Quadriplegic in an age of austerity

October 17, 2010

Every time I write a story on European countries cutting public spending, I feel a frisson of panic. I can’t help but fear my health, lifestyle and liberty could be a casualty of the “age of austerity”.peter

On assignment covering the Sri Lankan civil war for Reuters four years ago, I broke my neck in a minibus smash. It left me quadriplegic, almost entirely paralysed from the shoulders down and totally dependent on 24 hour care. I was 25.

Nine months later, in a wheelchair, using voice recognition software and supported by government-funded personal assistants, I got back to work in Reuters London headquarters the day after leaving hospital. Now political risk correspondent for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, I write about the interplay of politics and markets. For the past year and a half, much of that has been the drive to cut government spending as Europe rebalances its books.

That hasn’t done my personal mental health any good at all. I even had my doctor tweak my medication to make sure worry didn’t produce a gastric ulcer.

Britain’s new coalition government intends to cut more than many countries, some 25 percent over five years. Some details will emerge in an Oct. 20 spending review, but I may have to wait until the end of the financial year for details on how that will affect my care and that of others.

In many respects, I have already been very lucky. Stringent UK employment law meant it was hard to pension me off just because of my disability. Improvements in voice recognition software meant I could still write at roughly the same speed as before – crucial to continuing work as a newswire journalist.

Most important of all, decades of growth in Britain’s social welfare system meant that – after a substantial struggle – enough state funding was available to look after me in my own home.

That – and a lot of personal grit and determination – opened the door to a relatively full, rewarding and normal life in a way that would be impossible in many countries.

Unfortunately, providing the utterly vital support to me at home and work will cost the British government millions of pounds over the coming decades, providing I live that long. True, I work and pay my taxes but I’m grimly aware I may cost the state far more than I contribute financially.

Travelling to Ireland with carers, hoist and other disability-related paraphernalia, I looked to see what impact some of Europe’s first serious cuts were having. It wasn’t particularly uplifting – disabled people seemed to be some of the worst affected, with discussions over compulsorily institutionalising those costing more than 80,000 euros a year.

In most countries including Britain, deficit reduction produces a fragmented backlash from affected groups. Each effectively wants the axe to fall on someone else.

Inevitably, I’ve become part of that process, learning the lessons from my reporting, trying to position myself as part of the solution and not part of the problem.

That might mean stressing that while I may cost a small fortune to keep independent, I am proving what disabled people can do in work – just as government moves to try to shift hundreds of thousands from expensive incapacity benefit either into the workforce or cheaper simple unemployment payments.

I know it’s not that simple. Just because I can work doesn’t mean someone with chronic fatigue problems can, even though they might appear to be less physically disabled.

But keen to prove my worth – as well as achieve some social good, of course – I’m trying to do what I can do help promote disabled employment.

I’m organising an event for local disabled young people to build aspirations and work skills, connecting them to potential employers and helping them with CV writing and interview skills. I’ve talked to charities, officials and even Disability Minister Maria Miller about what companies can do to help.

This isn’t, I tell myself, simply about my own selfish interests.

But I’m also keenly aware that when those in authority decide my fate, I want them to feel I’ve at least made the effort to be worth the financial cost. And I worry what will happen to those who don’t have my advantages.

(Photo: Reuters correspondent Peter Apps sits at his desk at the Reuters headquarters in Canary Wharf. Reuters/Jonathan Bainbridge)

One comment

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The ethical issue (I consider it a single issue) you raise concerns the notion that people must justify their existence – their lives? – by the work they do. The commandment seems to be “Thou shalt toil for bread, or be consigned to (hell? death? a deserved suffering?)” But in the inevitable post capitalist world, however many decades or even centuries it may take to come about, “work” will be differently assessed and measured. So, give sperm to your favorite sperm bank, and have faith that your descendants may well live a more cared for, and intrinsically rewarding, life.

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