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In A Wheelchair? Want Benefits? Take The Stairs

June 11, 2018

Three weeks ago, Linda received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) calling her in for “reassessment” of her disability benefits. Linda is not her real name; she wants to speak out but says she fears any “comeback” from the DWP.

Talk to Linda for two minutes and it’s clear that forcing her to prove she’s not “fit for work” is brutal in itself. Sat in her wheelchair with a calliper holding two metal rods along her leg, the 59-year-old has spinal cysts that cause total numbness down her right side. Malformation of the brain – in short, part of her brain has come out of her skull and presses on her spine – leads to regular blackouts. Spinal damage explains the rigid collar brace around her neck, attached to an alarm pendant to call for help if she falls.

Nerve damage has left Linda largely deaf and we communicate via email. Even this is hard for her: the numbness down one side means she can only type with one hand and a splint stabilises the other.

But it’s one detail in the assessment letter that’s the real kicker: Linda’s test will take place “on the first floor”. The building in Birmingham has a lift, but it cannot be used in the event of fire. The letter states, underlined and in bold, that in order to attend their assessment, claimants have to be able to negotiate the “44 steps” down to safety. In other words, if they are unable to walk 44 steps they are not allowed to come to the assessment centre.

Linda can’t get her head around the logic. “Why does the DWP, knowing most people going for a medical will be disabled like me, think it’s right to have the office on the first floor [with] 44 steps?” she asks.

This is Britain’s benefit system in a nutshell: a wheelchair user is told to negotiate 44 steps to get her benefits. Linda’s letter informs her that if she thinks she’ll “have difficulty” using the stairs, she should “ring the helpdesk”, so they can “make alternative arrangements for you”. Calling a helpline is little use when you’re deaf; panicked, Linda had to ask a friend over to contact the DWP for her.

I ask Linda what alternative the DWP officials told her she could have. “None at all,” she says, “despite my friend, a MP and my doctor all saying I can’t get up or down any steps.”

The DWP told me that, contrary to the letter it had sent out, wheelchair accessible facilities are available on the ground floor of the Birmingham centre and that “customers are contacted prior to their interview to ensure the correct room is booked”. Yet Linda says she was told clearly by the DWP that only the first floor could be used for assessments.

Her benefit test is scheduled for the week after next and she dreads what’s coming. “I’ll once again be asked if I can walk down the 44 steps and because I really can’t they will put me down as a ‘no show’ and my money will get stopped.”

This is not a far-fetched fear. What’s happening to Linda comes in light of my report last month on Jaki – a mobility scooter user in Essex who’s gone almost a year without her disability benefits because her local test centre has no ramp. There’s growing evidence that the government is sending disabled people to multiple inaccessible benefit centres to test them for disability benefits. At minimum, this is causing distress and pain to people who are already struggling with their health. In the worst cases, this is leading to them being denied vital benefits simply because they can’t get in the building. The DWP tells me that: “While all assessment centres meet accessibility standards, where access to assessment rooms is via a lift there are health and safety implications in the event of a fire if claimants cannot use stairs.” It adds: “Providers make every effort to identify those claimants who may have problems in accessing these sites.” Such claimants are offered an appointment at another centre or a home visit.

“Home visit” is the default DWP response when challenged over the inaccessibility of benefit centres. But poke a bit more and it seems little more than smoke and mirrors: disabled people and welfare advice workers report it’s common for even seriously ill people to be turned down for a home visit, while doctors’ surgeries, increasingly swamped by benefit evidence requests, are charging anything from £25 to £100 for the privilege, in effect pricing many sick and disabled people out of the chance of an assessment in their own home.

Even if the centre were accessible, Linda couldn’t get out of the house to get there. She’s been housebound for three years; sickness and social care cuts have trapped her inside. It’s been “impossible” for her to get support from her cash-strapped local council – “To even have one day a week [to have] a carer to come out with me would be a dream come true,” she says – and the only way she can get washed and dressed is if a neighbour comes over to help her.

When Linda’s friend called the DWP for her, she was informed she “didn’t meet the criteria for a home visit”. The large cardboard box of heavy-duty meds that sits in her bungalow is her only way to get through a normal day: steroids, epilepsy tablets, antidepressants, an inhaler, and morphine tablets for the pain. If Linda doesn’t qualify for a home assessment, it’s hard to imagine who does.

She worked from the age of 15 – for the army in the 1970s and then as an NHS nurse – until she fell ill in her 40s, which she asks me repeatedly to mention in anything I write. Nowadays, some people believe the myths spread by certain MPs, she explains – “that every single disabled or poor person is a scrounger”.

Linda is grateful – “I know there are people out there probably a lot worse off than me,” she says – and talks of the small things that keep her going (her cat knows she’s upset and won’t leave her side), but it’s hard to play down the impact on her. She had to be seen by a mental health worker last week, “for a breakdown”, when the stress of the assessment got too much. In the last few days, Linda has received an official doctor’s note to try to “prove” her disability but says she’s been told by officials that this is “no guarantee” she’ll be granted one. “It’s catch 22,” she says. “I can’t walk to negotiate the 44 steps but don’t meet the DWP’s criteria [to have an assessment at home].”

This week, Linda emailed to tell me that – out of the blue – the DWP had cancelled her appointment with no explanation. She has no way of knowing if this means it’s being rescheduled or what will happen with her benefits. “So more waiting and worrying,” she says.

It’s tough to comprehend why exactly the government won’t commit to a common-sense solution: pledging to only hold benefit assessments in centres disabled people such as Linda can fully access.

“I think the DWP just want every disabled person to fail, no matter how bad their illnesses are,” she says. “I worked hard all my life but now I can’t … I’m not worth anything to the government any more.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. weebles1703 permalink
    June 11, 2018 1:40 am

    I really think you should clearly state that this is the work of Frances Ryan, writing for the Guardian. If people don’t click on the link, there’s nowhere that shows it’s not your article. Frances is a disabled journalist and deserves credit for her writing.

    • June 11, 2018 2:20 am

      I fully agree, which is why I’ve linked back to the source, as I do with all my sources. Regular readers know that if there is a source, it is always linked in the first few words of any post.

  2. peter whitaker permalink
    June 11, 2018 2:09 am

    It’s really important that these peoples stories are spread throughout social media,yet their seems not to be a media share option with these ,no share with friends for Facebook etc,and being a dummy where I.T. IS CONCERNED am at a loss,!

    ________________________________

  3. June 11, 2018 3:55 am

    >”She had to be seen by a mental health worker last week, “for a breakdown”, when the stress of the assessment got too much.”

    Criminal Justice Act 1988 – Torture
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/33/part/XI/crossheading/torture

    UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
    http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

    UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Articles
    https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-2.html

    Human Rights Act 1998
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/contents

    ABH/GBH
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/l_to_o/offences_against_the_person/

    Attempted Murder –
    Criminal Attempts Act 1981 –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/47/contents
    Homicide: Murder and Manslaughter –
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/h_to_k/homicide_murder_and_manslaughter/

    Fraud Act 2006 –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/35/contents

    Misconduct in Public Office –
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/l_to_o/misconduct_in_public_office/

    Criminal Justice Act 2003 (section 146) – Disability Hate Crime
    Increase in sentences for aggravation related to disability or sexual orientation –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/44/section/146

    Abuse of Vulnerable Adults –
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/194272/No_secrets__guidance_on_developing_and_implementing_multi-agency_policies_and_procedures_to_protect_vulnerable_adults_from_abuse.pdf

    Care Act 2014 (england)
    PART 1 – Safeguarding adults at risk of abuse or neglect – Section 42
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/23/section/42/enacted

    Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 –
    Ill-treatment or wilful neglect: care worker offence –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/2/section/20/enacted

    Ill-treatment or wilful neglect: care provider offence –
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/2/section/21/enacted

    So has Frances Ryan, the guardian, ***OR Anyone Else*** in that story reported the EVIDENCE they have to the police??

  4. jeffrey davies permalink
    June 11, 2018 5:58 am

    aktion t4 at its best

    • June 11, 2018 2:33 pm

      True –
      Did you here that they are now going after ‘non-whites’ (Windrush) and ‘Jews’ (Labour Party) too…

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  1. In A Wheelchair? Want Benefits? Take The Stairs | Same Difference | sdbast

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