Thursday, 30 August 2012

Spasticus Autisticus

It was this story by Nick Sommerlad in the Mirror that really got us going. Back in February 2011 we'd vaguely heard about Atos, but reading about George's untimely death from a heart attack got us wondering. Amelia Gentleman's fine articles in the Guardian fuelled the fire, which was further fanned by the discovery that Atos was sponsoring the Paralympics. What finally set us ablaze was the discovery that Atos had threatened law suits against carers and disabled people who dared to complain about their inhumane treatment. So we decided to write a play. One that would be drawn from real life stories, that could be used by ordinary people where they are to raise awareness about the work Atos does. We decided to aim for a Spring launch with the hope it could be used in time for the beginning of the Paralympics.

Back then, not many people were talking about Atos. Except for the journalists noted above (who deserve great credit for spreading the word so widely and continuing to do so), the main voices were from campaign groups like Black Triangle and DPAC and bloggers like Sue Marsh, Kaliya Franklin, David Gillon. But when we put our messages out on twitter and Facebook, slowly but surely, the stories came in. Stories that enraged us, infuriated us and made us want to create a piece of drama that would truly reflect the experience and get the world angry too. We decided to set our play against the backdrop of the history of welfare, from the post war consensus, through Thatcherism and to the modern day. With Ian Dury as our guide, Jo/e Bloggs has his/her eyes opened to the Atos experience. Assessors hide behind computers, claimants are forced to run a Paralympics fit to work race, appeals are on a conveyorbelt. The play ends with claimants turning the tables on Atos, The DWP and Ministers by calling them to account. We've used familiar tunes with new words to enliven the action, with Spasticus Autisticus naturally taking centre stage.

As we wrote, we realised some of the stories needed more time than this drama could provide. We also thought it might be ambitious for many to do a visual and physical play. So we created the Atos Monologues, which can be read by anyone anywhere, in a theatre, on the streets, at a festival. And for good measure we realised that some of the key scenes in Atos Stories would work as Street Theatre.  By May we were ready to launch to the world. We're pleased to say with very positive results. As we write, Act Up in Newham are working on the play, and we hope a group is forming in Oxford. DPAC and Our Olympics hoped to use the Monologues for their Counter Olympics protest on the 28th July but police cut the demo short. We did perform the Monologues at Greenbelt last week, and we understand Leeds DPAC used some at their demo on Tuesday, and Cardiff DPAC used some in their literature.

In the meantime, the tiny group of voices that started with a whisper has been joined by more and more people. As the year has gone on, we have seen a babble become a shout, with the launch of the Spartacus Report waking the media up to the dangers of welfare reform. The focus on dodgy sponsors during the Olympics put Atos in the spotlight, further enhanced by the Dispatches and Panorama double whammy on the 31st July. Suddenly everyone was talking about Atos, just in time for DPAC's Atos Games which launched on Monday. Yesterday that shout became a huge roar, as the story of the Opening Ceremony was Atos sponsoring the games at a time when it is stripping disabled people of benefits. It was front page  news on the Independent. All day long twitter and Facebook were full of it. And then came the ceremony itself. A beautiful collision of art and science, where disability was peripheral, disability rights, central. As many of us fumed at the Atos lanyards athletes were wearing, the GB team entered with tracksuits zipped up. Not a lanyard in sight. Deliberate? It has to be doesn't it?

As for the rest of the ceremony, Jenny Sealey and David Hemmings deserve gold for cutting through the bullshit (disabled people are heroes, scroungers or to be pitied) with a dazzling display of excellence. The culmination being a fabulous rendition of Spasticus Autisticus whilst performers waved rights banners in the background a message to "normal land" that disabled people just ain't going to take it lying down. With the glass ceiling being broken, under a replica of the beautiful Alison Lappa statue, and the whole stadium roaring "I am what I am", the message was loud and clear. Let disabled people BE.

In all the enthusiasm, we wondered last night whether Atos Stories is still necessary. After all Sealey and Hemmings have given the world the message we want it to hear. But sadly, we know there is more work to be done. On Newsnight last night, we gather Maria Miller resisted all evidence about Atos to suggest that WCA assessments liberate disabled people. Atos have been awarded 3/4 of the contracts to undertake DLA to PIP assessments. 500,000 people will face losing their DLA from 2013. Many of them were performing last night, or will be taking part in the games, able to do so because DLA helps them maintain their independence. And even if Atos were to lose their contract tomorrow, we are facing the most disablist government ever. We need to stop them in their tracks now.

If you care about this, if you want to get involved, there's plenty to do. The Atos Games continue today with armchair activism and tomorrow with a closing ceremony at Atos. Next Tuesday, Tom Greatrex MP is leading a debate on Atos in Parliament, which we sincerely hope is the start of Labour's path to rehabilitation, having committed the grievous offence of starting Atos assessments in the first place. And of course, you can put on our plays Atos Stories, The Atos Monologues or Street Theatre any time, any where.

Finally, please do celebrate the Paralympians, they've worked hard, they deserve our support.  But every time they succeed, do use this hashtag #DidDLAhelp. Cos you know what? We bet it probably did.

As Kaliya Franklin says (and has kindly let us use for our play) - "Alone we whisper, together we shout". Let's shout the house down.

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