Bristol Evening Post | Original Link
Bristol, UK— FOR Stefania Rulli-Gibbs, the fight against Government cuts to disabled charities' funding is personal. As a teenager, growing up in her native Padua, she experienced the trauma of losing her five-year-old baby sister to spina bifida.
"I stood there as a 15-year-old at the side of my sister's grave," she tells me, emotion cracking her voice. "And when they passed around the platter with the soil to sprinkle on to her little white coffin, I simply couldn't do it – I pushed the soil away. Somehow because of that, I've always felt as if I never fully came to terms with her loss – I never buried her.
"That's partly why I have to do this," she adds, handing me the manifesto for the Campaign for a Fair Society.
"For me doing this – doing something to help other disabled people – well for me, it's kind of like finally burying my little sister."
The Italian came to live in Bristol as a student more than 20 years ago, but married an Englishman and settled here – finding a rewarding career for the last eight years as communications manager with the Brandon Trust, the Patchway-based charity that works to help young people in the city with learning disabilities.
"Things have been getting better for disabled people over the past decade, and it's been rewarding to see that happen," Stefania says. "There has been an empowering move away from the archaic practice of locking people with learning disabilities away in institutions, towards caring for them within the wider community – here at the Brandon Trust we have played a big part in helping that to happen.
"But over the past few months its become increasingly apparent that disabled people are going to be the biggest victims of the Government's austerity cuts.
"We know we're living in difficult economic times, and that austerity measures have to be found, but we believe the Government's plans are targeting the most vulnerable people in society – and that's just not right.
"We have calculated that of the Government's Spending Review, an incredible £23.7 billion of the proposed cuts will be hitting the disabled, the elderly and the poorest members of society – that equates to 58 per cent of the cuts. Twenty five per cent of the cuts target the two per cent in our society who need the most support."
But Stefania is one of those leading the fight against the cutbacks – as a member of the UK steering group behind the Campaign For A Fair Society – a movement made up of 170 UK charities around the country, including the Brandon Trust.
By taking a lead on the organisation's UK steering group, she has spent the past few months working hard on the wording of the movement's manifesto, which will be launched with a special awareness-raising event to be held at the House of Lords next week.
The gathering of lords, ladies, MPs, charity representatives, the media, and disabled people from across the country will take place on Monday, hosted by Baroness Hollins, who is also a professor of the psychiatry of learning disabilities at the University of London.
"It will be quite an event," Stefania says, as she leads the way through the Patchway headquarters of the Brandon Trust – an unassuming building on an industrial estate, from where the charity co-ordinates a broad range of services, training and outreach programmes for disabled people across the city.
"Our work is based around the idea of supporting disabled people to have the freedom to live the lives they want to live, and to be part of the wider community. Our great fear is that these cuts will lead directly to people ending up back in the sorts of institutions that nobody wants to see returned, and all to try to save money."
The campaign is aiming to highlight issues facing vulnerable members of society – that over the next four years there will be a cut of 28 per cent to care services for disabled children, disabled adults and frail older people which means that at least 250,000 people will lose entitlement to support.
The campaigners are also warning there will be cuts of more than £2bn to the incomes of disabled people on low incomes. Individuals who are typically on incomes of less than £10,000 per year will face cuts of £2,000 or more.
The Independent Living Fund (ILF), which provides support to 21,000 of the most severely disabled people in the country, is to be closed down – reducing support to disabled people by an additional £200 million.
"On top of this eligibility thresholds will be raised so that people in significant need of care will get nothing – even if people are being abused, cannot look after themselves or if their families are breaking down," she adds.
"If you think that all this doesn't affect you, just remember it's not just about people who are born with disabilities. We all face the idea of growing old and frail. We all face being vulnerable. We just hope that the support framework will be there in society for us too.
"Our aim with the campaign is partly to raise awareness of the cuts that are happening – these things are happening often without most people realising – but it's more than that, our real ambition is to put pressure on the politicians so they come up with a better idea for economic reform that doesn't put the most vulnerable – those who are least able to fight for their human rights – at the bottom of the pile.
"Politicians and bankers are not being asked to pay for the deficit caused by the banking crisis. Those who will pay are disabled people and other vulnerable groups, who in a decent society, would have rights and entitlements to income and support that enable them to lead their lives with some help and support."