When Sheila Nesbitt was asked what change you would get from £1 if you spent 75p, she didn’t know the answer.

It was one of the questions the 58-year-old was asked during a reassessment for benefit claim.

But, the assessor thought that she was able to work out a complex budget and the Department for Work and Pensions deemed her fit for work.

Sheila, of Gateshead, had her benefits moved from Employment Support Allowance to Universal Credit – despite the fact she has learning disabilities and can’t read, write, use a computer or do basic maths.

After being moved to Universal Credit, Sheila lost £100 per week and has struggled to balance her budget. She is now behind on paying her rent.

She said: “The assessor asked if I could do sums and I thought ‘Nah, not really’ I thought what is that.

After ending up in rent arrears and struggling financially, Sheila was forced to rely on Gateshead Foodbank.

“I was really, really struggling,” she said. “It was good that the food bank was there to help me though it.”

Shelia felt extremely low when she couldn’t buy any Christmas presents for her family.

“I felt really guilty on Christmas Day,” she said. “I felt really awful.”

Sheila said the system does not support people with learning disabilities who aren’t able to read letters or use email.

“I think it is wrong personally,” she said.  “I mean people should realise what it is like having a learning disability. The Government don’t care what is happening.”

Sheila’s plight is exposed as new figures from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal 10,346 people were claiming Universal Credit in Gateshead by mid-December last year.

A damning report by Gateshead Council also found Universal Credit is damaging the physical and mental health of residents due to the “labyrinthine” claims process which it claimed made life difficult for people without computer skills.

Charity Your Voice Counts has been helping Sheila, who lost weight and self-esteem, get her confidence back and is working with her to explore the possibility of moving into sheltered housing.

The charity helps people with learning disabilities and mental health issues who are claiming Universal Credit through its Help Through Crisis project which is funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

Based in Gateshead, the project holds a weekly-drop in session for adults with learning disabilities who are experiencing social and financial disadvantage, with the most common and significant issue being welfare reform.

Gary Fawsett, who is a help through crisis worker at the charity, said: “Universal Credit in particular discriminates against people with learning disabilities because in order to make a claim you need to be able to use a computer, you need to be able to read and write, and you need to be able to tell your own story and talk about your situation in a really accurate way.

“The more of a disability you have, the more unlikely you are to do that, so people go to those assessments on their own sometimes and they don’t understand they are misleading the assessor to believe that everything is fine when it absolutely is not.”

But the DWP said staff conducting assessments have at least two years post-registration clinical experience and training on a range of health conditions and disabilities.

This includes simulated assessments covering claimants with learning disabilities.

It also said there is a variety of different formats to communicate with such as Braille, audio, large print, or by arranging to speak to a member of staff.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit staff give tailored support to people with learning disabilities and all our assessors have significant clinical experience.

“People needing extra support can call our Freephone helpline, and Citizens Advice will deliver Universal Support from April to help vulnerable people make their claim.”