Congratulations to Dave Allen for winning his landmark Disability Discrimination Act case against the Royal Bank of Scotland – and, I’d add, shame on some of the commenters on the Times article, for displaying the backward attitudes towards disability that are sadly still too common in the UK.

I often notice that a large number of shops and businesses in my town are completely inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, in spite of laws telling them to build ramps. For some small businesses who rent space in old buildings this is understandable, and the law allows them other ways to make accommodations to serve customers with disabilities, but it seems that many who could make better efforts don’t bother, and they’ll continue not to unless cases like this continue to be brought and won (and I think it’s a pity that the burden is on people with disabilities to take the legal action against them).

Mr Allen said: “I’m glad the bank finally had to apologise in court and acknowledge they treated me badly.

“But I am still very disappointed that RBS, whom I have banked with since I was 10, when I was still able to walk, would not willingly comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and provide wheelchair access which not only I, but many of their other customers with disabilities need.

“They just failed to understand anything about the need for privacy and dignity.”

It’s a pity that many of the commenters on the article also fail to understand anything about dignity.

Elsewhere in the press, Liz Jones of the Daily Mail was distressed to discover she couldn’t afford her usual £800 monthly grooming routine when she tried to spend a week living on £64.30, the standard payment for Job Seeker’s Allowance.

It would be very, very easy to mock this article, in which the highly paid Jones discovers that in spite of being £150,000 in debt she isn’t really poor. Instead I’ll highlight just a few of her comments.

I am exhausted. I cannot move or think. I look terrible, ugly. I feel completely humiliated. The reason? I have just spent a week trying to live on benefits.

and

All your energy is consumed by getting through the day.

She’s not disabled, she’s not suffering from mental illness, she doesn’t have chronic fatigue, so imagine for a minute how much more exhausting the experience of living on benefits is for those who do. On income support for incapacity I get more than someone on JSA, but the difference between £65 a week and £90 a week isn’t huge when it’s all you have to live on for years, especially when unlike Liz, walking four miles to the shops is simply impossible for you.

Let’s hope that this piece will help at least some Daily Mail readers realize that being on benefits does not in fact mean an easy life lazing around enjoying yourself, and in itself can make you exhausted and depressed.

Given David Cameron’s remarks about the “economically inactive” and his wish to retest everyone on incapacity benefits to catch an imaginary 5% of frauds, it’s easy to see the Conservative’s launch of a campaign to protect disability benefits for pensioners as an opportunistic grab for some headlines.

In his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, Cameron told us that ‘Big society’ is the solution to poverty, as opposed to big government. He wants to move the power from the state to communities, charities, and families.

In theory the idea of of big society over big government is one I strongly agree with. In my utopia, we wouldn’t have governments bossing us around and telling us what to do, or encouraging us to snoop on our neighbours if we think they might be benefit cheats because we see them unload a van. In my utopia, families and communities would care about each other and support each other, and human beings would be valued for more than their ability to be “economically productive”. In my utopia, we’d all work less and do more that has real value to the world. So you might think I’d strongly support David Cameron on this issue.

In the real world, alas, the Conservatives do as little to foster these human values as the Labour Party has done. You cannot shift the responsibility from government to communities and charities without first changing the negative attitudes people hold towards the disabled, the mentally ill, and people on benefits. A society that sees us as scroungers who contribute nothing is not going to be a supportive society. Many families want nothing to do with their mentally ill relatives, and workplaces remain hostile environments.

Charities do a great job, but they are hugely reliant on public funding, so this hardly shifts the burden from the taxpayer. Additionally, and crucially, no one has a RIGHT to be helped by a charity. While society is arranged in a way that overwhelmingly benefits the well, the working, the extroverted, the person with business skills, it is vital that a welfare system exists to help the people who cannot function in it. “Big Society” won’t be achieved by stripping away benefits, and making the poor and sick even worse off.

I’d like to point you towards an excellent blog post by Richard Exell, which examines some of the facts and figures: David Cameron’s Big Society Speech. As he says, “restrictions in access to benefits and reductions in their value will hit the poor hard.”

Cameron’s position is full of contradictions. For instance, he claims “no wonder that ‘society is broken’ when people are paid more not to work than work and are better off leaving their children than nurturing them.” Wait, hold on a minute, does he want people to be paid so they can stay at home and nurture their children, or does he want them to leave their kids in childcare (if they can find any they can afford) and go out to work? We see this double standard in the press all the time of course – women who work are bad for not staying at home with the kids, but damn those dreadful single mothers who live on welfare so they don’t have to go out to work!

“Big Society” will depends on volunteering. How are people going to find the time to volunteer when work hours are rising rather than falling? Why don’t the Tories and others recognize that a great deal of voluntary work is done by those who aren’t employed, who are on benefits? “Big Society” requires a move away from the values of consumer capitalism and big business, away from profits above people, away from the isolation and stigmatization of disability, mental illness, and the “benefits culture”. This is not something any of the major parties really has any interest in delivering.

I would love to live in a world where big society can take the place of big government, but in spite of the rhetoric, the Conservatives offer nothing to truly move us towards that utopian vision.

Two links for today:

Inequality based on disability is widespread, according to research.

The survey identifies a stark pay gap between disabled and non-disabled staff – the non-disabled being more than three times more likely to earn £80,000 or above – as well as far less access to the mentoring and support that many disabled people crave. In addition, while staff with mental-health conditions are far less likely to be top earners or board directors than those with more visible, physical impairments, they are also significantly less willing to disclose details of their condition for fear of being stereotyped or sidelined.

Interesting piece, though more about people towards the top of the career ladder than those struggling to get by on benefits.

And, Depression as deadly as smoking… “A study by researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London has found that depression is as much of a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

Also many thanks to cdaae for tweeting our posts, and to Mark Brown, who said of us “On the ground experience becomes interesting and combative citizen journalism”. All your links and comments are very much appreciated!

The tabloid press likes to tell us that “experts” say most people on incapacity benefits are making it up, but never actually quote any evidence for this.

Amazingly enough, they completely fail to print headlines about a real, actual expert’s testimony that hundreds of claimants are in fact unjustly imprisoned every year because overpayment amounts are being ‘wildly exaggerated’ by the DWP, as welfare benefits expert witness Neil Bateman has told MPs. In one case he assisted with, a woman prosecuted for a £47,000 overpayment had in reality under-claimed benefits.

According to Bateman, criminal judges and defending solicitors do not understand benefits law and it is very rare for a welfare rights specialist to be involved in defending claimants. As a result, the DWP get away with massively inflating the amount of benefit a claimant has been overpaid. Where this is more than £20,000 a prison sentence is the likely outcome, with the DWP getting positive press coverage for exposing the criminal.

Most overpayment cases that Bateman assist with arise not from someone deliberately plotting to defraud the system, but from foolishly failing to declare a change of circumstances.

I suggest you read Neil Bateman’s statement to the Commons select committee for yourself, because you’re not likely to see it in many newspapers.

So why have we been subjected to headlines falsely claiming that as many as 1 in 4 people on incapacity benefits are faking? Where do these figures come from, and who are the “experts” the Daily Mail refers to?

Not experts at all, it turns out, but computer systems based on check boxes and points systems, which fail to accurately assess people’s actual abilities.

The Labour government’s replacement for incapacity benefits, which new applicants now go through, is the employment support allowance (ESA). The “work capability test” for ESA focuses on physical abilities like reaching and bending. However it ignores questions about energy, stamina, illness, or mental state, making it far more difficult for people with mental health problems or illnesses like ME to get enough points to pass.

The people failing this test aren’t faking an illness, they have an illness which the test does not even attempt to measure.

The Guardian is one of the few papers which has reported on these problems.

Although the DWP claims that the WCA assesses whether the person can “carry out an activity reliably and repeatedly the majority of the time”, this is not borne out by the experience of claimants such as Wood and many disability organisations.

Daniel Berry, head of policy and campaigns at the MS Society, says: “MS symptoms can change by the day or even by the hour, so it’s vital that benefits assessors are trained to understand fluctuating conditions. Many people risk losing the financial support they need if they are inaccurately assessed.”

Welfare benefits officers working for the DWP also have grave concerns about the new test. One specialist benefits officer for sick and disabled people, and who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “What I’m seeing at ground level is that there are some people who do want to work but who are so ill and physically disabled that they can’t, and they’re being forced to go into the work-related group of ESA and to jump all these hurdles in order to get the benefit.”

So, under the new tests a large proportion of people with mental health problems and other disabilities face being put on lower level of benefits, or forced into “back to work” groups which may be deeply inappropriate for them and increase their level of stress and depression. Meanwhile, hundreds each year are unjustly imprisoned when they may in fact have been under-claiming benefits!

More people need to know about this. Please, please link, tweet, and post this to Facebook!

“Diary of a Goldfish” has an excellent post on Seven Myths about Incapacity Benefit, including “people on incapacity benefit are not assessed by a doctor”, “the 40% of people on Incapacity Benefit for mental health problems would be better off if they worked to keep their mind off their troubles”, and “there are loads of people defrauding the system”.

I used to feel quite defensive when people moaned about Incapacity Benefit but these days I just get very very angry. Every media story and every political statement made on this issue presumes that there is widespread fraud and “malingering”, where there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. Of course fraud exists, as it undoubtedly does throughout the tax and benefit systems, but there is no evidence that it is widespread with IB. In fact, I struggled to find any up to date statistics about fraud at all.

But see, thing is, people on Incapacity Benefits include some of the most vulnerable people in society. We’re all made vulnerable by our dependence on the state and our relative poverty, but we’re also a crowd of duffers; people who don’t always have the intellectual, cognitive, physical or emotional capacity to fight their own corner.

Thus we make an excellent scapegoat. Of course, most of us are white British, so we’re not perfect, but if people are fed up with the amount of tax they pay (and people always are), it is a sure winner to point to us sponging cripples and declare that we’re not quite as crippled as we look (best of all, some of us don’t even look crippled, which is surely proof we’re on the make).

All very true and worth reading.

Talking about incapacity benefits these days is confusing, as the system has been changed for new applicants, and the processes for income support, incapacity, and the new ESA are all slightly different.

And the tests aren’t, as some insist, easy to pass. For instance, see Dr Tim Greenaway’s letter Failing the incapacity test to the Guardian, and this experience of a blogger with chronic fatigue.

What is life really like for people who are part of Britain’s “Benefits Culture”?

Being on benefits is looked down on in today’s world, by the politicians, the media, and large numbers of people we encounter in our day to day lives. According to papers like The Daily Mail, the majority of us who are on incapacity benefit, or income support on grounds of incapacity, are really just lazy scroungers who should be forced in to work.

We’ve become frustrated with how people take up the media on their assault on people with disabilities, and particularly invisible disabilities like mental health problems, chronic pain, and ME. Most people who haven’t experienced those problems, or have perhaps experienced them for short periods and then got better, can have little idea what it’s like. We hope to help overcome that barrier by writing about our lives, what we can and can’t do and why, what it’s like to be us, and why the press and politicians (of both leading parties) are actively harming people who already struggle to survive.

Please share your comments, or see the About Us page for more info.

One of the media’s latest gloating claims has been that most people on incapacity benefit in the UK “could do some work”. And I can hear these people now, were they to read this – “you can blog, why don’t you go out and get a job?”

My first reaction to these people is that that’s between me and my doctors, including the ones who assessed me for incapacity and agreed I qualified. Yes, you might not guess it from the way the papers write about the topic, but amazingly enough you already have to be assessed by professionals before you’re given incapacity benefits (which now have a confusing number of names, as the system is being switched over to something called ESA).

Since the point of this blog is to discuss these issues, I’ll overlook the rudeness of these interrogators for now, and give a few of the many valid answers to this question.

Why don’t you go out and get a job?

My disability doesn’t mean I can’t ever do any kind of work – I do voluntary work once a week, I write this blog, I enjoy taking photographs. What it does mean is that I cannot work often or reliably enough to perform in a job, as they’re arranged in today’s society. I do not know when I’m going to be too unwell, or how long that will last. I also get exhausted very easily, and half a day of voluntary work needs to be followed by a couple of days of doing nothing to recover some energy. I’m often exhausted, because just keeping up with everyday tasks like laundry and dishes and paying bills is overwhelming when you’re disabled, physically or otherwise.

Having some skills and abilities doesn’t mean you can exercise them in a job. It doesn’t mean you can show up on a day to day basis, partake in the expected social interactions (especially if you have to deal with customers with a chirpy smile on your face), and not quickly become so ill you can’t get out of bed. It doesn’t mean employers would want you, either, even for relatively menial work – I know someone who was fired from a job as a cart collector for Tesco, because he looked too glum. He committed suicide about a month later.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone who’s been on incapacity benefit for a couple of years gets better, and is able to return to work, which is what the government wants us to do. They apply for positions, if they’re really lucky they get an interview, and what happens? Oh look, they have a gap in their history of paid employment, no one wants to give them a job. If you want to remove barriers to work, how about starting with the ones caused by the people in the position of power, instead of constantly attacking the powerless?

There are many more aspects I could cover here, of course, and they’ll be brought up in future posts. For instance, along with energy goes time. Doctor’s appointments, psychiatrist’s appointments, CPNs, support groups and CMHTs, even if you have the energy to do more than all that you’re going to need a job that doesn’t mind giving you frequently time off for it. People with physical disabilities face other factors too, like the extra stress and effort of finding accessible transport, arranging aides and assistants, even things as simple (to most of us) as people understanding it takes you 20 minutes to go to the loo.

Being able to work is about more than just your physical ability to perform a task. It’s also about being able to get and keep a job that’s appropriate to your abilities, without making yourself more disabled and more unwell.