The Right Result #esa

4/27/2013 02:37:00 pm BenefitScroungingScum 11 Comments

My form had to be returned by April 8th so I was quite surprised to get a phone call from the DWP so quickly - a nice lady rang yesterday morning. The nice DWP lady seemed a bit peturbed by my voice loss* and kept asking if I was well enough to speak to her as she could call back. Having not heard why she was phoning at that point there was no way I was letting her go without telling me what the call was about, I'd have been hysterical all weekend.

So, through croaks, coughs and splutters the nice lady read out her script and told me that I'd been found to have such significant disability that I've been placed in the support group, to be reviewed in April 2016. I asked her a few questions, but had to wait for the right part in the script she was reading - apparently they aren't allowed to deviate from that even when asked a question. Mostly it was ok, but there were disturbing implications in the script - I'd been found too sick/disabled to be expected to participate in any work related activity, but I could always 'volunteer' at the Jobcentre if I want. Which is slightly odd because volunteer and jobcentre aren't exactly words I'd naturally associate with each took me a while to work out it did not mean that the jobcentre would support me with actual volunteering work, but that I could volunteer to erm, I'm not sure sanctioned on a work programme?

Once the relief settles down a bit I'll go through the inevitable psychological consequences of being deemed so disabled that even in the current climate the DWP don't feel the need to harrass me, but that isn't a new feeling, its always associated with successful benefit claims in relation to sickness or disability. It's strange - however frightened and anxious people are about claiming, however relieved they are by being granted eligibility to a particular benefit, afterwards there's always a strange readjustment process to a sickness or disability you've long adjusted to coping with as best you can.

But, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a clear diagnosis of a genetic disorder to explain my symptoms. I have a supportive GP who was happy to supply the relevant medical evidence, I'm educated and I understand how to fill out a form, I have people in my life who I can ask for help and support through the process. Like I say, that makes me one of the lucky ones. Going through the ESA process is not like that for most people. And even as one of the lucky ones I've experienced so much stress from the process that its had a significant impact on my general health, which will take me time to recover from. If I knew I had to do all this again next year I would be in utter despair, but having three years gives me a level of security about my future and the freedom to continue either volunteering or hoping that eventually there might be a realistic way for people too sick/disabled to work consistently, even on a part time from home basis to use their skills to earn some money but not lose eligibility to the support we need. Once upon a time some of us hoped this would be the big change with Universal Credit, but the application of politics and ignorance to a once good idea has ensured that won't be possible.

I haven't had any contact with Atos at any point, so I can't really comment on their part of the process, other than having been told my application was assessed by them via 'scrutiny' which means that a decision can be made based on the form and submitted medical evidence without seeing the claimant face to face. Communications by phone from DWP have happened when they should do, including reminder phone call. Actually both ladies were lovely which helped, but in all the years I've had to speak to DWP staff as a claimant its the one's who aren't which stand out as the exceptions. Most have been kind and helpful. The new focus on jobcentres and work from DWP staff as part of their standard script is deeply unhelpful though and comes across as intimidatory even when the caller is pleasant.

Written communications however were a different matter. I had the latest version of the form to fill in and it was awful, worse than previous versions. There are tickbox questions which I couldn't work out what the answer was meant to be because the question was so poorly worded. There is no option on the mobility tick box to answer 'less than 50 meters'. As I'm an awkward type I wrote on the actual form that none applied, but only after a great deal of distress. Lots of people tick the 50m box because its the shortest distance but then of course it indicates you can walk 50m. This box comes up in discussions with claimants over and over again.

I can't stress enough how bad the tickbox questions are. With the boxes you can write in what you need to write, they are too small but most people know to use extra paper and attach it. But the tickboxes take more time and cause more distress than the free text answers.

I learnt that going through the process feels like Russian Roulette. I knew with utter certainty that my form had been filled out correctly, that I had hit various descriptors at various points and that the letter from my GP contained the exact information required to make a decision. Despite all that it felt entirely down to chance - would the Decision Maker understand the condition, would the Atos HCP have enough time to scrutinise the file, would it go direct to a face to face WCA because it was too complicated to make the decision. And of course that builds on the enormous stress and fear about the consequences of going to a WCA and how that might impact on the rest of my life, ability to remain in my own home due to impact on benefits by being found fit for work or placed in the work related activity group.

The biggest relief for me is getting a review date in 2016. I now have some security because I've got three years. The constant stress for people repeatedly being given awards of 12 months or less is breaking many people. Asking around other claimants many people haven't been told how long their award lasts so are living with the constant stress and anxiety every time the postman comes. Knowing is better than not knowing, even if its not exactly what you hoped you would find out, and ensuring that everyone is clearly given the date when they can be expected to be re-assessed is such a simple task for the DWP, but would make such a different to sick and disabled people.

*yes, again. I blame the mini weapons of biological warfare also known as nephew and niece!


Tick Box Torture #esa

4/26/2013 12:30:00 pm BenefitScroungingScum 5 Comments

I couldn't put it off any longer, if I'm to get my ESA50 filled in, collate appropriate supporting evidence and manage to post it back to the DWP in time, then the questions had to be answered regardless of my inability to sit up straight and focus.

Whilst I'm not a welfare rights advisor, I have a pretty decent working knowledge of how to fill in benefits forms and have plenty of people I can ask to help me - its much more difficult to fill in your own benefits application than someone else's. So, I recruited a friend who knows me well and could interject everytime I tried to insist I could do an activity by pointing out that actually, reality means I can't.

I'm often mystified by the time and attention paid to how distressing filling out an ESA form is...of course it is, so is filling out a DLA form, so was filling out the old Incapacity Benefit forms. Whilst ESA has the added extra stress of knowing the system is designed to redefine the level of sickness or disability which qualifies for social security support, applying for any health related benefit is a miserable business as its the only time in life claimants are forced to reflect on all the things they can't do and focus just on the negative. Even if the DWP sent out forms with kits containing fluffy blankies, hot chocolate and HCP's with tepid flannels to soothe our fevered brows as they assessed us it would still be a depressing process to go through because at no other time in life do people have to focus on how completely incapable they are.

From that you can safely assume answering the questions was a dismal process. There were tears, sobbing, snivelling and snot, with a side order of occasional screeching "I'm not that crap, I'm not, I'm not" while my friend patiently and consistently pointed out that I could not describe lying on a beanbag as a functional ability to sit up. Ok, so my friend is right, its not a functional ability to sit up and there aren't too many activities in life which don't demand an ability to sit and stand properly, or workplaces providing beanbags, naps and oramorph on tap, but I was in full blown ESA hysteria and didn't care. Fortunately my friend won and sensible answers were written which didn't include any "fuck you DWP, I'm awesome and can do everything, oh but please give me enough points for support group because actually I'm not too sure I can follow through on my can do everything committment"

The biggest source of stress was the tickboxes. OMG the tick boxes. Also, who the hell do the DWP get to write these forms, someone who only speaks English as a 15th language?! The tickboxes requiring a tick took more time to work out than any of the free text answers. The free text answers were depressing, but at least relatively straightforward to write - I have EDS, my muscles are exceptionally weak, this causes dislocations without trauma, pain, fatigue etc, but did I mention the OMG the tick boxes issue? I've got a law degree, I've had the odd article published in the national press, generally I think my language skills are reasonable, but could I work out what the right box to tick for the questions were? Could I heck. It was bad enough trying to work out whether the right answer was 'no' or 'it varies' but on many of the questions it was hideously difficult to comprehend whether a no answer meant I couldn't complete that activity or whether the question was so (deliberately) badly worded that actually answering no meant yes.

Most of the sobbing, shrieking incidents were prompted by tick boxes. Bloody, bloody boxes. I miss the longer forms, the longer forms with less bloody tick boxes and enough space to come close to explaining the issues meaning you're not fit enough for work.

But at least I now have an answer to go in each box. Ok, I might not like the answers and prefer to live in the cosy world of denial where I can tell myself I could totes be a Paralympian if I start training now, but that's not the point, there are answers. Now all I have to do is make sure those answers get taped into the right boxes and get to my GP so he can do a letter confirming that its all true.

That bit requires getting out of the house to work to other people's timing and not remaining horizontal on a beanbag convincing myself that makes me fully functional...


Brown Envelope Roulette

4/26/2013 12:17:00 pm BenefitScroungingScum 1 Comments

 Its all a bit strange not being able to talk openly or on social media about going through my WCA, but I decided that if I did mention it in public while its going on that it might be someone ensures I have a 'text book' perfect assessment process. I feel I owe it to people like Karen Sherlock to go through this in the same way everyone does - like being launched into a game of roulette where claimants are the ball and its sheer chance as to whether things will work out the way they should. Not being able to use social media means not being able to get emotional support and advice as readily, but it feels like the right thing to do.

The dreaded brown envelope arrived, or more accurately I arrived to the brown envelope - having gone to friends for the weekend to escape the stress of social services refusing my entire support package, I got home to find the friendly DWP 'its time for your WCA' missive sitting there staring at me accusingly. Its safe to say the anxiety instantly returned and started to reproduce at a speed bacteria would be proud of. So far 2013 has done its damndest to beat me into submission, and the combined stress of a social care appeal at the same time as going through the Work Capability Assessment is not something I'm relishing.

A few days after the letter I had the promised phone call from the DWP to explain what was happening. Ever so nice she was, Gwen from the valleys and I'm sure she enjoyed hearing me yelp in pain down the phone as part of my spine made a bid for freedom. After a short delay due to the failure of DWP's computer system, during which I pondered how that boded really well for the imminent launch of Universal Credit, Gwen phoned back and we got down to business. Well, she did. I kept quiet and pretended I knew nothing about welfare to see what was I told. I was told that Gwen needed to explain the changes to my benefits, that Employment Support Allowance was to provide support to disabled people to work, which was an interesting scripted spin there from the DWP. Had I not known that ESA was also to provide support to people who are too sick or disabled to work I would have thought I was being told to apply for the wrong benefit. Gwen told me I had to fill in the form, that I was welcome to add as much extra evidence as I liked, but that I must be aware my benefits would be stopped if I didn't complete it.

Gwen went on to explain that I might have to attend a face to face work capability assessment, and that I should assume I'd have to go to an assessment because that was part of the process. She said that if I did have to attend someone would phone to arrange a time and day, that I could take someone with me to help but that if I didn't attend my benefits would be affected. Afterwards someone from the DWP would phone and give me their decision. She wanted to know if I had any extra access needs, so we had a slightly confused conversation (on her part) about ramp access and made sure she wrote down I was a wheelchair user. The final point was to ensure that if I don't receive the forms by March 15th that I phone to chase them up.

All relatively comprehensive, if through a DWP prism of 'you will attend, you will get into work'. So being a well trained disabled I made some phone calls, to my GP to arrange a phone appointment to discuss the form and to my physio to ask her to write a letter I can send in with the form. I've been collecting medical evidence for the last year or so from consultants who've seen me and stated they can't treat the problem because there isn't a treatment, but all those documents are more than six months old so can't officially be considered by the assessor.

I spoke to my GP this morning and asked if he would write a letter to support my application. He said I am to wait til the forms themselves arrive then pop in to the surgery and he'll dictate it there and then. I'm hoping this means dictate a letter not he'll fill the actual form in itself, but I'm very reassured by his attitude to the assessment so far. Although, I can't help but wonder what the point of an assessment process is for those claimants who are called in so their own doctor can go through the questions and provide evidence with them...that seems awfully close to an actual assessment to me.

But, what do I know? I'm just disabled and in receipt of welfare, asking someone like me to help improve the system would just be silly.


Introduction of #PIP in the news

4/08/2013 05:02:00 pm BenefitScroungingScum 0 Comments

Steve Sumpter has done a great collection of media links and clips from today including the Radio 5 live debate I was involved in with Dr Stephen Duckworth from Capita

There is also an interview on BBC Radio Merseyside from earlier this morning which can be heard here (section starts 2hrs 6 mins in)