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A report of the national conference on disability welfare in Sheffield will shortly be available on the SWAN website. The executive summary is below.
On 15th October 2005, Sheffield Welfare Action Network (SWAN) held a national conference on disability welfare in anticipation of the coming reforms in Incapacity Benefit (IB). The participants were mainly disability benefit recipients.
The first speaker was Lorna Reith, the Chief Executive of the Disability Alliance. Lorna gave a brief history of incapacity benefit reform as a background to the present changes. She argued against any splitting of IB into different benefits and against a punitive benefit system. She highlighted the importance of claimants speaking out.
The second speaker was Shelia Messider, co-ordinator of Advice Centre Support in Sheffield. She spoke on how the perspective of policy makers needed to be understood in order to effectively put the case of claimants. She highlighted how the media distorted the issue by focusing on fraud and how employers should be helped but also bear responsibility for creating suitable working environments.
Several claimants then gave testimonials. They spoke of the difficulties of employment, how uncaring employers created mental disorders. Of the fear created by the confrontational benefits assessment system and how impersonal it is when asking the most personal questions. Of the difficulty people had in using the system and how those that couldn’t suffered more depression and ill health. Of how appealing was almost part of the system. Of the need to find satisfaction in employment and the need for employers to understand the nature of disability, both physical and mental.
Three workshops were then held. The media workshop looked at issues of the media and disability welfare reform and strategies for the future. There was proposals for a national media watch to try and counteract distortion in the press. The need for media training and a structure which allowed fluctuating levels of involvement was also highlighted. The campaigns workshop looked at different groups of people that might be approached for support, from people inside government to activists. Targeting MP’s, unions and local media was important. Clear aims and objectives were also needed. The perspectives workshop looked at the different perspectives involved in disability welfare reform. Claimants wanted understanding of their needs and ability to work, with more support and less blame. Governments wanted to reduce spending, also to appear charitable but not look soft to the media. Front line staff were seen to often have lack of knowledge, be lacking in trust and were hampered by legislation.
The green paper is not now expected until January 2006 which gives SWAN more time to put the case for positive disability welfare reform. The conference was a bright start in organising campaigning in Sheffield and beyond.