by Claire Hamilton Russell
As the timeline for cutting £30 a week from people in the Work-Related Support Group of ESA – to encourage these people who have been ruled unfit to work to get jobs – continues apace, Westminster announces a consultation on another raft of proposals relating to ESA https://www.gov.uk/government/news/work-and-health-plan-to-help-disabled-people-into-employment. As well as cutting payments that seriously ill and disabled people rely upon for survival, these include “individual tailored support in looking for work”. A friend of a friend put it best when they commented that “half of them look useless, and half of them look pretty encouraging. Given it’s this government, I’ve no doubt which half will end up either being dropped or seriously misused.”
It seems rather interesting to me that a senior Tory minister has once again commented that these proposals come from a place of “being parked on benefits is bad for your health”. A number of even able eyebrows perhaps perk here at the echoes of “Arbeit Mach Frei”, particularly when an impact study conducted by a Westminster think tank recently noted that benefit sanctions and work capability assessments impact seriously not only on health, but on the ability of both able and disabled recipients of benefits to find and stay in work https://www.theguardian.com/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2015/jan/08/benefit-sanctions-absurd-and-dont-work-mps-told-welfare. But, of course, isolation and dependence on a system which makes us feel deeply ashamed about needing it are indeed bad for our collective health. What really surprises me, then, upon reading these proposals, is how unaware the Westminster government appears to be of the actual nature of the barriers that are in place between disabled and chronically ill people and employment – and how many they have added to this process.
Notably and obviously, there is the gutting of the Access to Work scheme. Perhaps, like many other able people, Theresa May et al are unaware of the huge barriers that travelling while disabled poses. Very few train stations are fully accessible. Buses are often standing room only, and rarely have the facility to carry more than one wheelchair user at a time. The introduction of PIP has seen many disabled people stripped of their Motability cars, and many conditions make driving impossible. Chronic fatigue and pain, not to mention the increasing hostility and threat of violence that many visibly disabled people face in public, can make using public transport essentially impossible, or use so much energy that, having done it one to actually get to work, one has already used one’s resources for the day! Access to Work can provide a fund for taxis which frankly make the difference between being able to work and being stuck in one’s home.
Another thing – and this one is huge – is the lack of flexibility on the part of the DWP as to what constitutes “work”. A variety of mental health charities have spoken about the worrying fact that the end goal of “recovery” for people with serious mental health conditions is defined as “in paid work”, regardless of their actual capabilities. Many disabled people testify about the utter lack of understanding that work capability assessments in particular have to recognise the holistic effects of how their condition affects them – and what their capabilities are as a result.
The recent dichotomy of the narrative of Paralympic athletes as “superhuman” vs the “scroungers and shirkers” aimed at “ordinary” disabled people illustrates this well. Many of those athletes, with their extraordinary capabilities, are nonetheless not capable of holding down an office or retail job. Such jobs, like most low-level paid work, have inflexible timetables, mandatory levels of attendance and codes of behaviour and presentation that cannot bend to the needs of a disabled person. Even conditions whose overall effects are relatively light can be a huge barrier; a person with epilepsy, for example, whose seizures are not perfectly controlled, and thus who generally has a seizure every month that requires intervention medication and, one time in three or four, possibly a trip to A&E. 95% of the time, they are well, with the capabilities of an able person – but they may have 12 short absences from work in a year, or regularly disrupt the environment in their work by going into a seizure in a way that, for example, a school or high street shop would regard as untenable. Other conditions can require adaptations that the average workplace is unlikely to grant, such as a need to lie down regularly to rest or when suffering from spells of faintness, or a difficulty working from an office chair due to pain. There is also the issue that many chronic conditions – from ME to EDS – can involve fluctuating energy levels from day to day – on a “good day”, a person may be as capable as an able person, but on a “bad day”, they may be unable to string a sentence together, or sit up. And the quality of a day can be utterly unpredictable, even with dedication to pacing and appropriate use of medication.
Surely the appropriate response from the DWP would be to recognise, particularly in the age of the “gig economy”, that disabled people have great capacities and a great deal that they can contribute to society – and themselves – but that these contributions frequently need investment and flexibility to manage. Individual advisors are a great step – but they should not be bound by targets of getting people into a certain number of hours of work a week. The utility of freelance work and home working should be recognised and encouraged – a fund to train disabled people in occupations such as coding, writing and editing and provide home infrastructure to support this would pay for itself in short order. A more far-reaching idea might be to follow the lead of the German government in setting quotas for companies of a certain size to employ a certain number of disabled people, and go further, in encouraging and funding companies to develop flexible and home-based roles that might be particularly suitable for disabled people.
Disability goes far beyond simple impairments and into the limitations placed on people by society and hegemonic structures. I would urge the DWP to use these proposals as a way to empower disabled people and recognising their contributions. In simple financial terms, these would undoubtedly pay for themselves. In larger ones, the benefit to all of society by recognising disabled people’s abilities and talents – actually treating us like human beings with worth instead of inconvenient obstacles or useless parasites – can hardly be understated.