Thursday 25 August 2011

Your year is up! Get thee on your wheelchair and find a job!

I wrote to my MP recently regarding time limiting of ESA. I am totally disgusted by the reply forwarded to me from Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud. But I will concentrate on just two paragraphs.

Currently people can qualify for many years of benefit on the basis of NI contributions made over a relatively short period of time. This is no longer acceptable in the current fiscal climate were we need to review the balance between contributions paid and indefinite entitlement to support.

So there we have it black on white. The principle on which the welfare system was founded “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is to be abandoned. Woe betide you if you have not paid much NI. More worryingly, following this logic, contributions based benefits could well be under further threat down the road.

And the reason behind this? “The current fiscal climate”. In other words, disabled people are to bear the penalty for errors in judgment made at the highest levels and which have destabilised our economy. In a civilised society are these really the people who should be bearing this burden?

It is very tempting to follow Freud’s reasoning and blame the benefit recipient for “taking more than they put in”. But it is my experience and observation that when it comes to illness and disability the total amount of NI you pay is simply pure dumb luck and has little to do with willingness to work or any other factor.

I will take myself as a prime example. I did pay NI for a period of 5 years. After this time my illness had progressed to such an extent that I had to give up work. After taking the dreaded WCA I was put into the support group of ESA (ie I am never expected to be able to work again and have unconditional support). But my illness could well have started 5 years earlier. In that case, with the best will in the world I would never have paid any NI at all. Conversely, it might have started 10 years later. In that case I would have paid 15 years NI instead of 5. In either situation I would have been no more or less “brave”, stronger or lesser willed or more or less eager to work. It would simply have been down to luck of the draw.

We do not think it right in principle that those who are assessed as able to undertake work related activity should be able to remain on contribution based ESA for an unlimited period. We have therefore decided to introduce a 1 year time limit (…).

This argument simply takes my breath away. ESA is an out of work benefit. Those in the WRAG (Work Related Activity Group) who are talked about here are those who are expected to be able to work again one day with the right support. That support takes the form of work related activity. Being able to do work related activity (which might be something like doing a few hours a week volunteer work, or a training course) is nothing like being able to hold down a job week in week out for 35 hours a week. So taking away the benefit and at the same time the very support which goes with it is both unfair and short sighted although admittedly lucrative for the government since it will save £30 per week. And let us not forget that these people have passed the stringent WCA and remain UNFIT FOR WORK!

Time limiting it to one year is saying that ANY illness or disability must be treatable or curable within one year. This is simply laughable. This policy is going to hit many very sick people including people with MS, recovering cancer patients and people with long term chronic illnesses. The issue has already been raised at prime ministers questions but Mr Cameron has been remarkably evasive as to how many people will be adversely affected. In fact, he seemed unaware of the difference between the categories of ESA.

I will be writing back to my MP and I urge all of you who can to do the same and to raise awareness of this issue. Although ESA will still be available on an income basis, the threshold will be so low that disabled people are about to become a financial burden on their loved ones, creating a very unequal relationship. I myself have already worked out that it would be financially unviable to get married!

Just remember, don’t get sick. If you do, you have a year before you have to get on your wheelchair and find a job!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Electric Wheelchairs

Difficult to know where to start a blog. I think I will go with something which links both one of my most cherished possessions and a huge hidden problem recently highlighted by the plight of Broken of Britain disability campaigner Kaliya Franklin.

Two of my favourite possessions are my electric wheelchairs. One is called Roadrunner and is a wonderful outdoor/indoor wheelchair with full suspension, capable of a turn of speed of 6mph which means I can get places quickly which is vital given that a huge extra problem for me is fatigue and pain. However, while he is ideal for outdoors, going around indoors gives my doorposts and furniture reason to cringe in panic and so when my condition deteriorated to the point I needed a wheelchair indoors as well, I bought an indoor/outdoor wheelchair I call Rascal. This one can cope with going outdoors but is terribly bumpy and a tad slow. But indoors he comes into his own. Far smaller than his counterpart, he can pretty much turn on the spot and my furniture and paintwork were able to heave sighs of relief!

Now let's look at some boring but necessary facts. I can only walk about 10 yards and it hurts at that. I cannot push a manual wheelchair because, let's face it, my arms are just as rubbish as my legs! This means that even on a so called "good" day (read for this not stuck in bed) I can't get up my own garden path even with a manual wheelchair. It means that on a "bad" day (read for this might be able to slither from bed to wheelchair and from wheelchair to toilet if I really really must) I can't get from one room to another without an electric wheelchair.

Everyone always assumes that these wheelchairs are provided by the NHS. They are not. Despite the problems I've outlined above, I do not qualify for an electric wheelchair because I can "walk". The fact that I am housebound as a result for lack of a wheelchair does not seem to matter. Yet the government is banging on about disabled people going out to work and in their wisdom proposing that people should only be allowed to claim out of work disability benefit (ESA) for a year. I would like to know how one is to find work when they cannot leave the house for lack of a wheelchair?

Kaliya whom I mentioned in my opening paragraph is a prime example. Unable to push a manual wheelchair but needing a wheelchair outdoors she is turned down because she is only allowed one if she uses it full time. Add to that the fact that her accommodation is not accessible for an electric wheelchair (so she is turned down anyway for health and safety reasons) and there is no provision to move her to wheelchair accommodation and you start to see the scale of the issue.

And so the hapless disabled person is left to fund an electric wheelchair themselves privately at a cost of at least £1500 and going up to £5000 or more. I was "lucky" in that my condition is progressive. I knew approximately 2 years in advance that I would need an electric wheelchair. I was able to start putting money aside for it out of the mobility part of my DLA. But most people can't do that. A lot become disabled overnight. Others might be using the mobility part for motability. Others simply might not be able to afford to (I lived 2 minutes away from where I worked so had few transport costs).

There are two main things to take away from this:

1) Disabled people all over the country are prisoners in their homes. Freedom is a right. Being housebound due to your medical condition is one thing. Being housebound because you are being refused the right equipment is quite another. The only other people we confine to their homes are criminals.

2) If the government is going to insist that disabled people have a responsibility to go to work within a year, then they in turn have a responsibility to provide all the equipment they require well within that year.