‘So Rob, do you have friends?” I’m wondering what on earth Sharon (not her real name) thinks she might be looking at as she gazes at me. She’s had around seven days of training before this and now, in my living room, I wonder what conclusions she feels she can draw from asking this question.
How do I answer? Do I respond with a puppyish, “Oh yes, us disabled people always have plenty of friends”? Or do I go with a more provocative, “No, us disabled people mostly eat soup in a mug and cry in front of Mrs Brown’s Boys”?
This is the reality of an assessment for personal independence payment, or Pip as it’s known. Despite last week’s election surprise, we still have a Conservative government so millions of British people with permanent, unchanging disabilities will be put through this astronomically expensive and humiliating test to see if they can be thrown off benefits.
If you’re wondering why I’m part of all this, I have ocular albinism and nystagmus, meaning I have exceptionally limited vision.
At the age of 38, I’ve been claiming disability living allowance since I was a teenager. It works out at £5.73 a day, which goes towards paying for taxis, screen magnification software, magnifying glasses and a variety of other utterly prosaic things that enable me to lead as “normal” a life as possible. And because of my visual impairment, paired with anxiety that requires daily medication, it’s been decided by the Department for Work and Pensions that I must have a home visit to assess my disability in all its permanent, unchanging glory to see if I qualify for the payments that are slowly replacing DLA.
Sharon works for Atos, one of the two profit-making companies (Capita being the other) that have been given half a billion pounds by the government to “assess” people like me with disabilities where there is zero chance of any improvement in our lifetime.
Well, you may be thinking, at least the assessor will be an expert in the relevant field of disability, who can perhaps shed some insight on the process with direct relation to my specific condition?“Do you wear glasses, Rob?” is the next question of around 35 that are fired at me over the course of a gruelling hour. Asking an albino if he or she wears glasses is like asking an amputee when their leg is going to grow back. Albinism is a genetic condition that affects the nerves and the brain. Sharon’s line of questioning has the kind of expertise you might expect if you asked Joey Essex to lead the Brexit negotiations.
Let’s clarify this: people’s benefits, mobility vehicles, home help and other essential lifelines are being decided upon by a team consisting mostly of nurses and occupational therapists like Sharon who have had seven days of training and are still doing their proper job for half the week.
And so the asininity continues: “Do you take showers?” “Do you have any leisure activities?” “What do you eat?” The humiliation and intrusion are absolute and total. The additional sheer irrelevance of these questions relating to my own disability renders me silently apoplectic.
Sharon isn’t a bad person. She looks barely 30 and she’s just doing her job. Yet the decisions she and her ilk are making just aren’t working out. In the final three months of 2016 alone 65% of people appealing against the denial of Pip won their cases against the government.
It’s a shoot of hope. Yet shouting out stats is like ordering people to eat their greens. You know it’s right but you hate it all the same. So what you’re reading is just one story about the effects of a system that is supposed to give people like me the means to be more confident and able in society. The result is that I have never felt more vulnerable and, frankly, disabled in my life.
After Sharon leaves I make a mug of tea. It’s what British men do when they really don’t want to cry. It’s too late though. As the first tears of rage and shame and frustration seep out my vision blurs and I pour boiling water from the kettle on my hand. How “disabled” of me. That might have got me a few extra points if Sharon had seen it.
Can I have my fiver now?
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