsh said. “Cameron had his experience with a profoundly disabled child, but his attitude appears to be if you’re not profoundly disabled, you need to pull yourself up, take the knocks and get to work.”

In a recent parliamentary session, Cameron prefaced an answer to a question on the removal of disability benefits by reminding the House that he is “someone who has actually filled out the form for disability allowance and had a child with cerebral palsy.”

Yet the cuts have gone ahead, and for some, the prospect of losing their benefits has already proved too much.

In February, Craig Monk, who had lost a leg in an accident a few years earlier, hanged himself at his home in Lancashire. At the inquest, his neighbor reported that Monk had been worried about his benefits being cut.

Last month, Karen Sherlock, who faced a raft of debilitating conditions, including diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastroparesis, diabetic retinopathy, a heart condition, chronic kidney disease and high blood pressure, died of a heart attack after some of her benefits were stopped.

In a final blog post, she wrote, “I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the [kidney] transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.”

Egan knows how Sherlock must have felt. “If I lose the money, the consequences of what will happen to me do not bear thinking about. It’s pure fear.”

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