One of the greatest transformations to come out of this election is the focus on young voters. After years of being derided by politicians and the media, young people are finally being spoken about as a demographic of whom to take notice. But what stands out is that young people with disabilities aren’t even getting a mention.
This is particularly depressing considering how bleak the future looks for many young disabled people in Britain. That isn’t melodramatic, it is the reality of growing up disabled at a time of unprecedented cuts to disability support and services. Stacked on top of the issues facing young people generally – unstable work, student debt, rising rents – young disabled adults are having to deal with their own distinct problems, born from an era that seems happy to simultaneously sacrifice the young and disabled.
Take housing. While many young people are shut out of the housing market by outlandish deposits, dwindling social housing stock and cut housing benefits, if you’re disabled, even physically getting into a property is often impossible. As a wheelchair user, I’ve never felt more disabled than when I’m looking at housing “options”: a mortgage that a bank won’t give me because, like a lot of my generation, I work freelance; almost nonexistent accessible social housing; or private renting which, on top of extortionate rents, landlords won’t agree to adapt.
I’m lucky I can live with my parents while I try to work out what to do, but like anyone who’s hit 30, this isn’t exactly a long-term solution. The cultural attitude that a disabled young person is somehow different to others of their age is half the battle: the belief that it doesn’t really matter if disabled people have to live in their childhood bedrooms into their 40s because, unlike “normal” people, disabled people don’t want careers, partners, or kids. The impact on young disabled people is all around us. I’ve spoken to 20 year-olds being housed by their council in old people’s homes because there’s no other accessible property in the area. Others who fear being housed in institutions as, with cuts to social care combining with housing shortages, it’s cheaper for local authorities to dump multiple disabled people in one place.
This is horrific at any age, but when you’re a young adult it’s like seeing your life get cut off from you before it’s even started. I’ve written before that while it’s commonly said that a defining characteristic of millennials is that we’re not hitting the stage of adulthood at the same time as previous generations, for young disabled people, this infantilising is all the more extreme. With the social care system in crisis, I’m speaking to more and more young disabled people who are watching their care packages being shredded; who are regularly forced into bed while it’s still light outside because 7pm is the only care slot available from their council.
It’s now increasingly common for local authorities to give young disabled people a few hours to help them get dressed and washed but cut their “social hours” entirely – as if being able to go to the pub with friends is a discretionary luxury. Others tell me they can’t go to university – not only because of fears of student debt but because, on top of cuts to disabled student allowance, care cuts mean they haven’t got a personal assistant to help them physically get to their lectures.
This is how easily young disabled people are being robbed of the chance to earn a decent wage or get a fulfilling job – and it was hard enough to begin with. On top of the zero-hour contracts, insecure labour, and squeezed wages other young people face, young disabled people are heading into a labour market that sees disabled people twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled workers and a widening disability pay gap.
For disabled young people unable to work, they’re enduring “fit for work tests” and a life of social security payments that barely cover food, let alone a night out with friends. Others are wrongly turned down for personal independence payments (PIP) – in a system skewed against young people to the degree that students rejected for PIP can then often banned from other disability benefits.
In some ways, disability turns the tables on traditional generational inequality: my generation of disabled people enjoys the rights disabled “baby boomers” – who grew up at a time when it was quite legal in Britain to segregate or exclude them from jobs, transport, or education – fought for. But bluntly, the legal right to not be discriminated against by an employer or to have an education is little use without the social care or benefits that enables you to get out of the house.
It would be very easy for disabled young people, growing up in a political climate that won’t build them an accessible home and is cutting the care package they need to be independent, to believe that politics is not for them. Young people have been for so long rejected by the economic and political system and having a disability means this exclusion can feel even stronger.
As Labour engages young voters, this is the perfect time to reach out to some of the most marginalised and ignored. Things are finally changing for the next generation in this country. Disabled young people must be part of the conversation.