Paralympics and DLA

The UK government plans to cut £1bn from the Disability Living Allowance: described over and over again as a lifeline.

(In January last year, quietly, George Osborne cut funding for the mobility component of DLA from disabled people in residential care homes, since obviously there’s no particular need in David Cameron’s eyes for a severely disabled adult ever to leave the building in which they live. The Torch Relay is to pass within “easy reach” of 95% of the UK population, but I doubt if “easy reach” was estimated with disabilities in mind.)

ATOS assess disabled people to see if they’re “fit for work”.

[Update, 11 hours later: One of the people who read this and reacted to it was Kristina Veasey, who in 2008 at the Beijing Games was Paralympic Ambassador for Amnesty International.

We talked on Twitter and I wrote an update: see end of blog.]

Olympic flame with disabled people

Disability Alliance discovered the £1bn cut is likely to mean:

  • over 800,000 disabled people could lose support to reach the £1 billion target for DLA cuts;
  • 13% said cuts will increase their NHS use with further demand also on cash-strapped councils;
  • 25% of our respondents are in work but half fear having to quit if they lose access to support;
  • half our respondents believe DLA does not meet extra disability-related costs of living – and a third report it is ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to get by already; and
  • two-thirds of our respondents use DLA to link to other support (eg bus passes, Council Tax Benefit and Carer’s Allowance) and fear that the Government plans will have a ‘domino effect’ significantly increasing poverty and social exclusion for disabled people and their families.

When the Conservative government talks “reform”, what they mean is “cuts”. That’s their economic policy.

On 5th December 2011, David Cameron announced that he would boost the money available for the opening and the closing ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games to £80 million.

The extra money comes from an “Olympic funding package” that is worth billions of pounds. Hugh Robertson MP, the minister for sport and the Olympics, yesterday told the BBC that the extra money had been invested so that people would take away a better impression of this country after the Games. He said the government hopes the extra investment will make people want to return to Britain as tourists or to do business.

To put that in perspective, that £80m alone would also pay for 11,699 people receiving the mobility and care components of the Disability Living Allowance at the highest rate for a year. But to our current government, spending money to support people with a disability to lead a more normal, active life, is a waste:

The UK Paralympic Team may be surprised that the Government seems to think they have been ‘festering’ in the run up to the Olympics. Far more concerning however will be the changes to DLA which may see many of them stripped of benefits after the tournament is over. People claiming out of work benefits due to sickness or disability have been told that being able to watch an episode of Eastenders indicates that they might be fit for work and ineligible for benefits. It is quite likely that Paralympians may find their sporting achievements used as evidence against them to cut benefit payments.

There is no reason why disabled war veterans or Paralympians should be given any special status above the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people who also face losing vital and life saving support. But it is them who will make the headlines when people are forced into suicide, poverty and homelessness.

ATOS is the company employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to deny disabled people benefits. They are also the company employed by the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) to design and host the Paralympics website: ATOS have been the “key technology provider” for the Paralympic Movement since 2002, and became the official Worldwide Information Technology Partner for the IPC in 2008.

In September 2011, Disabled People Against The Cuts called for a boycott:

Unless you’re disabled, you may not have heard of Atos Healthcare. They are the french IT firm assessing disabled people’s fitness to work on behalf of the Government. (Channel4 News, September 2011)

But – if some disabled campaigners have anything to do with it – by next summer, you will know all about the company. They’re threatening a boycott of the Paralympic Games.

They’re angry that Atos Healthcare’s parent company, Atos, is a Worldwide Olympic partner of London 2012, and that includes the Paralympics.

Sir Phillip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said yesterday “I am very happy with our relationship” and added that Atos were “very much a part of the International Paralympic Committee”.

Craig Spence, the IPC’s communications director, dismissed concerns about ATOS’s sponsorship of the Paralympic Games asa “small minority”:

“I think the majority of people watching will be marvelling at the fantastic performances of our elite athletes as opposed to a small minority who will be protesting.” Any criticism of the company should be directed at the DWP, not the IPC, he added. “The paralympic games is the biggest ever platform for showcasing what people with an impairment can achieve,” he said. “So for people to suggest that people should boycott the Paralympics because of an issue between the DWP and the Atos, I think is really bizarre.”

The DWP have doubtless made their expectations clear to ATOS. Although fraudulent claims for DLA are estimated by the DWP to be about 0.5% of the total, the plan is to cut recipients by 20%. All doctors employed by ATOS have to sign the Official Secrets Act, which means whistleblowing may be a criminal act. Who is the more to blame – the company that accepts £100 million a year to ensure that people who desperately need help don’t get it, or the government department that pays them to do so?

The really bizarre story of Larry Newman, who died after ATOS declared him fit for work:

His widow, Sylvia Newman, recalls that one of the last things he said to her, as doctors put him on a ventilator, was: “It’s a good job I’m fit for work.” He was trying to make her laugh, she says, but it was also a reflection of how upset he had been by the conclusion of the medical test.

“He was so hurt by it. It made him so upset that they thought he was lying, and he wasn’t,” she says. “I think it added to him just giving up.”

Mrs Newman has lodged an official complaint, with the help of Citizens Advice staff, highlighting 12 inconsistencies in the report by the Atos assesser. It said her husband had been unaccompanied. “I was with him, although in his medical report they claimed that I was in the waiting room,” she says. The report says that Mr Newman’s pulse was fine, that he had no scars on his chest and that he managed to climb on to the examination bed without any problem. Mrs Newman says that her husband did not get on to the examination bed, that his pulse was not taken, and that the assesser did not look at his chest, otherwise he would have seen scars.

“He never touched Larry, he never took his pulse.There were endless inaccuracies,” she added, describing the report as “make-believe”.

They were both dismayed by the assesser’s casual attitude. “At one stage, he took a phone call. We were trying not to listen, but it seemed to be a personal call,” she says. “It went on for a few minutes. It wasn’t very professional.”

Steven Sumpter outlined “What’s Wrong With ATOS” at much more length – that the “test” devised to find if a disabled person is fit for work is primarily about matching keywords in a computer programme, and only secondarily a physical exam. Craig Spence would doubtless argue that ATOS is just following the DWP’s instructions in having a test set up to ignore a candidate’s physical fitness for work. But one aspect is wholly within ATOS’s control: the buildings in which ATOS “tests” disabled people.

More problems occur because at least a fifth of ATOS medical centres are not wheelchair accessible. Only one third of the centres have onsite parking, while visitors are required to walk from car parks several minutes away for other centres, and just one has a parking space for disabled people. 30 of the centres are not on the ground floor some don’t even have lifts! Considering that people only visit these buildings when they are sick or disabled and a huge number of them will be using walking sticks or wheelchairs, this is ridiculous.

For many people, just getting to the ATOS medical examination centre can be a major challenge. In a letter sent out to notify me of my impending assessment I was helpfully sent a suggested journey plan. It included bus, train and 17 minutes of walking. I do understand that the journey plan is a standard item sent out to all claimants, and this is why they have suggested that I walk despite them being fully aware that I cannot stay on my feet for more than a couple of minutes. But I can’t be the only one that would have trouble with that journey.

The DPAC campaigners call this a “flawed process” and say ATOS is an inappropriate sponsor of the Paralympic Games:

That’s denied by Atos Healthcare who told Channel 4 News it was not just proud of the work carried out by their staff to “conduct objective assessments” but also “proud of its role as the Worldwide IT Partner for the Paralympic Games and committed to delivering the technology that will help ensure a successful Games for athletes and spectators”.

Paralympics gold-medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson, wheelchair athlete, said disability living allowance had been

crucial in enabling her and many other disabled athletes to participate and compete. “It’s important to recognise that the cuts will affect Paralympians, who have higher living costs as a result of their impairment.”

Her comments come as the starting gun is fired on the 100-day countdown to the Paralympics, which take place at the end of August.

She said that although the very top disabled athletes might get financial help from sponsors, many others would find it difficult to compete if they lost the benefit. “I know someone who is on the edge of qualification who has had her DLA removed. It impacts on her ability to get involved in society, not just sport.”

Gerald Sandison wrote to the Guardian about the DWP’s belief that people with a disability shouldn’t volunteer:

 Polly Toynbee describes government failure (Comment, 15 May), including withdrawal of disability living allowance. At a recent conference of people working in part of the voluntary sector, a wheelchair-bound woman with obviously severe disabilities spoke. She said she was able to do a limited amount of volunteer work for her credit union – a couple of hours a day – which had therapeutic benefits. The response of the DWP was, “If you are able to volunteer for eight hours a week, you can take paid work for eight hours a week.” She lost her DLA because she had undertaken voluntary work with her credit union.

A ComRes poll of more than 2,000 British adults commissioned for MS Week this April shows that one in five think disabled people “need to accept they cannot have the same opportunities in life as non-disabled people”.

In March this year the Papworth Trust published the results of a survey of disabled people:

  • 87% of survey respondents felt that disabled people are treated badly overall. 1 in 7 respondents to our survey used the words ‘benefit scroungers’ to describe how they were made to feel or labelled while 12% of respondents said they felt like ‘second or lower class citizens’. What is telling is a comment such as “When a person treats me as normal I am extremely gratified”. This has resulted in a sense of marginalisation and isolation in the responses of the disabled people we surveyed.
  • “Disabled people are regarded as spongers, especially if they are on benefits. We are not listened to, nor does government care about what we think or feel. This makes me feel less than nothing; it makes me feel that able bodied, more capable people are worth more.”
  • “Every day is spent trying to survive & fighting for people to accept that you are disabled and not a scrounger. It’s horrible.”
  • One respondent said disabled people were made to feel like “second class citizens who are a drain on society and have no value or ability to contribute – It makes me angry, frustrated, depressed”

Ninety-nine days to go till the Paralympic Games opening ceremony. What then?

Last week John Kerr of Dundee – registered deaf and blind, paralysed from birth with cerebral palsy – received a letter from the DWP saying he had been declared fit for work by 7th June 2012.

Update, 11 hours later:

My focus in this blog post is the irony of ATOS being a Paralympic Games sponsor. As Kristina Veasey (@TippyScarecrow) pointed out, as a result I’ve muddled the issue of DLA versus “fit for work” claims, because ATOS assesses claimants for both. “Fit for work” has become an ugly travesty, but many disabled people are able and willing to work – if they have the bit of extra support that they need.

The advantage of Disability Living Allowance was that it could be claimed by any disabled person, in or out of work: so a person with a disability who was not physically able to cope with public transport, or who needed other help for mobility or care, was able to pay for what they needed themselves. DLA was a needed recognition that being disabled is costly.

Many Paralympic athletes work: many DLA recipients used the payment to help them hold down a job. Kristina Veasey was a part of Britain’s wheelchair basketball team at the Paralympics in 2000 and 2004 and says “DLA is essential for work (and athlete careers). I would be housebound without it!”

1 Comment

Filed under Disability, Olympics

One response to “Paralympics and DLA

  1. Once IDS and ATOS have finished their dastardly work, it is unlikely that TeamGB will be able to raise a paralympic contingent ever again,as they will all have been deemed able bpdied.

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