This video is called ATOS FORCING DISABILITY WEBSITES OFFLINE.
The poetry of struggle – Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos
Wednesday 10 April 2013
Mark Burnhope is part of an anti-austerity campaign with a twist – he’s an editor of the website Fit to Work: Poets Against Atos.
Taking the fight against welfare reform into the field of culture, the site is an ambitious attempt to change the very meaning of the phrase “fit to work.”
“We want to change the meaning of ‘fit to work’ from a condemnatory life sentence to a recognition that everyone is fit to – and wants to – work, in dignity and security at the work of their choice,” he says.
“We believe that these circumstances are often off-limits – we are fit to work, but by and large our corporate culture is not fit for anyone to work in.
“That’s amplified by the experience of physical or mental illness and disability.”
The project hopes to add to the already high, and rising, tide of protest against what Burnhope terms “the corporatisation of the Department for Work and Pensions,” represented by Atos and the work capability assessment programme.
“To say the programme isn’t working is a gross understatement,” Burnhope tells me.
And poetry can make a difference?
“WH Auden‘s line ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ has been taken out of context and made into a challenge – one we’re accepting,” he smiles.
What brought Burnhope into disability activism?
“Amid the misery of the coalition government there have been flashes of excitement as a coalition is being created on the streets, in squats, in occupations and in community groups,” he says.
“We’ve seen disabled and disability activists at the forefront of student fees protests, and the benefits cuts are leading to an alliance around disability rights between disability activists and other campaigners.
“We’re making contacts as we go – building bridges between poetry and disability arts communities, finding contributors from all around – and they’re finding us, which is nice.
“Speaking for myself, as someone born with physical and hidden disabilities, until the coalition came in I felt more of an ally than an activist when it came to disability rights. Even now, maybe I’m just a ‘proactivist’ or a ‘reactivist’ – I’ve watched the government swing a wrecking ball through the sick and disabled community and I’ve had to say no. Publicly.
“Like race, gender and sexuality, disability has often been invisible on the left or regarded as an add-on – but now people are seeing that it’s not a supplementary, minority issue but central and far-reaching. Disabled people have always faced a dominant culture which sees their complaints and demands as quaint.
“But we’re now seeing the effects of a government and media-manufactured culture that sees benefit claimants – any benefit claimants, the average Joe doesn’t differentiate – as ‘scroungers.’
“The overwhelming mood among the disabled and sick people I know and have met through social networks is that this protest has become synonymous with disabled rights as a whole. These times could be the most significant for disabled rights in recent history. We’re taking back the movement from a government that makes every effort to undo its achievements.”
I ask him about the co-editors he runs the site with.
“They are awesome – but not as awesome as me,” he laughs. “Plus, we prefer the politically correct term ‘minions.’
“Sophie Mayer and I worked together on Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, an online campaigning anthology that brought together over 100 poets and culminated in the production of a book and eight launch events nationally.
“That project is what gave us the confidence to start Fit to Work and use blogging and other social media to ensure it reached the widest possible audience.
“Sophie is also a poet in her own right, published by Salt and others. Daniel Sluman edits a magazine called Dead Ink and recently had his first full poetry collection published by Nine Arches Press.
“Sophie and Daniel are both passionate about identity politics including disability, social justice, equality, all that stuff. And they’re inclusive but critical about poetry, so they were a natural choice.”
What inspired the project?
“Pictures of tiny babies crying as they are evicted and sent to the workhouse because they and their parents have rickets caused by corporate lobbying from supermarkets which has eviscerated inner-city food availability.
“In other words – the combined effects of simultaneous vicious attacks on the 99 per cent and how they affect people with disabilities – universal credit, the personal independence payment and employment support allowance, the bedroom tax, the continued outsourcing of the work capability assessment programme – with the free market, profit-led values that promotes.
“This is intensified by the tabloid media’s language of ‘scrounging’ and ‘skiving,’ all of which undermine any gains made in dismantling the disabling public perceptions of people with disabilities.
“It’s the horrible paradox where [Minister for Disabled People] Esther McVey claims she is helping (helpless) people with disabilities out of the oppression of benefits – double-speak for depriving us of what we need to participate in an ‘ablist’ society on our own terms.”
And how’s the campaign going?
“We’ve had nearly 100 submissions,” he says. “Both the poetry community in this country and the disability arts and activism community have shown their support by submitting work, reading the site and sharing it.
“We’ve got a WriteToThem link on the site so that readers can share it with their MPs, and we’re waiting to see what – if any – responses we get, which we’ll post on the site.
“So far all but a – legendary – handful of MPs have been very quiet about the total eradication of a fair benefits system, and we’re hoping against hope that the poems and statements on the site wake them up to the real effects on their constituents.
“We’re also running a GoFundMe campaign to support the site, which we’re running independently and for free. But we know that many of our contributors and readers are all struggling in the same economic situation. We’d like to raise enough money to enlarge the project, maybe with a print book, and even live reading events and workshops, thus increasing its visibility further.”
Any public events planned? Burnhope answers with a question.
“Does anyone have an accessible – and public transport accessible – venue with sign-language and hearing aid provision?” he asks.
“If so, we’d love to hear from you, so we can bring our poets and our audience together. Get in touch!”
Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter. Read more here.
Dogged campaign group Glasgow Against Atos (GAA) members gathered today outside the Commonwealth Games sponsor’s local office to mark a year and one day since their epic picket began: here.