Following the launch of The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment, by the We are Spartacus campaigning network, Jane Young highlights the different situations faced by sick people and disabled people.
The vexed topic of work threatens to cause damaging divisions between disabled people, campaigners and organisations at a time when we most need solidarity. As a disabled person with a professional and academic background in equality and access, I’m very much aware that we have long fought for equality of opportunity to enter and succeed in the world of work. Progress has been slow but positive and we must not lose sight of the need to continue to dismantle the barriers, that still stand in the way of disabled people building their careers on an equal basis. For many of us, the focus of some of the newer campaign groups on protecting disabled people’s entitlement to out-of-work benefits can feel very uncomfortable, even contradictory, threatening to undo hard-won progress in disability equality.
My view is that part of the answer is that our understanding, and government policy, must be rooted in reality. It is particularly important to acknowledge the difference between barriers to work experienced by disabled people who are well and those experienced by disabled people whose impairments are caused by chronic illness.
Many people with a congenital impairment such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida, or an acquired impairment such as spinal cord injury, may need support to participate in paid employment like help with transport to and from work, a specialist desk or a support worker. But a person whose impairment is caused by an illness such as ME or severe bowel disease might be able to work some of the time, but they are unlikely to be well enough to travel to work on a regular basis or to meet deadlines even if they work at home as they cannot anticipate when they may have a good day or a bad day.
I believe this analysis partly explains the confusion and incompetence inherent in the government’s approach to out-of-work disability benefits. While ESA is a sickness benefit, intended to be paid to people who are too sick to work, the philosophy behind the benefit and the assessment regime is based on the premise that given the right support, most disabled people can work.
The WCA uses criteria which bear no relation to whether someone is too ill to work and is instead concerned with whether you can, for example, move a container of liquid or press a button.
Such questions might be relevant to assess functional impairment, but they are clearly irrelevant in any decision on whether a person is well enough to work.
The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment shows that for disabled people who are chronically sick, the process of applying for the ESA and undergoing the WCA acts as a barrier to improving health and getting back to work. The stress of being assessed and pronounced fit for work, the difficulty of managing without benefit or fulfilling the requirements of claiming jobseekers’ allowance when work is not a realistic option, gathering evidence and attending a stressful appeal only to be called back for another assessment in a matter of weeks or months to go through the process again, is not conducive to responding to treatment or returning to work.
As one claimant put it: “I’m not getting better because the WCA is in the way”.