Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"

He came into the office, beaming. "I got my ESA [Extended Support Allowance, formerly Incapacity Benefit] back," he said, "the appeal was successful. Thank you so much."

One for the good guys, I thought, but at what a price. This chap had been living in stress and worry for weeks, while the mills of the DWP ground exceeding small and finally, rightly, spat out his ATOS disqualification and restored to him his rights. Just the kind of pressure you need when you have a life-threatening heart/lung condition (which, incidentally, has qualified you for DLA, but ATOS don't take any notice of petty details like that). And just the kind of humiliation you need when you are a middle-aged man who has worked all his life, doing what a man's gotta do, and keeping your self-respect thereby, only to find that the system into which you have paid since age sixteen, for just this kind of eventuality, rejects you as a sponger. I know that's how he felt, because he told me when we were discussing his appeal.

Why should he have to scratch around for help to retain what he has earned? Why should he have to be grateful to me or anyone else for that help? And what of those who because of their impairment(s) have never been able to cope with the demands of paid employment? How are they supposed to feel, that their whole life has been a sham and a waste? Gandhi (I think) said that the test of a civilization lay in how it treated its disadvantaged members. God help ours, on that criterion.
I remember these begging statuettes from my childhood. Is this what we are going back to?

For anyone who has been living in a cave these past forty years, the title of this post comes from the beginning of George A Romero's incomparable Night of the Living Dead. I think it is apposite: that is how I view the designers and operators of our present UK health-related benefits system. Not the interviewers, necessarily; in the classic phrase, they are only following orders. But the politicians, senior civil servants, managers. As mindless, knee-jerking, grasping, humongous ghouls. Someone behind them again, some cold-mouthed bean-counter, has seen a "soft target", and that's not the miniscule amount of benefit fiddlers either. Even as I write, the news media are salivating over one egregious fraudster, Mary Grace from Liverpool . What they consistently fail to recognise, or admit publicly, is that the reason these cases make headlines is that they are so rare. In over ten years doing this job (community health and disability advice) I have met one (count em, one) person who I thought might be swinging the lead. The other clients, with their various physical and mental disabilities and associated difficulties, have without exception been ordinary, decent people struggling to do their best, invariably unrecognised, with the hand that life has dealt them. And it is that very decency that is the soft target.

It leads them to feel misery and fear when a health-related benefit is withdrawn, not only because of the poverty, but partly because someone must be thinking they don't deserve help. Must Try Harder. Pick Up Thy Bed And Walk. If Stephen Hawking can manage, with all his MND, why can't you others? (That last is a paraphrase of an actual quote from a UK politician.)

Pride, initiative, self-respect - they are indulgences that are not allowed to the ill and/or disabled people in this country. Or, we can indulge in them, at a price; some people do. They say, "I'd rather do without that than go through that interview/panel/tribunal process again." Once, in the Great Depression years of the 1930s, my great-granny, with a sick husband (no sick pay in those days) and three kids (no child benefit in those days), was forced to approach the Poor Law Guardians for financial help. She was put in front of a panel of Charitable Gentlewomen who turned down her appeal without charity or gentleness. Apparently she wasn't destitute enough. "You could sell your wedding ring," they told her. There are those amongst our political masters (on both sides) who regard those as happy days, once this unconscionable experiment with a Welfare State is safely buried.

This mindset, you see, infests the benefits system today. No doubt they'll get around to me, too, sooner or later. And to you. Listen, the ATOS interview is a farce. It's box-ticking. They are paid for failing claimants, and even when the fail is overruled on appeal, ATOS get to keep the money. What knothead thought that was a good idea?

All the advice I can give is, in the short term we are stuck with this crap (the long term is down to the workings of democracy, ha! ha!). So play it out as if it's a game, but a game with real consequences. The initial interview is a nonsense. Some of the interviewers, I am reliably informed, can't even speak English, and as far as I know none of them have any medical training apart from what is provided by ATOS, but no matter, all they need to hear is "yes" (preferably) or "no", so they can fill in their little form. Someone, somewhere, must have heard of the Social Model of disability - they probably read it on the back of a box of matches or some such, because the only bit they seem to have grasped is that about focussing on what you can do, rather than what you can't. This, translated into modern benefit-speak, means that if you turn up for the interview alone, then you can't need any support because you have negotiated traffic/public transport all by your tiny self.....if you are a part-time wheelchair user like me, you better attend in one, however you are feeling on The Day, or they'll say that you obviously don't need to use one at all, and its associated reasonable adjustments. Save your energies for the appeal, because if they brought in Jesus Christ fresh off the cross, ATOS would fail him. He'd still be bleeding, you see, so he must have a pulse, and he'll get points deducted for that. For the appeal, gather your evidence and support - GP, consultant(s), nurses, social worker, whatever. Including, if necessary, an advocate. (It's a good idea, anyway, always to have a witness to what was said.) Contact your nearest community advice centre, Age UK (for those over 50), specialist disability action group, Citizens' Advice Bureau - those that haven't pre-emptively been deprived of funding and closed down. Keep an eye on the BBC Ouch! messageboards - they often have useful threads. Above all, keep your sense of humour and your sense of self-worth.

This post was written to contribute to The Goldfish's Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2011.