21 March 2016


My great-uncle Ben lost both of his legs; he had ‘hardening of the arteries.’ That ailment didn’t affect his cognitive abilities; I tend to the view that his vulnerabilities enhanced his remaining faculties and sharpened his focus on the things that really matter.

Uncle Ben had tartan carpet on the floor of his living room in his flat in a multi in Dundee and his Clan McEwen crest adorned the fireplace wall. Those decorations comprise some of the reasons why I admired him. The main reason though is that Uncle Ben is actually the first rebel I am ever aware of having encountered – he stored on his balcony the transmitter for the pirate Radio Scotland. And I believed, when I was 9, that Uncle Ben was indeed a pirate. If further proof of Uncle Ben’s fearlessness is required, I can confirm that he was raided by the police and faced them down so they didn’t locate the transmitter and the broadcasts continued. Yo ho ho!

Uncle Ben didn’t get out much at all. You’ll have worked out why that was. He didn’t have a carer, or an electric wheelchair, or a Motability car. He had a pair of crutches.

Uncle Ben didn’t have a bionic leg; I think his legs were wooden.

Uncle Ben didn’t have a walk in bath; he had a cloth at the sink.

I don’t know if Uncle Ben suffered from depression; I don’t imagine he was lonely. But, he was angry. When he was a bairn in Lochee he had watched his brothers march off to war. Some of those brothers were under age when they signed up, for King and Country. Uncle Ben read the names of his and their friends on the War Memorials in Dundee. And he raged. Some of Uncle Ben’s friends, the lucky ones, returned from war limbless. They were condemned to poverty and poor outcomes, alcoholism, deprivation and premature deaths.

Uncle Ben whirled the buttons on his transmitter on that balcony in Ardler and gazed out at the oilrigs being constructed for use in the North Sea. And he must have looked down at his stumps and wondered why, in the face of such boundless wealth, he was marooned 12 floors up with a radio transmitter and a crossword for company.

Uncle Ben didn’t get a Work Capability Assessment – but if he had, he would have passed it with flying colours. He would have been told that his artificial legs were ‘aids’ or ‘appliances’ and he would have had Employment Support Allowance while being trained for a return to the job market.

It wasn’t IDS or Stephen Crabb who brought Uncle Ben to my mind – it was a sight I saw in Stirling last weekend. An elderly man with one leg, he was an above knee amputee, and he was charging past me on his crutches. I thought I was going to explode as I watched him. I don’t know who this man was, I know nothing of his medical, employment, domestic or social history. I know only this – his determination, with the sweat running down the back of his neck, to walk under his own steam, on two battered crutches through Stirling town centre immediately rules him ineligible for PIP and Motability cars and electric wheelchairs and care at home. He’s doing it all by himself. In the caring and compassionate eyes of Stephen Crabb’s Ministry, his stoicism negates any disability.

Uncle Ben was a rebel. He was also a hero. So is that hardy stranger I saw in Stirling. I know many other heroes. Life is odd, with its twists and turns. Adversity sometimes creates opportunities to learn and to see things you might never have imagined, some of which you wished to remain ignorant of. Setbacks can and do introduce you to the bravest and kindest of people.

So, tonight I am thinking of other heroes whom I have been privileged to get to know a little in the last few years. I wish that all of their circumstances were very different.

There is the wee woman sitting downstairs in her flat with a bed in her living room, a commode nearby, and a cloth to wash herself at her kitchen sink. She can’t get upstairs to her bathroom and bedroom. She has one leg.

There is the man who got disability benefits when he had two legs, because he was in chronic pain with his bad leg. After its amputation, his benefits were stopped – because he was no longer in the same chronically painful state. I kid you not. Forget the fact that he had only one leg – and had not yet healed sufficiently to get a prosthetic. That wasn’t relevant to the assessment.

There is the man with no legs who was told at a benefits hearing to stand up, without his limbs, because the test said so.

There is the chap who goes to his work and pays his taxes and he’s not entitled to PIP because sometimes, not all the time, he can walk with his false leg on. The times he cannot use it are not relevant for the assessment of his eligibility.

There is the lady in tears because her Motability car, the only thing that gets her out into the world, is about to go. Without it, she will be housebound. She failed the test because with her ‘aid’ on she can walk a couple of yards.

So, when we are on the subject of tests, here’s a wee test for every MP sitting in Westminster today, who voted for austerity, and to cut from the disabled, drinking champagne and munching canapés we paid for – next time you sit down on the toilet, try standing back up again on one leg and pulling up your own drawers without falling over. Easy, is it? Then try it without standing up, as if you had no legs.

Here’s another test – make yourself a cup of tea and hop with it to your favourite chair. Mind and make it a really hot cup, preferably without milk.

Or try this – stand on one leg and open a waste bin with a foot pedal. Or fold an arm behind your back for a day and see what you can achieve.

If Uncle Ben were still alive, he would have that transmitter up full bung and by God they would hear him in Westminster. He isn’t here and I don’t have a transmitter, but they’re getting it anyway.

To be an amputee is not the end of the world, it just feels like it every now and again.

To be an amputee is not glamorous; but I do my best, sometimes. It’s not about photo opportunities and press releases and yomps and hikes to the Pole with a stray Royal parasite in tow.

Most amputees I know don’t aspire to a Scotland top and a medal at some future Paralympics; they try to fight back tears and anger and frustration, and the temptation to throw a leg or a crutch at the telly.

Amputees, in common with most disabled, vulnerable or challenged claimants, strive independence and mainly pretend or lie about their abilities because they are hurt, or weak, or scared. And we learn that the more we do for ourselves the less deserving of support we become. How’s that for incentivisation?

If Uncle Ben were alive today, he’d think he had mastered the art of time travel because those benefits and supports denied to him, which we in our civilised society valued and prized, are all being eroded and whittled away. Those payments and awards which brought a little dignity, self respect, care, are being amputated, and the benefits system left behind will become a stump, a rump, as useless as those two scarred and shrivelled stumps of Uncle Ben’s.

Others more eloquent than I can ever be will speak of how this government has lost its way in targeting the weakest, to save a few bob; there will be government statements about encouraging the disabled back to work, about support and advice, and personal responsibility. They have already started. Meantime, hundreds of thousands across these isles know beyond any shadow of a doubt that these cuts which have been halted temporarily will come creeping back in again once the dust settles. The Tory agenda, to which the Labour Party signed up, is all about targeting the poor to pay for the tax cuts to the rich, for HS2 or 3 or whatever it is, for Trident, for vanity projects and London-centric plans of largesse. Don’t make the mistake of blaming the Tories alone – Labour invented the Work Capability Assessment and employed ATOS. Jezza and Kez can’t spin that away.

So, as Uncle Ben would say, it’s time that we pirates unite, put Westminster to the sword and make each and every one of them walk that plank.