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Poverty

And, yet again, I am feeling angry and reflective in equal measures thanks to something I’ve just seen on TV.

I’ve just seen an interview with one of the two homeless guys in Manchester who ran to help people who were bleeding and lying, seriously injured and even dying at the Arena and in the street, after the horrible attack in Manchester earlier this week. What an an amazing, selfless, wonderful human being. He fully deserves all the praise and plaudits and gratitude he is receiving, a true hero. And he wasn’t the only one either. I’m sure we’ve all heard of the other gentleman who cradled a dying woman in his arms as well. He was also homeless but that didn’t stop him trying to help where he could and offer comfort where it was needed.

But, what’s got me wondering is what’s actually happened here? What’s changed? Would the people who are setting up Go Fund Me and Just Giving appeals and donating money to these guys have even given them a second glance prior to the attack? Would they, would I, would most of us have offered help or food or money or a kind word or even a smile to them in passing? I would hope so but I don’t know. Sure, some people might have but, sadly, I am afraid the answer for the vast majority is almost certainly not. Most people, had they even noticed them and had they even reacted in any way at all would probably have done little more than tut, pull their children closer, out of the way, kept on walking and thought no more about it. If anything, that’s all.

So there we have it and here’s my big question of the day. What was it about these men that made them so unapproachable beforehand that has now changed? What was it that meant so many people, had they seen them begging outside the Arena last week, would have just shaken their heads and crossed the road? How many would have failed to even acknowledge their existence? Far too many I’m afraid. And what’s changed? Why are we now giving them all the help we can? What has made the difference? Why is the before scenario and the after scenario so different? These guys are still homeless, still down on their luck, still in dire need of help. All that’s changed is that their kindness and humanity has been spotted and highlighted and brought to the world’s attention thanks to the events of Monday night. Nothing else, that’s it.

But surely that kindness and humanity and goodness was there before the bomb. It can’t have just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. All that’s changed is that it just wasn’t recognised due to the  predisposition we seem to have in assuming that the people who are on the street must have done something bad to deserve it.

Why do we think like that? Just because someone is homeless and destitute and begging does not make them bad and deserving of whatever has happened to them. Just because someone has somewhere nice to live and a well-paid job and plenty to eat and lovely holidays does not make them good. The truth is that the homeless guy round the corner is little more than one step away from having a job and their own home and, the guy next door with the house and car and salaried employment is just one step away from being on the streets. No-one knows what is just round the corner for any of us which could change our lives forever, one way or the or the other. ‘There for the Grace of God, go I’ has never been more apposite.

It’s a terrible indictment on our society that it’s taken this awful event for these two homeless heroes to get the help they are now getting. Why didn’t they get that help beforehand? What has actually changed? And, what about all the other homeless people in this country who weren’t there and who weren’t able to do anything to help? Are they going to miss out yet again? I would hope not. I would hope that, whenever we see someone who is down on their luck that we remember Steve and Chris, for those are their names, and try to do something, however little, to show that we care.

I, for one am certainly going to try to make sure I don’t pass by on the other side in future. A simple smile or a quick ‘hello’ won’t hurt me and it might help a homeless person feel like person again, it might even be the very thing that tips the scale and makes a real difference.

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I am getting entirely fed up with the number of adverts I am seeing on my TV for lotteries and, in particular, lotteries for charities.

Seemingly endless ways of people wanting to take my money for largely, no return.

RNIB, Poppy Lottery, Oxfam, Cancer Research, they’re all doing it. The list is never-ending.  

Why are these charities spending, what must be thousands, on this sort of TV advertising and why are they pandering to our ‘get rich quick’ society. Why re they trying to take our money for virtually nothing. Celebrities don’t do these ads for free, they charge, the TV companies showing the ads don’t air them for nothing, they are out to make a profit. £1 per week here, £1 per week there, for every pound spent on lotteries, that’s one less pound that could be spent on things more important things such as food, clothes, heating and lighting.

It all mounts up, there must be another way.

And, who are the people who spend money on lotteries, speculating on financial pipe-dreams? Is it the people at the top, the people with money to burn, the bankers, the politicians, the businessmen and women in the gilded skyscrapers of the City, the high rollers, the elite or is it the people at the bottom who just scraping by and who barely have enough for their daily living needs. The celebrities who are promoting these lotteries are unlikely to be buying their weekly ticket, the shareholders of the TV companies showing the ads are not dreaming of a big win, they already get that when their dividends are paid. A study in the USA in the Journal of Gambling Studies in 2012 found that ‘Those in the lowest fifth in terms of socioeconomic status (SES) had the “highest rate of lottery gambling (61%)’. It’s not the rich who are gambling away their money because that’s what it is, gambling, it’s the poor who have little enough disposable income as it is. I know that someone has to win and that some lucky people actually have, but the chances ‘It Could be You’ are vanishingly small.

Unlike the National Lottery, big-charity lottery players don’t even receive a ticket or have a thrill of anticipation, watching the balls being drawn live, checking their numbers off when the draw is made after yet another TV, get rich quick, game show. They don’t even know what their numbers are or which numbers have been drawn each week. Nothing to show for what they have spent. They just have the money taken out of their bank accounts, week in, week out for nothing more than an sophisticated raffle.

It all mounts up, there must be another way.

I know these charities do amazing things for their beneficiaries. I know they need to get their money from somewhere. Having worked for one of them I am fully aware of the great work that is being done, how much it costs and all the people who are being helped but, much of the time, the people paying out and buying the tickets are the very same people who are on the receiving end too. All too often the pound they spent on their ticket is going into the grants for good causes which they are using and benefiting from anyway.

Why not cut out the middlemen who are making and showing the ads and doing something else instead. If the celebrities, TV Companies and big businesses who have so much just gave just a little of it every year to Charities then we wouldn’t need the endless lotteries. And regular donations would be so much better and so much more helpful anyway. The big charities could still get their money and the smaller charities could still get their grants but there would be some certainty to the charity’s income. And the government could help too. Instead of giving tax-breaks to the rich they could give more of our tax money to the services that are currently being propped up by the charities operating lotteries.    

I’m not against people having fun or trying to dictate how people send their money but I do find the non-stop ‘it’s only a pound’ mantra more than a little cynical. Paying fifty pence on the raffle or the tombola at the church fete, school fair or country show, where players stand a reasonable chance of winning a box of chocolates or a bottle of bubbly is one thing but the big, national charity lotteries where your chance of winning anything meaningful are something else entirely.

It all mounts up, there must be another way.

Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor but we appear to be robbing the poor to help the poor down the road whilst the rich sit in their ivory towers raking in the proceeds.

There has to be another way.

So. Today is voting day for the Referendum which means I have had to get up. I don’t do getting up every day but today is too important not to so I am now sitting in my wheelchair and I’m not entirely happy about it.

For those of you that don’t know me or my situation, let me explain.

I should start by saying that, for me, the wheelchair scenario is nothing new. I have been a full-time wheelchair user for nearly twenty years now so you’d think I should be used to it by now, and in most ways, I guess I am. But, over the past two years, things have changed dramatically. My impairment has deteriorated markedly and, because of this, I now spend most of my time in a hospital type bed in my living room. I get up a mere three or four times in a month to go out but bed is where you will normally find me. I would love to be able to get up more often, most of the time if I’m honest, but, thanks to my rotten, horrible, massively uncomfortable NHS wheelchair, I can’t.

Before things deteriorated I used to be pretty active. Not a bouncey, run-around, exercisey sort of active lifestyle of course, my MS didn’t let me do that, but a busy, non stop, very fulfilling, sort of active lifestyle nonetheless. What you would expect for a woman in their late forties, early fifties to be honest. I worked full time, went out with my friends a lot, traipsed off into town on shopping trips when I felt like it, went to the pictures and the theatre with my family occasionally, had fun, had a life. And to enable this life to happen, I had a pretty decent wheelchair which I obtained through a scheme called Access to Work. This is a Government funded scheme which allows disabled people to obtain the help and equipment they need to get on a level playing field with their non-disabled colleagues. My wheelchair didn’t do everything of course but it did all the things I needed it to do to allow me be comfortable and busy at the same time. I could recline the back, raise and lower my feet at the touch of a button, tilt the whole chair so I could relax when I wanted to and it had enough battery power to allow me to go where I wanted, when I wanted without the risk of grinding to an undignified halt. When I became too sick to work any more I had owned it for around five years and I had also owned a similar chair for about five years before that so I was used to it and what it did. There was one other thing I loved about it – it was easy to drive and so was so maneuverable that I could get on and off buses, or into cabs if I wanted to, without a problem. I was used to it, I loved it and I was happy and comfortable with the freedom it gave me. It was an integral part of me. But it was old and clunky and squeaky and bits were falling off it. It wa coming to the end of it’s active life and it needed to be replaced. That would have been fine if I had still been in work, I could have just got another chair through Access to Work, but I’d had to give up work when I got sicker so I was no longer eligible and I couldn’t afford to buy one privately. Decent wheelchairs are far too expensive. I now have to rely on the good old NHS for my equipment.

I fully understand that the NHS is publicly funded and so has to show it is value for money and not frittering public money away but does that have to mean that, whilst the equipment it provides for disabled people is functional, it is not what that disabled person really needs. It may have to be as inexpensive as possible, but that does not necessarily mean it is entirely fit for purpose. The cheapest option is not always the best, the most efficient or the most cost effective. Having a wheelchair that gets me around but which causes extreme discomfort and pain is not a great idea really. It means that I am more likely to need to see my GP o the District Nurse more often, that I need to have home care workers and support staff attend in my home more often and that I am reliant on other people for almost everything I want. And that has a cost too. With this, cheaper chair I am not getting to go out and about  as much as I once did. I’m not not able to volunteer at my local disability organisation any more, I’m not able to use local facilities like the library or neighbourhood shops as much as I once did. My quality of life has diminished. I can’t go to the doctor on my own or pick up prescriptions from the chemist if I need to, they have to come to me. I’m not able to even think about getting a part-time job to boost my meagre income and pay my taxes. I have become a drain on the system, I am unable to contribute.

Why can’t things be looked at in the round and not separately through their individual elements? Why can’t cause and effect be taken into account? Why is money and cost always the primary concern when looking at the needs of disabled people rather than what might be the most beneficial and cater for that person’s needs the best? Surely spending a little bit more now, if that would mean spending a lot less later would be more sensible. Maybe one day I will be able to have a wheelchair which will take into account all my needs rather than just giving me the one that is the least expensive. I want something that will allow me to be the real me again not just a shadow of the me I used to be because it’s cheaper. We only have one chance at life so give me, and all the other disabled people in the country having to use the cheapest option available, the tools we need to take that chance rather than always looking for a way to pennypinch and cut corners. The cheapest option is not always the best option and short-term pain will not always lead to long term gain. We all should have the right to live and not just exist and I would like to have the chance to have that right too.

No wonder people in this country believe disabled people are inherently scroungers, receiving money for nothing, when we are greeted by headlines in national newspapers and on the TV, like the ones I have seen today, saying that our welfare benefits are to be cut by £150 per week in next week’s Budget. Benefits that we receive for being sick and disabled. Benefits that are supposed to help put us on a level playing field with our non-disabled fellow citizens. Benefits that we ourselves, or our families, have contributed to by way of taxes and NI contributions.  No wonder we are being vilified and thought of as living a pampered life of luxury when we’re not. No wonder we get shouted at and abused in shops and on the streets by people who are also struggling in the gloom of austerity. No wonder when misinformation such as that I have seen and read today are being quoted on Social Media and by the media as being fact.

These figures are not right. They cannot be right. It is mathematically impossible for them to be right. Figures, implying that our benefits can be cut by £150 every week and still leave us with enough to live on, make it sound as if we must receive an absolute fortune but this is far from the truth. Where these figures coming from?  I don’t know but they are not right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the situation is not dire, it is, but, by giving out incorrect numbers as fact, the public are being led to believe we can afford to absorb the cuts. We can’t. The problem is, as far as I am concerned, that when the real figures for the cuts are given they will have to be lower than £150 per week as we don’t get that much in the first place. It will look like the Government has listened and has toned things down a bit, when they haven’t. They can’t have done. However hard they try to make us believe it, they cannot reduce figures when the number they are starting from is so wildly out of kilter with reality. They look like they are trying to make it appear they have done us a favour. Well it’s not true. They won’t have because they can’t.

Let me show you the problem and try to set the record straight.

As someone who actually receives these benefits, the numbers quoted in the press and on TV didn’t sound quite right to me but I wasn’t going to kick up a fuss without being sure. I needed to know for certain or I would be doing exactly what I was complaining about and saying something that wasn’t true. So I checked and I was right. The numbers quoted are wildly inaccurate and misleading. PIP or Personal Independence Payments and it’s predecessor, DLA or Disability Living Allowance, the benefits they are talking about, are split into two separate payments, one for care and one for mobility. Disabled people are tested against a number of criteria and are then awarded points based on what we can and can’t do, the help we do or don’t need to do those things and what specialist aids and equipment we may or may not need to do those everyday tasks.  Current rates are set at weekly figures of £82.30 for care and £57.45 for mobility meaning that the most anyone can get for PIP or DLA, combining the two amounts together, is £139.75 per week, a figure that is £10.25 per week LESS than the amount we are reported to be losing every week thanks to Mr Osborne’s cuts. No wonder people who don’t actually know think we are all coining it in.

Where are these numbers coming from then? Are the press being told the figures by the politicians? Are people not even bothering to check that it makes sense? Are they just blindly believing and printing what they are being told? Don’t they even check for accuracy? That’s what it looks like to me and it’s sloppy, it’s not helpful and it’s wrong. If I, an ordinary citizen with no journalistic training whatsoever, can find accurate information on current benefit rates by typing a simple question into Google,namely ‘What are PIP rates for 2016/2017’ surely even a junior hack could do the same thing. Getting it wrong is not helpful, especially for the people you are trying to help and support, it can even make things worse. Please try to check what you are printing or saying before you print or say it, what is so hard about doing that?

I sometimes wonder how local Councils think they can get away with some of the things they do. Well, actually, I know exactly what they think they can get away with, pretty well anything they like because no-one seems to do anything about most of it.

So, I hear you asking, what is she talking about this time?

What has rattled her cage today?

Well, as always, it’s more stuff I have learnt from my favoured medium, Facebook. People have posted up links to stories that have made me really angry. Again.

As far as I can see, two London Councils, Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham, have decided to axe their Meals on Wheels Service for older and disabled people. In the case of one of these Councils it has been suggested that the Service can be replaced by providing vulnerable people with frozen, Tesco Finest, ready meals which will need to be microwaved and, the other Council suggests, Foodbanks can take up the strain.

No, no and no!

What is it about Meals on Wheels that these Councils are failing to grasp? This is a service that is for older and disabled people who are unable to prepare a decent meal and cook for themselves or use a microwave to ensure that they get to eat one nutritious, balanced, hot meal every day. They are not a luxury for the lazy who can’t be bothered to cook, they are a necessity for people who would otherwise be resorting to soup and sandwiches, if they are to get anything much to eat at all. Ready Meals are not, as far as I can tell, the most wonderful things you can buy to eat. Even the so-called ‘Finest’ range seem to have excess sugar, salt and preservatives in them. The ingredients cannot be described as ‘fresh’ having been mainly frozen or dried and they have not been lovingly prepared by trained cooks or chefs for the consumer’s delectation. They are fine for a one off, emergency meal, but not every day and certainly not for older and disabled people who need good, healthy meals which include all the right amounts of the recommended food groups to stay as fit as possible. Ready meals are not the solution, they are merely an emergency or stop-gap measure which should be the exception and not the rule. It may be cheaper in the short-term to provide ready meals for everyone who needs them but, in the long-term, all you are likely to end up with is more admissions in hospitals for malnutrition or diabetes or people with raised blood pressure or heart problems due to an overload of sodium in their diet.

Then there is the other idea. That Foodbanks can take up the slack. Apart from anything else, this shows a complete lack of understanding of the role and purpose of a foodbank. The food that people get from them is not a cooked meal, it is uncooked food which the recipients need to be able to prepare and cook themselves. On their own. Without help. Why do people who have Meals on Wheels use the service? Because they are unable to prepare and cook a meal for themselves. Giving vulnerable people the ingredients is not going to help, however nice they if they are, if these people are unable to do anything with them. What people need is a fully prepared, cooked  meal, not a new household decoration. It makes no sense. Just because someone has the raw ingredients for a meal it does not mean they have had anything to eat. Not only that but Foodbanks don’t have the staff to to cook and prepare meals. They don’t have the vans or the drivers to deliver them. And, they don’t have any kitchens either.

It’s time Local Councils nationwide stop trying to always take the cheapest option but actually think about what they are doing. Saving money in the short-term is all very well and good but, if that saving creates even more problems, is it a saving at all? Stop taking a seemingly easy option without considering the consequences. Spending a little more now could save so much further on down the line. Look at the reason a service is being provided before cutting it to the quick. Short-term solutions rarely work in the long term.

Interesting.

I have been watching ‘This Morning’ on TV and they were doing a phone-in about a storyline that’s coming up on Corrie and it got me thinking. Given that many people could get help with their issues by seeing characters in their favourite soap operas going through the same thing, could this be exploited in some way? I know that, quite often, we get the helpful message at the end of a programme giving a phone number that people can ring if they have been affected by any of the issues they have just seem, but could more be done?

I think it could.

Soap operas are supposed to represent a dramatised view of everyday life, but do they? As far as I am concerned, we are supposed to relate to various characters because they are going through the same life challenges as us. Sure, most of the time the people on the Street, in Albert Square or up in the Dales seem to lurch from crisis to crisis but can any of these crises be used to help us?

I think they can.

Let’s look at Eastenders, my soap of choice, how come none of the characters appear to be unemployed? They seem to come out of school and waltz straight into a job on the market, in the cafe or convenience store or at the Vic. Is that realistic? No, it isn’t. Most young people move from school to Uni, College, an apprenticeship or, in many instances, down to the local Job Centre to sign on for JSA or ESA. Why does this never seem to happen in Eastenders? It also appears that every single character has a job on the Square. Not one of them, as far as I can see anyway, leaves their house in the morning to battle their way through London congestion to work in the city or somewhere else closer to home. No-one seems to return in the evening exhausted and stressed after another day in their boring office job, pen-pushing. That’s what the rest of us do, why not the Beales, the Mitchells or the Fowlers? Do they all work in the Square? What an amazing place Walford must be with full employment and apparent jobs available at the click of the fingers whenever they are needed. I almost want to move there myself.

Then there are the other opportunities there are to help viewers. What about the obviously disabled character, Donna, does she receive DLA and is she about to be transferred to PIP? In the real world, almost certainly, in the wonderful world of Walford, who knows. Disabled people nationwide are having to go through reassessments, invasive medicals and endless appeals, maybe Donna should have to go through this too. That way the viewing public could be guided towards all the wonderful, helpful organisations that are out there when it seems there is nowhere else to turn. When it comes to Welfare Benefits, a storyline that would resonate with so many people would be a character who is in receipt of JSA or ESA and who gets sanctioned for no real reason apart from a delayed bus making them late to sign on. Someone needing to use a Foodbank and dealing with the potential embarrassment and stigma this can cause. And what about that same character falling into debt and having to resort a payday loan company? Just seeing the problems that can cause and where people need to go to sort things out would be so helpful.

That, in my belief, is only the start of things. I would like to see stories that better reflect the problems of the wider community and potential solutions. I think that would be so helpful to so many. I know Soap Operas are not here to educate, they are here to entertain but surely education and entertainment can be combined. To all the writers and Directors and Producers out there, what about using your characters go through the same things that we do. We’ve had Hayley Cropper in Corrie and Dot Branning in Eastenders, give us more and reflect the lives we are all living every day. Have desperate people who are looking for help and support the same way we do. Show us some of the places we can go and some of the things we can do and you would be doing so much for your audience. Apparently the average Briton spends an entire year throughout their lifetime watching soaps. Help to make that a year well spent and not a wasted year. Help us to help ourselves and give us all some idea where we can go when it looks like there is nowhere. Do that and, I’m sure, we will all place greater value on our TV licences and resent the advertising revenue that is generated for big businesses on Commercial Channels less. Help us to help ourselves and, in exchange, we, your audience, will thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Education and entertainment intertwined.

Think about it.

One of the things I have seen online today that has made me think is an article about one of the 7/7 survivors who is having to go through the humiliating experience of applying for Employment Support Allowance. This man is a double amputee who has lost an eye and his spleen and is now a wheelchair user. The article is concerned with how awful it is that someone, who was so severely injured due to a terrorist act, and whose injuries are a matter of record, has to prove he is disabled in order to receive support.

I agree, it is horrible and disgusting that he is having to do this but, in my opinion, he is not being asked to do anything, that is in any way, unusual. For so many disabled people this is a normal part of applying for the minute dregs we are entitled to from the welfare state.

As far as I can see, all that has happened is that he is being asked to complete the same form all disabled people have to  complete when we have to apply for ESA or, as a matter of fact, for any other benefit. This is, in fact, something we have to do on a practically daily basis. We have to justify our existence and the help we need all the time. The form this man is being asked to complete is one of the same humiliating forms all disabled people are sent when they apply for Employment Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payments, Attendance Allowance and the myriad of other soul-destroying forms we have to complete where we have to go into all the things we CAN’T do rather than focussing on all the things we CAN. Benefit forms, home care forms, medical forms, a snowstorm of paperwork and online assessments. All nosey, mortifying and embarrassing.

So, why is it still deemed justifiable to do this? Why do people who are ill or injured have to go into the minutae of their everyday existence in order to receive any support at all?

As far as I am aware disabled and older people are asked about their limitations more often than anyone else. In order to receive any benefits at all we are asked unwanted, invasive, intrusive,  questions about our personal lives and then, in so many instances, we get called in for a face-to-face grilling as if we are criminals or trying to get something for nothing. These assessments are about such glorious subjects as our mobility capabilities, our personal habits and our mental state. If we can walk, how far we can go? How tired do we get when we do anything? Can we pick up an empty box or a carton of milk? How about a 5p piece, can we manage that if it’s on a table or on the floor? We are asked to take off our shoes and attempt to scramble onto a high examination bed. We are quizzed about our bowel and bladder functions. Do we wet or mess ourselves and, if we do, how often? Can we wash or bathe unaided or do we need someone to assist with everything we do? Do we need encouragement to do things or feel too anxious or concerned to attend meetings or go to work.

For many disabled people, completing a benefits application form is one of the most upsetting things we ever have to do. Having to answer questions about what we can’t do and focus on all the things we may have had had no trouble with in the past, but are now unable to tackle due to our impairments, is so upsetting, so depressing that it is almost impossible to do. Filling in one of these forms, especially if you used to be active, sporty or just, unimpaired is one of the most horrible things a disabled person can be asked to do. It is almost unbearably hard to consider what you, as an individual, may have lost through no fault of your own. To face the fact that your entire life has changed and you are now, in many instances, dependent on others for so much is awful.

There must be another way. A way where claimants don’t end up feeling suicidal thanks to the things they are asked and the way they are asked them. It must be possible for this information to be garnered without people feeling they have to go through the Spanish Inquisition to get what they are entitled to.  GPs and specialists may hold the answer. Medical reports and specialist opinion should be given proper consideration. What is clear is that this third degree stuff has to stop. Whatever happens, the system as it is cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged and unaltered. It needs to change so we can celebrate our successes, not despair over our failures. Reminding us, at every turn, of what we have lost is cruel, in the extreme, and needs to come to an end now. This constant questioning of disabled people about the things, over which we have no control, is just plain wrong and inhumane.

Stop it now, before it’s too late, and try something else, we beg you.