An Open Letter From An Anonymous Benefit Claimant
You might not remember now, but just before Brexit kicked into gear and the Panama Papers landed, Iain Duncan Smith resigned as work and pensions secretary because the most vulnerable were being hit too hard by austerity. Let’s go back to that for a moment.
It’s not true to suggest we’re failing the disabled; we’ve not even tried in the first place. I’m choosing to write this piece from a position of anonymity. Among my peers, I’m considered the success story, with many a glittering accolade on my CV. I have walked and advised at the highest levels, associated with the most prestigious awards, have unique associates, am a regular in media circles, and have roles which come with the a lot of responsibility. I’m often reminded of the Michael J Fox film, The Secret of My Success – by night a high flyer, sitting at the top tables, by day, a mailroom worker who simply masquerades to earn his big break. This has become my tale, except that I can’t even work in the mailroom.
We’ve come to define disability with basic iconography. The disabled parking symbol denotes what it’s like to be adequately disabled. We have also created a near Victorian class system of deserving and underserving disabled. Disability hate rhetoric, as anyone with a disability will attest, has certainly risen over the last six years.
It’s also worth noting the language. No longer do we have disability payments, we have Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). These, on the face of it, sound more conducive to an inclusive society, but far from it. Between the DWP, ATOS and Maximus assessment systems, and the fact all disabled people are now rolled into the Job Centre, we have in fact wiped out the notion of disability. We’ve stacked the criteria into numerical health conditions and how worthy each person is. And we’ve stripped people of dignity along the way, by forcing them to open up with their most personal symptoms to people with little-to-no medical background.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said the proposed cuts to PIP which IDS resigned over would have seen 370,000 disabled people lose an average of £3,500 a year. We just can’t take this any longer. We really need help.
The cold numbers barely tell the full story of what it’s like having the stick wielded at you in trying to find work. Most disabled people don’t need an incentive to work – they need provisions and safety nets.
It’s disheartening to learn that some people view benefits as a life of luxury. I personally receive £6,000 a year. This has been the case my entire adult life and is not set to change for the better anytime soon. And with each cut that hits, we find that less and less is in place to help with disability employment and occupational health. Now that disabled people are treated as a normal job seeker, the by-product is a culture of sanctioning and a constant fear of reprisal.
I feel I’ve proved I am capable of achievement. My own job adviser even said to me that I was more qualified and of a higher education than they were, which is ironic given a lifetime of severe bad health prevented me from even attending school – I walked away with nothing in the way of qualifications. Due to the strict guidelines and number-shifting that the Job Centre employees have to undertake, I was informed that my CV, no matter how good it looked, didn’t actually count for anything. I needed to play the DWP’s game.
I was told my writing work counted for nothing either. With a pretty decent list of bylines to my name, I’d hoped I could potentially prop myself up in the world of journalism, which would suit my very specific health requirements. I was once again met with a wall. So I followed the path that I was forcibly guided towards. The current system is all or nothing. You can earn £20 a week without sanction. Anything over that and you’re looking at, essentially, reassessment. In the world of freelance journalism – and freelance with no health –
this is like trying to fit a square peg into no hole. It’s another roadblock on the path to independence.
I, like thousands of others, am expected to sign up to the Job Centre’s Universal Jobs Match system, where my unique customer number will be linked to my activity. If I don’t jump enough hoops in applying for work, then sanctions come into play. Living up to my fear and expectation, the Jobs Match site is in no way, shape or form tailored to even the slightest bit of disability. It is an able-bodied website for an able-bodied system. Disability simply doesn’t exist in the matrix.
At every single turn there’s an accusatory tone to being disabled. We have to be ‘striving’ for employment opportunities that suit extremely complex lives, but for many of us, a day’s achievement can be a simple task of keeping personal hygiene in check, or the basic and literal thrill of seeing your own foot tread upon new ground. Being disabled isn’t just about being set in a certain pattern, it is chaos theory personified. It’s like being a window shopper on the world.
I make a personal plea to the UK, to the private sector, to the public sector, to employers and managers, and to anyone who likes a puzzle. We have to rethink the workplace and start creating flexible conditions for those of us who are capable of achievement – even if we’re not remotely capable of normality. We need an intelligent welfare system which has safety nets and malleable placements of security and buffers. And we need new thinking on how we can utilise a great number of professionally-minded people who are not afforded the luxury of normality.
Our current approach is not only broken. Anyone who’s been subjected to experiences that I’ve outlined can certainly see the routes to an early grave. Make no mistake – and without grandstanding – it really is this bad. Building up a CV of achievement is voluntary – and often at great expense to the individual. One has to crawl, scratch and leave oneself in a pretty bad state of health and agony just to receive a few personal ticks in the productivity column.
You really don’t want to see what it takes to achieve a modicum of personal success and pride, so please get involved in this conversation and help stop the government’s approach in stripping the disabled of everything. We need nothing short of a revolution in the workplace.