An Open Letter to My MP @willquince – Don’t Ride Roughshod Over the Voices of Your Disabled Constituents

Will Quince, MP for Colchester since 2015

 

Dear Will

Since I first contacted you almost 10 months ago about my application for ESA, and my concerns about this given that I am a wheelchair user, I have sought to communicate to you the multiple issues of inaccessibility at Colchester’s ESA Assessment Centre. I have sought to do so with patience, with reason and with a (now obviously misplaced) hope that you would listen to all of the concerns, frustrations, fears and experiences of those of us who have been subjected to the discriminations that arise from those many problems.

Don’t worry Will – I’m not looking for a conversation on social media about this. It’s just that whatever patience, reason and hope I had that you would put party politics aside and help tackle the discrimination your disabled constituents face has this week finally evaporated. You have now made it clear that you are not interested in raising up the voices of your local constituents. If you want to keep spinning the report that a mutual acquaintance drew up about the inaccessibility of the building as a report commissioned by you, be my guest. It is only one of the many incidents in which you have been utterly disrespectful of the work that my friends and I have been forced to engage with over the last 3 years since you became our MP. We recognise that we are in the wrong political party for you, and that a great many of our concerns and fears won’t be addressed because of it.

As you know, the door to the ESA Assessment Centre in Colchester is impassable to wheelchair and mobility scooter users, and presents a significant barrier to many more who require other mobility aids (due to the width of the door and how heavy it is). The intercom at the door has no hearing loop, so is useless for deaf wheelchair and mobility scooter users. At the 2015 meeting which DPAC held with you, they raised this. It was not followed up. When my friend Jaki wrote to those concerned to request a foldable ramp as a reasonable adjustment and advised you she had so, in November 2016, it was not followed up. When she advised you in the summer of last year that she had been found ‘fit for work’ as a result of not being able to attend her appointment – you had no questions to ask on her behalf about this.

When I wrote to you last year, you eventually seemed to show some willingness to engage with that issue. Yet when this elicited a fairly cursory note from the Minister of State for Disabled, Health & Work Sarah Newton MP – that it was not possible to make the building physically accessible – you had nothing to say about reasonable adjustments, and no questions to ask about that either.

Are you familiar with the Equality Act at all Will? Seriously – are you? Because in all these months, despite mine, and my friends repeated references to it over the last 3 years, you haven’t mentioned it once – the word ‘discrimination’ has never been used by you either, despite the multiple evidences of it that we have presented you with.

Of course, the inaccessibility of the building is just where the problems for disabled and chronically sick people start – and that’s where we seem to lose your willingness to engage, and address the issues, and confront the reality of your disabled constituents difficulties. And I’m sorry Will, but given how close I’ve come, repeatedly over the last year, to losing my friend I have not one more scrap of patience to give you.

When she wrote to tell you that she had been given inaccessible appointments, and been found fit for work for ‘failing to attend’ those inaccessible appointments this was your response:

The letter sent to Jaki Whyte, by Will Quince MP, in August 2017

When she told you that her tribunal had been held without her (or her benefits officer) being present (because of the DWP’s failure to send through the date and paperwork until AFTER the tribunal had been held – which is an accessibility issue), you ‘appreciated’ my friends ‘desire’ for a new tribunal and offered to write to the tribunal service.

Did you? Only my friend has now been living below the poverty line for 50 weeks, and her physical and mental health is hanging on by a mighty fine thread, and she’s been told she may have to wait up to 6 months, just for a statement of reasons. We didn’t ask you to pay lip service to these issues – we asked for your help in resolving them.

That’s why we asked you to make the meeting you are seeking with Sarah Newton accessible to us and other disabled and chronically sick constituents: because of the multiple issues of inaccessibility, and because you have never once indicated that you understand how egregiously our rights (not to say your governments own law) have been breached. We asked you to make that meeting accessible because we want the chance to speak to those responsible for the discrimination we are subject to, and because we have been silenced repeatedly – not least of all by your own inaction, certainly in my friends case, and likely more given that we’re now being approached by more disabled people who have been through this. IN COLCHESTER.

You are not disabled Will – and your inability to appreciate what is being done to us speaks for itself

Whatever happens in the next couple of days Will, please remember one thing: we asked for your help. We asked for it repeatedly and politely, over and over – and over – again.

But we never got it.

Regards

Ali

#EActNOWColchester Facebook

#EActNOWColchester Petition

 

When the EDL Came to Colchester and What Came After – Reflections on 22.05.2016

“So many people forget that the first country the Nazi’s invaded was their own.”

Abraham Erskine, Captain America: The First Avenger

In a real sense of course, it is not strictly true: after all, to suggest that the Nazi’s invaded their own country requires you to ignore 300 years of history. From the Enlightenment that brought a new wave of racist anti-Semitism, to the increasingly anti-Semitic nature of mainstream media in Germany at the turn of the 20th century and how all this helped pave the way for the growing influence of Hitler in the 1920’s. His first failed attempt at a coup in 1923 with General Eric Ludendorff didn’t prevent the formation of the Brownshirts (SA), his eventual rise to total dominance, and the building of Dachau, the first of the concentration camps, in 1933: it was less an invasion than it was the collective failure of a societies moral compass and its loss of humanity for the lives of others.

Considering how much had to happen for Hitler to take control, it is far more accurate to say that at the very least it took a great many people to look the other way – and to keep looking the other way – for the Nazi’s to come to power.

But if you are naïve enough to assume that everyone is going to stand up to white supremacy and fascism, and challenge it every time they see it, then I think I understand the sentiment.

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Last Sunday, 22nd May on the third anniversary of the brutal murder by extremists of Lee Rigby, the English Defence League had what they called a ‘memorial’ and wreath laying for the 3rd year running at the Colchester War Memorial outside the Castle Park, despite the Rigby family repeatedly calling on the EDL (and similarly Britain First and any extremist political group using the murder for their own agenda), to refrain from doing so.

Local groups, who have recently organised to help to actively welcome refugees, arranged for a friendship picnic for that afternoon and during the morning local people, unions and other groups stood in defiance of the EDL’s racism, bigoted rhetoric and the utter disrespect shown to the memory of Lee Rigby and his family.

The morning went as was expected: the police kept the 2 groups apart (13 EDL and 50 locals): the locals chanted and speeches were made. The EDL did their thing, and then were escorted away: some locals – myself included – walked over to the memorial and one of them picked up the wreath the EDL had lain, and talked about how it would be more respectful to remove it. The police asked the person who had picked it up to put it down (which they did). Unforunately that incident was reported in the local press rather inaccurately.

During the friendship picnic that afternoon, the EDL (who had been escorted out of town) returned to try and intimidate the many families there, knowing the police would not be present.  A good summary of the day can be found here.

EDL wave flags at children in Colchester Castle Park 22.05.2016
EDL wave flags at children in Colchester Castle Park 22.05.2016

 

A number of local people since then have been subjected to online and offline abuse, intimidation and harassment: for reasons I cannot discuss at this time, I am all too well aware of it. And whilst the threats and intimidation (which have also been targeted at people who were not in attendance at either event that day) is appalling, without justification and (of course) rampantly misogynistic in much of its practice, what is important is what those of us here in Colchester who seek to stand up to the racism that comes from outside of (and within) its Roman walls, learn from it.

Firstly, the abuse that has been metered out to local people – almost exclusively from people who do not live here – is, whilst frightening and unpleasant, not as violent or as relentless as that which our Muslim neighbours, and the families who have come as refugees in need of shelter, are exposed to every day.  The dominant narrative, that Muslims are dangerous and that refugees are invaders who will steal our homes, lives and identities, is a lie that is meant to dehumanise and demonise; it is meant to frighten our neighbours who are Muslim, our neighbours who have escaped bombings, depravation and fear: it meant to set them apart from us.  We might think that the intimidation of the last week gives us a flavour of that: it doesn’t. Being treated as traitors is not the same as being treated as not human.

Second, the abuse and intimidation, online and offline, (and which has been orchestrated by people almost exclusively from outside of Colchester), is a silencing tactic: the message is clearly – shut up, be quite; if you stand up to our racism and bigotry in your own home town, we will try and shut you down. Whilst the EDL (and similarly other extremist right wing groups) are very practiced at presenting a ‘respectable’ face to the police ahead of any organised event, this cloak of respectability in reality drags fear and violence in its wake. During the demonstration in September, plastic pigs heads were waved, and lots of chanting called openly for the burning of mosques – at the very same time that a mosque in London was under attack from arsonists.

Thirdly – Colchester has been increasingly targeted by right wing extremists for a few years now, and we as a town and community must confront this and recognise without flinching that there are reasons for this. Whilst much of that attention is coming from outside our town, there are many within it who believe that refugees should be feared, who think that we as a town lose by providing sanctuary to others, who cannot even believe that refugees have any real reason or need for that sanctuary in the first place.  If we can stand up and say no to the most violent and extreme of racists, then we must not be afraid to say to our friends and neighbours: we are never so impoverished that we cannot share what we have with people who have less.

Because whilst it is tempting to see the right wing extremists who come to march through our streets as invaders (and when they mostly come from outside the town, I certainly understand the inclination), they exist not because they lack freedom of thought but because people are willing to look away and say: ignore them – they will just go away if you ignore them.

But that is not true. History teaches otherwise, and whilst the conditions that allow for unchecked Islamophobia are specific to the era, the use of scapegoats by those violent extremists who wish to dominate society unchallenged, is not.

If the local authorities allow the threatened march in July (and I believe absolutely that they would be very wrong to do so), it will feel less like an invasion if we – as a town – stand up together and say: your violence, your hatred and your bigotry are not welcome here.