Disability campaigners have blocked one of central London‘s busiest road junctions with a line of wheelchair users chained together in the first of a series of protests against government welfare cuts.
The demonstration – which brought much of Oxford Circus to a standstill for more than two hours – was the result of an alliance between disabled groups and UK Uncut, which has staged similar protests against corporations accused of avoiding tax.
The protest was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), while UK Uncut provided advice on how to stage an eyecatching, media-friendly event and brought along several of its own supporters.
The direct action began just before midday when a group of wheelchair users lined themselves along the northern edge of Regent Street, blocking traffic in both directions. The wheelchairs were chained together, and then chained to railings on either side of the road.
Within about 20 minutes, with traffic stationary and congestion spilling over into other streets, around 300 people were standing at the junction, chanting, playing drums and waving placards against the welfare reform bill, which is currently going through parliament.
After the road had been blocked for just over an hour, police asked over a loudhailer that the protesters move, which they refused to do. Eventually, at around 2pm, they unchained themselves and left voluntarily.
Planned cuts to the disability living allowance under the bill could see 500,000 disabled people losing money, the charity Mencap said.
Many of the disabled people taking part said they had never before joined a demonstration but felt angry at both the proposed cuts and the associated rhetoric from both ministers and the media.
“The tabloids have created this idea that we’re scroungers or fakers,” said Steven Sumpter, a 33-year-old who left his home in Evesham, Worcestershire, at 6.30am to join the line of chained-up wheelchair users. “This has allowed the government to do this – I think disabled people are seen as a good scapegoat.”
Merry Cross, from Reading, Berkshire, said disabled people needed to work together to get their voices heard. She said: “We’re seen as quite an easy target. We’re not a natural community – we don’t necessarily live in the same places, and we can find it hard to get together. That makes it easy for the government to think they can target us.”
Changes to the disability living allowance were likely mean her losing care assistance at home, Cross said, adding: “I’ve had it continuously for 20 years and now, when I’m 61, apparently I can cope fine without it. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Josie, 52, from Hampshire, who asked not to give her full name, said her disablity, which has left her with limited mobility and near-constant pain, was caused by a fall onto a concrete floor at work 10 years ago.
“I was doing three jobs until my accident and I was a keen hill walker,” she said. “But with the injuries from the fall I can only work part time. I’m probably going to have to give them up now because the cuts will mean I get less help.
“I’ve never been on a protest before, but the government’s plans make me so angry.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the government remained “absolutely committed to supporting disabled people”, spending more than £40bn a year on support.
He said: “Households where someone receives disability living allowance will be exempt from the benefit cap, and we are giving local authorities an additional £190m over four years to ensure vulnerable people are supported through the housing benefit reform, so we are not expecting people to become homeless.
“The introduction of the universal credit, from 2013, will see a simpler and fairer system of support for disabled people.
“More importantly, there will be no cash losers at the point of transition to universal credit, and disabled adults in greatest need and severely disabled children will receive more support than now.”